Yesterday, we got word that Artur Davis, the former Democratic representative from Alabama’s majority-black Seventh Congressional District and failed 2010 gubernatorial candidate, jumped from the Democratic party to the Republican party. What to make of this?
A few years ago, when Alabama Democrat Parker Griffith made a similar switch, I took it as a notable marker in the transition of Southern politics toward the GOP. Griffith represented one of the last Democratic holdouts in the South, at least on the congressional level, the old Jacksonians in the Appalachian region. I thought it was illustrative that he did not feel as though the Democratic label was a good vehicle for his political ambitions.
This switch seems less descriptive. Davis’s constituents in the majority-minority Seventh District of Alabama are really as solidly Democratic as they come. And African Americans in the South have been in a pretty comfortable alliance with Northern liberals since the Voting Rights Act, so this is not a signal of any shifts in the body politic.
What I find much more interesting is this comment from Davis:
[I]n my early thirties, the Democratic Party managed to engineer the last run of robust growth and expanded social mobility that we have enjoyed; and when the party was doing that work, it felt inclusive, vibrant, and open-minded.
But parties change. As I told a reporter last week, this is not Bill Clinton’s Democratic Party (and he knows that even if he can’t say it).
On the specifics, I have regularly criticized an agenda that would punish businesses and job creators with more taxes just as they are trying to thrive again. I have taken issue with an administration that has lapsed into a bloc by bloc appeal to group grievances when the country is already too fractured: frankly, the symbolism of Barack Obama winning has not given us the substance of a united country.
This is a common point one hears from Clinton voters in the 1990s – it’s not his party any more. However, it’s not actually true. It was never really Bill Clinton’s party.
This is an issue that I discuss in Chapter 11 of my new book, Spoiled Rotten: How the Politics of Patronage Corrupted the Once Noble Democratic Party and Now Threatens the American Republic. Much like Dwight Eisenhower in the 1950s, Clinton came into office looking to reform his coalition in the hopes of creating a lasting majority. Also, like Ike, while Clinton enjoyed personal success, he never managed to reshape his own party.
Consider these points about the Clinton era:
1. He was far from the consensus choice of the party in 1992. In fact, most of the major interest groups that dominate the party today either opposed him or were lukewarm to his candidacy in 1992. What put Clinton over the top that year was his domination of the Southern primaries, thanks in large part to the sorts of white, working class voters who now call themselves Republicans.
2. He offered a reformist agenda to Congress, but the congressional liberals stymied him in 1993-94. They pushed him to the left on deficit reduction and crime control, punished him in the 1994 midterms for pursuing NAFTA, were lukewarm to his health care plan in part because it aggravated organized labor, and made welfare reform (a key plank of his ’92 candidacy) a non-starter.
3. In 2000, the Ralph Nader challenge was at its core an effort to lobby the vast array of disaffected interest groups that had backed Clinton four years prior because they saw him as the lesser of two evils. In the end, the party mostly came home in time for the election, but not entirely. Nader succeeded in splitting the vote in Florida by just enough to deliver George W. Bush the presidency.
4. In 2008, Barack Obama ran a campaign that was implicitly opposed to Clintonism. His notion of change was not simply to get rid of Bush, but also to do away with the old, i.e. Clintonian, version of the Democratic party. Hillary Clinton and Obama essentially tied in the nomination battle, but Clinton’s vote was strongest in areas that have been abandoning the party, while Obama was stronger with many of the party’s loyal groups. More important, the party establishment – as embodied by the superdelegates – decided overwhelmingly to nominate Obama rather than Clinton. Indeed, that was an early signal from House speaker Nancy Pelosi, certainly no Clintonite, who communicated that the superdelegates should back the delegate leader (Obama) and not the popular vote leader (potentially Clinton).
So what we have then is a history of the Democratic party being skeptical of Clinton, then pushing him so far to the left that he lost public opinion, then rebuking his vice president, and then his wife in the 2008 election.
Clinton’s real triumph came in persuading the middle of the country that he was a good steward of the economy, and that was due in large part to the fact that the congressional Democrats were run out on a rail in 1994. The GOP sweep of the House and Senate effectively liberated Clinton from having to deal with the left wing interests that dominate the party caucuses, especially in the House, and enabled him to govern as the “New Democrat” he promised to be.
It was a great political feat, and went a long way to rebranding the public image of the Democratic party. But the structure of the party itself never changed. Indeed, the same problems that prompted reformist Democrats in the 1980s like Clinton to start rethinking their party’s politics are still around. If anything, they have grown only more powerful in the ensuing years, especially in the House. The new left interest groups have created supremely sophisticated lobbying operations, the older conservative unions have died out and been replaced with more leftwing groups like AFSCME, the SEIU, and the NEA, and the moderate core of the party – the white South as well as Northern, church going Catholics – have joined the GOP.
Davis is right that today’s Democratic party is not Clinton’s. But really, it never was his party in the first place.
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.