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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Democratic Unity May Provide Edge Against Bickering GOP

Bill Scher’s “Why Democrats Are More United Than Republicans (And Why That’s Good)” at the Campaign for America’s Future provides a compelling takedown of the much-parroted “Dems in disarray” meme favored by conservative pundits. Scher takes particular issue with a recent Russ Douthat column arguing that Hillary Clinton’s persona is the only thing holding a fragile coalition of Democrats together.

That does not ring true. Signs of long-lasting Democratic unity abound…Unlike Republican Reps. Eric Cantor and Ralph Hall (and possibly Sen. Thad Cochran next week) no incumbent Democrats have been ousted in the 2014 primaries. Walter Shapiro of the Brookings Institution deemed the policy debates among the House Democratic primaries this year as so nonexistent that they amount to “a hefty dose of Xanax.”
And in 2012, only two Democrats lost primaries. One had ethics problems. The other was beat by a challenger on his left, but his district had become more liberal because its lines were redrawn, so it’s not much of an example of a progressive uprising.
Recent history of presidential primaries shows little evidence of Balkanization. President Obama did not suffer a primary challenge in 2012, nor did President Clinton in 1996. When presidential primaries were hard fought, in 2008 and 2000, the bruises did not prevent the party rank-and-file from coming together in the general election and winning the popular vote (notwithstanding the tiny but consequential Nader 2000 campaign).
Unity is the word not just on the campaign trail but inside the Capitol. In 2013, the Senate Democratic caucus broke the record for “party-unity votes,” in which a member votes with the majority of his or her party, with 94 percent. House Democrats were off their 2008 peak of 92%, but still tallied a strong figure of 88%.

Scher concedes, however, “While there is a basic ideological glue – belief in active government – that defines the Democratic Party, there are many areas of significant disagreement within the party’s big tent,” such as criticism of the Wall St. Bailouts, Social Security benefit modifications, carbon caps, the extent of tax hikes for the rich and trade policy. Also the “ideological range” in the Dems’ caucus is wider than that for the Republicans. Scher notes also that “the distance between Brat and Cantor is not as far as the distance between Sen. Elizabeth Warren and Sen. Mark Pryor.”
But, argues Scher, “The Democratic Party is more politically united despite encompassing more ideological diversity.” Further,

…What keeps Democrats unified is not rigid political homogeneousness or leader worship, but a tolerance for differences of opinion and an acceptance of political pragmatism that many conservatives lack.
Does that dynamic make a strong stronger party for Democrats? Absolutely…Some of the left might chafe at the power of the corporate-friendly wing, but the “Democratic wing of the Democratic Party” wins some of these intra-party battles. For example, there have been no Social Security cuts under Obama. And fair trade advocates have held the upper hand to date in “fast-track” fight.
More often, the two wings hammer out compromises that adhere to liberal principles, such as with Obamacare, Dodd-Frank and the Recovery Act. This is what effective governing parties do. As the Washington Post’s Dan Balz put it: “A party big enough to aspire to becoming a majority is a coalition of people and groups that don’t always see eye to eye.”

In stark contrast:

Meanwhile, the shrunken, ideologically purified Republican Party can’t govern its way out of a paper bag. Speaker John Boehner can only keep the government open by letting the Tea Party faction lead the party into a brick wall first. Moreover, while the right-wing keeps the party leadership on a short leash by winning scalps of Establishment favorites in primaries, some of those coups have been short-lived. What should have been easy Republican victories were given away in Delaware by nominating Christine O’Donnell, in Nevada with Sharron Angle, in Colorado with Ken Buck and in Indiana by firing incumbent Sen. Dick Lugar. The perpetual chasing of the Tea Party tail has left the Republican Party with 29% approval in the latest NBC/WSJ poll, 9 points lower than the Democrats.

Scher provides examples of Democratic primary challenges leading to electoral failure, noting that most of the challenges are not about ideology, but “perceived ethical failings or redrawn districts.” Better yet, while the GOP civil war rages on,

Democrats have gotten plenty done inside of a bigger tent thanks to a tolerance for differences of opinion and a willingness to compromise. Liberals have been able to keep conservative elements of the party in check, without scorched-earth primary challenges, through effective organizing around issues and winning arguments on the merits. And the 2016 presidential campaign begins with the Democratic frontrunner beating all possible Republican opponents handily.

Scher concludes, “That’s what deep party unity, solidly built on the parallel foundations of common belief and respect for differing views, will yield.”

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