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Have the Democrats Really Changed?

3:24 PM, May 31, 2012 • By JAY COST
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The Washington Monthly’s Ed Kilgore offers a typically dyspeptic response to my piece about Clintonism in the Democratic party.

Suffice it to say all this revisionist history revolving around Clinton has the transparent purporse [sic] of projecting the Republican Party’s steady drift (and then, more recently, violent lurch) to the right in recent years onto the opposition party. It helps that the Democratic Party is sufficiently diverse to support all sorts of interpretations of what it means to be a Democrat. But at bottom, the Donkey Party hasn’t much changed recently, with the important exception of its growing acceptance of LGBT rights. The Obama administration, stuffed with Clintonites, is championing the tax rates, the approach to health care and the environment, the fiscal and monetary policies (including a cautious openness to big changes in Medicare), and the international policies, of the more conservative elements of the Clinton administration. Bill Clinton seems to “get” this. It’s about time Republicans stopped presuming to speak for him and his legacy. 

Put aside Kilgore’s armchair psychoanalysis, and his suggestion that the only person who has a right to interpret the Clinton years is Clinton himself (!). Let’s get down to brass tacks: has the Democratic party changed much recently?

For starters, the fact that the Obama administration is “stuffed with Clintonites” is irrelevant, for two reasons. First, executive experience is relatively rare, so past administrations always dig up the old gang from the last administration. George W. Bush sampled heavily from Gerald Ford’s tenure, for instance. And few people, least of all liberals like Ed Kilgore, would argue that Ford and Dubya were ideologically similar. Second, much of Clinton’s triangulation strategy, and thus his whole posture toward the congressional GOP, was developed outside his West Wing staff, in late night calls with Dick Morris.

Consider that Clinton in 1996 and Obama in 2008 won about the same share of the two-party vote, but the ways they did it were markedly different. Check out the differences in their electoral maps (from David Leip’s Atlas of U.S. Presidential Elections).

Here is Clinton’s (red counties = Democratic; blue = Republican):

Here is Obama’s:

Put simply: Obama’s coalition was more urban, more Northern, and more liberal than Bill Clinton’s. Additionally, the 111th Congress was similarly more liberal than the 103rd, at least when it came to appealing to the party’s core interest groups like labor and the environmentalist left.

And the shift has not been a marginal one, either. While there was a strong, reformist branch of the Democratic party in the 1970s through the 1990s that recognized the dangers of being tied so heavily to the party’s client groups, it has now weakened to the point that it is unlikely to reclaim the presidency. They simply lack the base of support that powered Carter and Clinton to the nomination (specifically, Southern whites and conservative Catholics).

We have seen the differences in the party’s voting coalition reflected in its policy proposals as well as its leadership. Consider Bill Clinton’s agenda after the 1994 midterm: capital gains tax cuts, banking deregulation, a balanced budget, private accounts for Social Security. None of this is even under consideration with Team Obama, or most Democrats.

Or look at the Congress. What has happened to the New Democrats? How about the Blue Dogs? All those Southern moderates? What about the DLC? They have disappeared, and the Northern liberals have consolidated their control over the leadership positions, at least in the House. (And note that this was before the 2010 sweep -- this group had been on the ropes for years, often taking heat from their own party, e.g. Joe Lieberman.) What about those left wing interest groups? Has the influence of the environmentalist movement increased or decreased since the early 1990s? What about the more leftist unions like the NEA, AFSCME and the SEIU?

And what about Al Gore? He went from being a moderate Southern Democrat in the 1980s to a fire-breathing leftwinger today. How do we explain that?

The biggest evidence of change in the party coalition is the Obama primary campaign in 2008. What did Obama mean, after all, when he talked about a "transformational" presidency? Given what he said throughout the campaign trail, he obviously meant moving away from the Clintonian ways of moderate, poll-tested, small-ball policy formulations. He was going to go big ... and liberal.

The assertion that the Democrats have not changed much in the last 40, 30, 20, or even 10 years belongs in the fantasy fiction section of the local library. It’s a myth.

Jay Cost is a staff writer for THE WEEKLY STANDARD and the author of Spoiled Rotten: How the Politics of Patronage Corrupted the Once Noble Democratic Party and Now Threatens the American Republic, available now wherever books are sold.

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