Why Obama Looks Beyond The Left

Ronald Brownstein looks at the make up of Democratic voters and explains Why Obama Can’t Satisfy the Left:

Regardless of the merits of the left’s arguments on each of those individual debates, there’s a structural reason why Obama and Congressional Democrats may not prove as responsive to their demands as they hope. Liberals aren’t as big a component of the Democratic coalition as many of the Left’s leaders believe. Moderate voters are much more important to Democratic success than liberal voters. And liberals are also less important to Democrats than conservatives are to Republicans. That means liberals generally have less leverage than they recognize in these internal party arguments-and less leverage than conservatives can exert in internal struggles over the GOP’s direction. “Liberals are less central to the Democratic coalition than conservatives are to the Republican coalition,” says Andy Kohut, director of the non-partisan Pew Research Center for the People and the Press.

That contrast is apparent from two different angles: identification and behavior. In cumulative Pew data for 2008, Kohut says, only one-third of self-identified Democrats described themselves as liberals; the rest identified as moderates or conservatives. For Republicans the proportions were reversed: two-thirds of Republicans considered themselves conservatives, while only one-third identified as moderates or liberals. Gallup’s findings are similar: in their cumulative 2008 data, just 39% of self-identified Democrats described themselves as liberals, while 70% of Republicans identified as conservatives.

Looking at Obama’s actual vote in 2008 reinforces the story. According to the Edison/Mitofsky Election Day exit polls, liberals provided only 37% of Obama’s total votes. Moderates (50%) and conservatives (13%) provided far more. By contrast, conservatives provided almost three-fifths of John McCain’s votes, with moderates contributing only about one-third and liberals a negligible 5%.

The bottom line is that, compared to Republicans, Democrats are operating with a much more diverse electoral coalition-and one in which the party’s ideological vanguard plays a smaller role. That’s one reason why in a Pew post-election survey, nearly three-fifths of Democrats said they wanted the party to move in a more moderate (rather than liberal) direction, while three-fifths of Republicans said they wanted the party to move right. The parties “have a difference in our bases,” says Jim Kessler, vice president of Third Way, a group that works with centrist Democratic Senators. “Certainly the most loyal part of the Democratic base is going to be self-identified liberals, but numerically moderates are a bigger portion of the coalition, so there is going to be some tension.

There are limitations to any poll based upon self-identification. Many polls have showed large numbers of people who 1) do not identify themselves as liberals and 2) support liberal positions on the issues. There are also a variety of views held by self-identified liberals, making it possible for some liberals to be dissatisfied while Obama pleases other liberals.

Despite these limitations, the general argument still holds. The extremists dominate the Republican Party while those with relatively more moderate views dominate the Democratic Party. This is also a reason why Obama repeatedly reaches out to Republicans even if he fails to receive hardly any Republican support in Congress. There are many moderate and conservative voters who are voting Democratic at present but have voted at times in the past. Obama is most likely concerned with retaining their support as opposed to expecting a tremendous amount of support from Congressional Republicans.

Even if Obama has displeased liberals on some issues, after the previous eight years we are still seeng a considerable improvement. Actions by Obama include ending the ban on federal funding of embryonic stem cell research, planning to close Guantanamo, ending the raids on medicinal marijuana (giving him the benefit of the doubt until further information is available on today’s action), overturning the Bush conscience rules, overturning the Global Gag Order,  planning on leaving Iraq, and beginning work on expanding health care coverage. Hopefully as time goes on liberals can push Obama to reconsider some of his decisions regarding secrecy and terrorism.

1 Comment

  1. 1
    Eclectic Radical says:

    I have to agree with this analysis, however I do wish to offer some thoughts.

    There is a reason that Republicans have such a strong conservative base and Democrats have such a relatively small liberal base. Republicans have deliberately put time, effort, and money into ‘educating’ voters toward conservative positions and has blatantly pandered to social reactionaries whose positions are far to the right of what used to be the Republican base.

    Democrats, on the other hand, have been running away from their base since, at least, Jimmy Carter. No effort has been made to educate Democratic voters toward liberal positions, instead Democrats repeatedly drop liberal positions as if their fingers have been burned when challenged. Many Democrats have not had the courage of their convictions when it really matters. The Democratic Party has not taken sufficient action, at the state party level, to hold the line against Blue Dogs who wish to move the whole party to the right.

    As a result, many who identify as liberals belong to the Green Party, to the Peace and Freedom Party, to the Natural Law Party. They have left the Democratic Party out of a hopeless feeling their views do not matter to the party that promised to fight for them.

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