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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Matt Bai’s False Choices

In the burgeoning post-election debate among Democrats, there are some very real issues to kick around, from Big Picture considerations like the relationship between the party and various social progressive movements, to strategic and tactical questions involving the newly emboldened and radical GOP and likely turnout patterns in 2012.
To provide oxygen for such debates, it’s helpful to reject efforts to frame the intra-Democratic challenge in ways that present false choices and unnecessarily create pointless fights. I’d like to drop an anvil right now on a New York Times column by Matt Bai that supplies nothing but poison to the common cup of Democratic discourse.
Bai’s main conceit is to suggest that the Blue Dogs are either prime perpetrators or innocent victims of the losses Democrats suffered last Tuesday. In his account, if you accept the former premise, you agree with Ari Berman’s recent NYT assault on the Blue Dogs, favor Nancy Pelosi’s retention as Democratic House Leader, and reject the manifest message of the midterm electorate. If you accept the latter premise, then you agree with Bai that Nancy Pelosi must give way to Steny Hoyer as House Leader and the Democratic Party must bend its knee and renounce its “liberal agenda.”
As it happens, I don’t agree with Berman’s blame-the-Blue-Dogs theory; nor do most Democrats. But the idea that Democrats must now “move to the center” in a way that repudiates much of the Obama agenda of 2009-2010 commands even less support. The Blue Dogs who lost last week were by and large outliers in Republican districts whose electoral demise was inevitable once the long-term trend against ticket-splitting converged with a pro-Republican wave spiced by anti-incumbent sentiment. You can argue all day long about whether the pro-Republican wave was caused by structural factors (including the economy) or Democratic policies, but in the end, it had little or nothing to do with liberal leaders like Nancy Pelosi, who did far more than anyone considered previously possible to accomodate “big tent” dissension in the House Caucus while getting legislation passed. Dumping Pelosi, not that it’s going to happen, would be a purely symbolic measure only satisfying to those whose analysis of the election is as mechanical–you must announce you are moving to the left or moving to the center!–as Matt Bai’s.
Am I being unfair to Matt Bai? You decide, after reading this passage:

[W]hile House Republicans have now managed to cobble together a majority that is more or less ideologically cohesive, history would suggest that the same feat isn’t so easy for Democrats, who have actually never succeeded in pulling it off. Even during the great heyday of Democratic government in the 20th century, when the party enacted Social Security and Medicare and civil rights legislation, its dominance was possible only because Democrats had shaped a majority coalition made up of Northern liberals and Southern conservatives.

You don’t have to be a historian to grasp that the coalitions which enacted Social Security, Medicare, and the major Civil Rights legislation were not the same, and were wildly different from any coalition that is possible today. The New Deal coalition that passed Social Security was mainly composed of northern and southern Democrats who were liberal on economic issues, and who diverged dramatically on racial issues; iconic racists like Theodore Bilbo were rabid supporters of the New Deal. The Great Society coalition that passed Medicare was similar, but included some northern Republicans. The Civil Rights coalition included virtually no southern conservatives in either party.
Today you could get rid of every single member of the Blue Dog Coalition and the Democratic House Caucus would be vastly more diverse ideologically than its Republican counterpart. Conversely, you could make Heath Shuler Speaker of the House, and Democrats would be more united than they were during the New Deal and Great Society eras. Bai’s whole historical analogy is ridiculous. We now have national ideological parties; one is progressive, one is conservative; one is tolerant of dissent, one isn’t. The limits of dissent within the Democratic coalition are debatable; the silly idea that Blue Dogs are being persecuted really isn’t.
Let’s move onto the real debates, please.

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