The recent intraparty tensions over trade and commercial policy haven’t been a picnic for any Democrats. But it’s possible to exaggerate the disunity and its implications, and that’s what The Hill columnist Brent Budowsky did today, or so I argued at Washington Monthly:
[Budowsky claims that] liberals “insulted” by the president’s disrespecting of Elizabeth Warren during the fast-track debate may well decide to stay home in 2016–just as they did when similarly insulted in 2010 and 2014–forfeiting Democratic control of the White House. Watch him add 2 and 2 and get 13:
The president’s defamation of Democrats over trade was untrue, shameful and destructive to the Democratic Party. Most Democrats inside and outside Washington are genuinely worried — with good reason, rooted in the history of trade agreements — about the potential loss of American jobs.
This pattern of Obama and his aides insulting liberals began well before the 2010 and 2014 midterm elections, with repeated background quotes in mainstream media from unnamed White House personnel referring to leaders and members of the Democratic base as “the left of the left” and “the professional left….”
Given this legacy of damage that Obama has inflicted against his party and his presidency, by depressing liberal Democratic voters and motivating conservative Republican voters in two midterm elections that were disastrous for Democrats, it was breathtaking that throughout the recent trade debate Obama demonstrated he still has not learned that the leader of a great party must not insult its core voters if it has any hopes of prevailing in future presidential and congressional elections.
Funny, isn’t it, that in the midst of all this carnage Obama managed to get himself reelected. Why weren’t liberal Democratic voters “depressed” in 2012? Why did they take out their anger at Obama on their own Democratic candidates in 2010 but then turn out for the source of their “discouragement” two years later? And did Democratic losses in more conservative parts of the country in the two midterms really revolve around hordes of angry liberals staying home?
There are two things we actually do know reasonably well: first, the demographic groups that don’t tend to show up in non-presidential elections ever, even if liberals are not being insulted by a Democratic president, are now a disproportionate element of the Democratic electoral coalition. And second, strongly committed ideologues, including liberals, do tend to show up and vote in a higher proportion than their less committed “moderate” or “somewhat ideological” counterparts, whether or not they’ve been “insulted” or “discouraged” or “deenergized” by this or that leader. 25% of the 2012 electorate self-identified as “liberal.” That number dropped to 23% in 2014–less than you’d expect given the dropoff in youth and minority voting. That was hardly the most important factor in the outcome. I strongly suspect self-identified “moderates” who are by and large less engaged politically were the people over-represented in the “dropoff” population. And like voters generally, they were vastly less interested, and mostly unaware of, all the ideological signals by Obama that so obsess pundits.
You can certainly make a case that had Obama paid more attention to the advice offered by liberals his policies might have been more effective, and that would have improved party prospects in 2010 and 2014, both in terms of turnout and the Democratic share of the persuadable vote. But the idea that turnout patterns are mostly the product of which party faction has its feelings hurt or assuaged is an ax-grinding proposition with no real empirical basis that I can discern. It doesn’t help that Budowsky assumes Obama is personally responsible for the downballot losses of the Democratic Party since 2010. And he also blames Obama for managing to fire up conservatives even as he is discouraging liberals. Had Obama been an Eagle Scout liberal throughout his presidency, would conservatives have been less “energized” in 2010 and 2014? Are we supposed to believe they are like dogs, sensing fear or irresolution in their opponents?
Look, I agree it was a bad idea for the president to talk smack about fast-track opponents and criticize Elizabeth Warren. But let’s don’t get carried away with the implications. Turnout is unlikely to be the central problem for Democrats in the presidential year of 2016, and to the extent that it is, the challenge will be maximizing minority turnout, which is by no means the same as “liberal” turnout, as the long history of liberal presidential primary challengers who cannot attract minority voters should make reasonably clear. There’s also no particular reason to assume that liberal anger at Obama is directly transferable to the 2016 presidential nominee. Even if HRC has annoyed some Democrats by refusing to break with the president whose youth and minority supporters she desperately needs in 2016–more than she needs self-identified liberals–she has not insulted anybody so far as I can tell. And everything about the unfolding presidential nominating process indicates that self-identified liberals are going to get a lot of love from HRC.
So no, I don’t think Barack Obama has destroyed the Democratic Party by insulting liberals, and if he’s done anything to disproportionately “energize” conservatives who have been working themselves up to an ideological bender for years, it’s by embodying the right-wing caricature of “liberals” as elitists working hand-in-glove with those people.
Since Democrats are still going to have to deal with additional tensions as the Trans-Pacific Partnership is taken up in Congress (assuming negotiations don’t somehow break down), it’s a good time to contain the damage instead of claiming the party is heading towards another 2014. I would add to what I said above that if self-identified Liberal Democrats are indeed so “insulted” by the president’s words that they’ll likely sit out a high-stakes 2016 election, you’d think it would show up in the president’s approval ratings with that category of voters, wouldn’t you? According to Gallup, it’s at 88%. If liberals are “insulted,” they’re rapidly getting over it.