The appearances by Democratic presidential candidates at the YearlyKos conference (which begins tomorrow) will undoubtedly intensify the “Dems rush to the left” story-line beloved of MSM pundits and conservative bloggers.
At this point, It’s worth following Kevin Drum’s example by asking if the presidentials really reflect, on a substantive level, an abandonment of Clintonian “centrism.” Here’s Kevin’s take:
if YearlyKos were genuinely more substantively powerful than the DLC, you’d see the big three candidates taking public positions considerably to the left of the party’s positions ten years ago. If that’s the case, though, I’ve missed it. No one’s talking about rolling back welfare reform. No one’s proposed a healthcare initiative even half as comprehensive as the 1994 Clinton plan. All three candidates continue to claim they’re personally opposed to gay marriage. Their rhetoric on guns and abortion is much more muted than in the past. They mostly agree that some of the Bush tax cuts should be allowed to expire, but not much more. They want to get out of Iraq, but that’s a thoroughly mainstream position, and none of them are willing to commit to a complete withdrawal in any case.
I’d add a few flourishes here. A year and a half ago, when the editors of The New Republic followed Al Gore in endorsing a single-payer health care system, I’d have bet serious money that at least one if not more of the major Democratic candidates for president in 2008 would support the same idea. But they didn’t.
The same trend, or lack thereof, is visible on an issue that matched welfare reform in signifying the “centrist” credentials of Democrats in the Clinton years: fiscal discipline. Despite quibbles over exactly how high this candidate or that ranks deficit reduction in his or her hierarchy of priorities, the fact remains that most Democrats are more committed to fiscal discipline–and can prove it–than most Republicans. That would not be true in a party “rushing to the left.”
More immediately, where are the candidates on the intra-party disputes that are most animating the progressive blogosphere at present? One is definitely the “residual troop commitment” issue with respect to Iraq; yet the two leading Democratic candidates persist in supporting residuals, despite netroots arguments that this represent a desire to continue the war indefinitely. And another is impeachment. If any of the major Democratic candidates is going to go to Chicago for YearlyKos and thrill the audience with support for impeachment, it’s a closely held secret.
Kevin doesn’t mention trade policy or education policy, where the case for an abandonment of Clintonism is strongest. But both issues are hard to pigeon-hole ideologically; globaphobia comes from the Right and Center as much as from the Left, and the same is true of deep hostility to No Child Left Behind.
The whole effort to use the DLC and YearlyKos conferences, and who attends one or the other, to show a vast ideological shift in the Democratic Party is misbegotten on several levels. The “Left” nature of the Kos-centered netroots has been grossly exaggerated; and the DLC’s reputation for willingness to support Bush policies has never been well-earned. We’re in a political context right now where Bush’s extremism has simultaneously made virtually all Democrats much more partisan and combative, while opening up the political “‘center” in ways that tend to unite rather than divide progressives on most policy issues. Let’s don’t get too distracted by the “rush to the left” argument.