The Problem With The Center

At first glance this op-ed by Martin O’Malley and Harold Ford might appear to be the Democratic response to the challenge I laid down in my previous post. I discussed the trend for affluent suburbs to vote Democratic, but questioned whether Democrats can keep those votes. Reading this op-ed, I come away with the feeling that O’Malley and Ford recognize that there is an opportunity for Democrats but don’t really understand what to do. The good point is that they realize that new people are voting Democratic, but there is no guarantee of continued support from independents and former Republicans after Bush is gone:

George W. Bush is handing us Democrats our Hoover moment. Independents, swing voters and even some Republicans who haven’t voted our way in more than a decade are willing to hear us out. With an ambitious common-sense agenda, the progressive center has a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to win back the White House, expand its margins in Congress and build a political and governing majority that could last a generation.

A majority comes hard for Democrats. In the past 150 years, only three Democrats, one of whom was Franklin Roosevelt, have won the White House with a majority of the popular vote.

What’s more, political success built on the other party’s failure is fleeting. Jimmy Carter won a majority in the wake of Watergate, but his own shortcomings on national security and the economy took him from majority victor to landslide loser in four years. Repudiating the other side’s approach is only half the battle. Since neither side has a monopoly on truth, the hard part is knowing when to look beyond traditional orthodoxies to do what works.

Like FDR, we can build a lasting majority only by earning it — with ideas that demonstrate to the American people that if they entrust us with national leadership, we can deal effectively with the challenges our country faces and the challenges they face in their everyday lives.

The problem with the op-ed is that it doesn’t provide any meaningful recommendations. As Steve Benen wrote, “I have no idea what Ford and O’Malley hope to accomplish with this op-ed. It’s vague and filled with generalities, and it urges Dem candidates to keep doing what they’re doing. If there’s a point to their piece, it’s hiding well.”

The problem is that the DLC types see moving towards the center as the answer, but trying to split the differences between liberal and conservative positions does not necessarily give the right answer. As noted in the previous post, suburbanites voting Democratic oppose the war, oppose the Republican Party’s social conservativism, and support fiscal conservativism. I’ve also discussed similar trends among new Democratic voters in past posts on “Starbucks Republicans” and “South Park Republicans.”

The centrism of the DLC will not give these new voters good reason to support the Democrats. The DLC’s biggest error was in backing the Iraq war. Opposition to the war has now become the mainstream position. While the centrist Democrats urge moderation and compromise on social issues, doing this makes the Democrats less attractive to those who stopped voting Republican because of their backing of the policies of the religious right.

Thomas Frank got it backwards in What’s The Matter With Kansas? Frank argued that Democratic moderation on economic issues gave people less reason to vote for the Democrats for personal economic reasons, allowing them to vote Republican based on social issues. There may have been some truth to this in Kansas, but even in Kansas we are seeing moderates leaving the Republican Party to vote Democratic over issues such as teaching creationism in the schools.

In much of the rest of the country, economic versus social issues are viewed differently than in Thomas Franks’s Kansas. As the previous post discusses, many affluent suburbanites don’t see the Bush tax cuts as good enough reason to vote Republican due to opposition to Republican views on the war and social issues. Democratic moderation on economic policy makes this possible. We would not be voting Democratic if Democrats continued to support the high marginal rates present in the past. However, if the Democrats compromise on opposing the war or compromise on social issues in the hopes of receiving more votes in the center, there is no longer any reason to vote Democratic. If the Democrats don’t offer a clear difference from Republicans on the issues that matter, we might as well grab the Republican tax cuts.

For Democrats to develop a lasting majority, the secret is not simply going after the center. The trick is understanding what issues matter. There is a growing desire for a party which opposes the war, is socially liberal, and is centrist on economic matters. Democrats currently have the support of such voters which presents great opportunities for the future, but there is no guarantee they will keep them.

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