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Morning Jay: The Left Will Never Abandon Obama

6:00 AM, Aug 5, 2011 • By JAY COST
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Yesterday, I argued there is no reason to expect that a serious Democratic candidate would primary Obama. Today, I’ll make the case that, in the 2012 general election, Obama will get the full, unequivocal support of the left.

Obama crowd

From the Civil War to the Great Depression, the two political parties were basically regional coalitions, and so both sides had progressive and conservative elements within it. However, starting with FDR, the Democratic party began to emerge as the sole vehicle for American liberalism, as the political argument in the country boiled down to whether or not we should continue what FDR started. While there have been some prominent liberal Republicans (e.g. Jacob Javits) and conservative Democrats (e.g. Harry Byrd), these politicians were always the exceptions to the rule (and today they are all but extinct).

This has meant, in turn, that liberals have been captured by the Democratic party – insofar as that ideology has political relevance, it works through the Democratic party, and only through the Democratic party.

Several historical examples bear this out.

In 1937, the Steel Workers Organizing Committee (SWOC) of the CIO was involved in the “Little Steel Strike,” which arose after U.S. Steel signed a wage contract with the SWOC, and smaller companies like Republic Steel refused to do so. The CIO appealed to Roosevelt to intervene, but the president refused, instead criticizing both sides in the dispute. John L. Lewis, the head of the CIO, denounced FDR over national radio in strident terms:

It ill behooves one who has supped at labor's table and who has been sheltered in labor's house to curse with equal fervor and fine impartiality both labor and its adversaries when they become locked in deadly embrace.

Yikes! Lewis tried to punish FDR by endorsing Wendell Wilkie, and promised that if FDR was elected, he would resign. Most of labor stayed loyal to Roosevelt, who was easily reelected, and Phillip Murray replaced Lewis as president of the CIO.

In 1960, Senator John F. Kennedy won the Democratic party nomination, with the blessing of organized labor. However, as a Northern Catholic, Kennedy knew that his path to the nomination was extremely narrow, and it required him pulling in substantial support from the South. To that end, there was really only one choice for vice president, Lyndon Baines Johnson of Texas, who had been a candidate for the presidency that year, and was also the Senate majority leader. The problem was that LBJ had been no friend of labor during his time in the Senate. While a member of the House, he supported the reviled Taft-Hartley Act, which had tightly restricted organized labor. However, there was really nobody else, and organized labor knew that if Kennedy lost, the presidency would swing to the detested Richard Nixon. In the end, labor bit down hard and gave the Kennedy-Johnson ticket its full support.

Between 1994 and 1996, no Democratic president in the 20th century had done less for the American left than Bill Clinton. Early in his first term, he had signed some bills that the left applauded – the Motor Voter Act and the Family and Medical Leave Act – but he followed that up with NAFTA, and then he cut deals with the Republicans to balance the budget, and even signed welfare reform. And if you check out the 1996 Democratic platform, you’d think it was written by a bunch of Republicans, as it touts tax cuts, crime control, and welfare reform. Yet, not only did the left stick with Clinton, but major liberal groups – like the labor unions, feminists, and environmental groups – poured tens of millions of dollars into the Democratic effort that year.

Finally, remember the 2000 election. If ever there was a year for the left to bolt the Democratic party, that would have been it. Prior to his reinvention as a fire breathing populist, Al Gore had actually been a moderate Southern Democrat. He scored relatively well with the National Right to Life Committee, had been an early member of the Democratic Leadership Council, and quietly urged Clinton to sign the welfare reform bill in 1996. Meanwhile, Ralph Nader launched an unabashedly left wing candidacy, directly appealing to all the key Democratic groups on the left. And if Nader got 5 percent of the vote, the Green Party could win federal matching funds, and provide real leverage for liberals to keep the Democratic party from drifting into the muddled middle. However, all of the party’s groups came out swinging that year on behalf of Gore, some even engaging in some pretty vile rhetoric. Nader had been pulling in about 7 percent of the vote in the summer, but finished with less than 3 percent.

If the left stood with the Democratic party in 1940, 1960, 1996, and 2000 (mostly), there is no way it will abandon Barack Obama next year. The reason is simple: liberalism does not have political life outside the Democratic party.

Liberals might be frustrated now, but during the campaign next year the Democratic party will activate their partisan sentiments by casting the Republican nominee as the bane of all that is good, true, and noble – and the left will buy it. The same liberals who are complaining about Obama today will be earnestly proclaiming that his reelection is the only thing that stands between America and the abyss.

Obama will win 90 percent or so of the Democratic vote, and 90 percent of the liberal vote. It’s a guarantee.

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