Morning Jay: Obama's Tammany-on-the-Potomac
6:00 AM, Feb 10, 2012 • By JAY COST
Some people were surprised by the Obama administration’s ruling on contraceptive provision by religious institutions. I was not one of those people.
A cursory review of politics in the contemporary Democratic party reveals one inviolable rule: never defy the feminists. Consider that, for all of Bill Clinton’s post-1994 triangulation – the balanced budget, the Defense of Marriage Act, the V-Chip – he vetoed multiple bills banning partial birth abortion. Consider that African Americans tend to be more pro-life than white voters overall, yet the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC) is one of the most pro-abortion voting blocs in the entire Congress. Finally, consider that Bart Stupak walked away with nothing from the high stakes battle over abortion in Obamacare. Why? Because the feminists within the Democratic caucus promised they would bolt, and they weren't kidding. That's just the price of doing business in the Democratic party.
As I outline in my forthcoming book, Spoiled Rotten, the modern Democratic party has become a kind of Tammany-on-the-Potomac. It all gets back to Franklin Roosevelt, who effectively synthesized the public-spirited progressivism of William Jennings Bryan and Woodrow Wilson with the patronage-fuled politics of the urban machines. So, the modern Democratic party uses the power of government to do two things at once: advance the public interest (as the party elite understand it) and build and sustain the party’s base of clients.
The problem in the last forty years is that the roster of clients has grown far too large for the party to tend to the public good, or even to conceive properly of what it actually entails anymore. There are just too many mouths to feed. You have the craft unions, the industrial unions, the gray collar unions, the government unions, the teachers’ unions, the feminists, the consumer rights advocates, the CBC, the Hispanic Caucus, the environmentalists, the gay rights lobby, and all of the corporate and professional groups that cough up tens of millions of dollars every year to gain access to the congressional policymaking process.
This has been the way of the world since the late 1960s, but it has been obscured by two false conclusions, one by Republicans and one by Democrats. Republicans have thought for years that Jimmy Carter was a failed president because he was a liberal. Wrong. Carter was in fact a moderate Southern Democrat who fought the liberals at almost every turn; at one point, he was not even on speaking terms with AFL-CIO President George Meany. His failure was in large measure due to his inability to get the vast array of pressure groups in his party to face up to the reality of inflation. And of course he failed at that – the client groups in the Democratic party are there because they want more, more, more. Inflation requires less. He was bound to fail.
The second myth is that Bill Clinton reinvented the Democratic party. That's also false. Clinton’s first two years in office were a policy disaster, as his congressional allies pulled him far off track from his pledge to be a new kind of Democrat. Time and again his centrist instincts were undermined by the need to hold together his congressional coalition, forcing him to lard up his deficit reduction and crime control packages with goodies for the party base, and inducing him to pursue health care reform over welfare reform. It was only after the Democratic majority was booted that Clinton emerged as a tax-cutting, welfare-reforming, budget-balancing centrist. Yet in the end, he did not reinvent the Democratic party, only himself. The far-left mania of Al Gore, his would-have-been successor, is proof positive that Clinton's "third way" hit a dead end when the 42nd president left the capitol city in January, 2001.
And President Obama – unlike Carter and Clinton – is thoroughly rooted in the party’s liberal clientele. Whereas Carter and Clinton were rural Southern governors who survived only by winning the backing of Nixon and Reagan voters, Obama cut his political teeth in Chicago, which is basically a microcosm of today’s national party. From big business interests like the Board of Trade, to the gentry liberals of Hyde Park, to minority groups on the South Side, to labor unions all around, Chicago is dominated by the very same interests that characterize the modern party.
So unsurprisingly, Obama has been a very dutiful steward of the interests of his party’s clients. From the stimulus to the auto bailout to cap-and-trade to Dodd-Frank to Obamacare to the jobs bill to the Keystone Pipeline to birth control, his public policy has always been crafted with an eye to keeping the party’s core groups on board. And as far as everybody else is concerned, it’s like Tom Donohue of the Chamber of Commerce said during the Obamacare battle: “If you don’t get in this game, you’re on the menu!” That's the machine ethos in a nutshell: once we buy off half-plus-one of the electorate, we won't lift a finger for you. If you don't like it, move to the suburbs.
This is the connecting thread of the Obama administration’s major policy decisions: the clients come first. If there is room for the public interest after they have been taken care of, great. If not, so what? Team Obama will raise a billion dollars from its clients to claim this fall that everything the president did was for the public good, and bet that the voters don’t see past the propaganda before Election Day. And then it will be right back to work, socializing an ever-greater share of the national wealth, all to promote "fairness," i.e. their groups win while you lose.
Recent Blog Posts