26 October 2010

The New Coalitions

The front page of the Wall Street Journal notes today that the Democrats at risk of losing their seats in Congress this year are disproportionately, conservative Blue Dog Democrats, while the Tea Party movement is likely to shift the Republican coalition to the right. Moderate Republicans were already scarce and several more of them will be gone in 2011.

Of 54 Blue Dogs in the House, six already have retired or decided to seek other offices. Of those trying to stay, 39 are in competitive races, according to the Cook Political Report, and 22 of those are in pure toss-ups. . . . The election figures to bring to Washington some 50 newcomers on the Republican side—some of whom will replace retiring Republicans, others who will take over Democratic seats—and few of them are from the political center. Instead, the tea-party movement has helped produce a crop of Republican newcomers who are ideologically to the right, and often quite intense about their views. . . .

It's a similar story in the Senate. There, the center is being thinned by the retirements of Democrats Evan Bayh of Indiana and Byron Dorgan of North Dakota, and Republican George Voinovich of Ohio, all lawmakers with a proclivity to reach across the partisan divide.

Meantime, Sen. Edward Kennedy, the leading example of a liberal Democrat who could work with conservatives, has died. And Sen. John McCain, once known as the maverick Republican ready to work with the other party, seems to have lost his appetite for doing so after enduring a bitter presidential election and an equally bitter conservative challenge from within his own party this year.

Simultaneously, the election figures to produce a full-blown caucus of tea-party adherents in the Senate, which will push the center of gravity among Republicans there to the right. The new Senate could well include Republican tea-party favorites Rand Paul of Kentucky, Marco Rubio of Florida, Ken Buck of Colorado, Joe Miller of Alaska and, perhaps, Sharron Angle of Nevada.

The total toll for Congression Democratic in the House has been estimated at 50, although I have predicted and stand by my predictions that this estimate is overstated and that Democrats will hold onto a thin majority in the House of Representatives.

Still, any way you cut it, the result will be a more stark partisanship in a Congress with few moderates.

The Wall Street Journal also featured, however, the schisms that are emerging in Colorado's Tea Party movement, as Dan Maes, their poster boy in the Governor's race has imploded, and the over reaching anti-tax Colorado Propositions 60, 61, and 101 have been opposed by Democrats and Republicans, business and labor alike. For example, Republican Mark Hillman, who has served as Colorado State Treasurer and the Republican State Senate Majority leader, in an op-ed piece in the Denver Daily News today, urges reads "not to throw three sticks of dynamite into state and local government." None of the three measures is polling with more than 21% support, and Propositions 62 (personhood) and 63 (anti-health care reform) which Tea Party backers tend to support, are also doing dismally in the polls. The Wall Street Journal story on the Tea Party notes that identification with the Tea Party movement is falling rapidly:

In early April, a Rasmussen Reports poll found Colorado had one of the highest rates of tea-party participation in the U.S.: 33% of voters considered themselves members of the movement. That has now dropped to 23%, according to a Rasmussen poll released Oct. 1. The national rate fell to 17% from 24% during that time, the poll found.

Not all of the trends on the Democratic side are in the liberal direction, however. Senator Michael Bennet cam out against "the current language of the [pro-union] Employee Free Choice Act" in a U.S. Senate race debate with Ken Buck on Saturday, a move that comes across as a betrayal of the union movement that has historically been at the core of the Democratic Party base and reinforces his image as a corporatist leaning Democrat.

Whether this is a wise move a week before an election where Bennet and Buck are equally matched is hard to tell. He risks damping the enthusiasm of a base the needs to get out the vote in force to get him re-elected. But, he may win over moderate Republicans and unaffiliated voters concerned about Ken Buck's ideological extremism, and realistically, that same extremism from Ken Buck leaves Democrats with no little choice to support Bennet, who is still to the left of Ken Salazar, whom Colorado Democrats fervantly supported when having a Democratic Senator at all seemed like a wonderful prize.

Governor Bill Ritter's ambivalence about the union movement was arguably one of the points that helped him secure widespread support in his first run for Governor, but lack of confidence from the base may also have been a factor in his decision not to run for re-election.

If Democrats do hold onto the majority, the support of the Blue Dogs that remain will be absolutely essential for every vote, and the legislative coalition in Congress will have to continue to focus on big tent politics that can secure their support.

Even if Democrats do hold a majority in the House, though, conservative Democrats will be outnumbered by liberals in the coalition to possibly the greatest extent in the history of American politics. The Democrats were the more conservative party in the United States for the first century after the Civil War, and had a large contingent of "Dixiecrats" until the process of "realignment" began to run its course over the last few elections. This election is likely to be the final act in the realignment process, leaving conservatives almost exclusively in the Republican party, and liberals almost exclusively in the Democratic party.

If Democrats lose a House majority, however, Blue Dog numbers will be even smaller, and the Democratic party will have more to gain from rhetorical unity at a time when the Democratic coalition in Congress is united, than it will from consistently holding onto support from Blue Dogs in Congress who can no longer deliver legislative results. Indeed, I would not be at all surprised to see some of the more conservative remaining Blue Dogs to change parties and become Republicans in order to allow them to have a say in the law making process - minority party members in the House have very little influence on anything.

Likewise in the U.S. Senate, where Democrats are forecast to hold onto the majority, but to lack a filibuster proof sixty votes, even with support from conservative Democrats, the inability of conservative Democrats to deliver consistent results may undermine their power in the caucus.

The Republican's small tent is going to look even smaller when the economy starts to recover and the right wing extremism rooted in high unemployment and a weak economy ease, which they will by the time that 2012 rolls around. A Democratic President and likely Democratic majority in the U.S. Senate, means that the only substantial achieivement that Republicans will be able to secure over the next two years without compromises they have sworn not to make, will be political deadlock.

Since the Republicans have already retreated to small tent politics, under the influence of the Tea Party movement, and the Democrats look likely to retreat their if they lose too much ground in this election, the political center will be up for grabs.

Of course, the political center is elusive. It often doesn't fit neat liberal-conservative lines. Majorities favor both legalizing pot and punitive anti-immigration laws. Subtle differences in how questions about social issues like abortion and gay rights are worded produce dramatic changes in how much support they receive from political moderates. But, there are moderates out there.

Catholics, center-left mainline denomination Christians, first ring suburb residents, economically well off Hispanics, socially conservative working class union members, big city cops, academic economists, and technocrats working for big businesses all tend towards the political middle. The nation is full of suburban white couples with Republican men and Democratic leaning women. Young Evangelicals are more liberal on social issues and charitably minded than their elders, but are also allergic to mixing religion and politics.

Small business has historically been strongly in the Republican camp, but over reach by Republican activists and a movement within the Democratic party to cast issues in terms of big business v. the rest of the country, has the potential to shift that equation.

Democrats, in an effort to keep their tent big, have moderated their focus on gun control and have parted ways somewhat with the left wing tradition of favoring secularism to embrace "people of faith" and "real" religious values.

Republicans also have room to expand their coalition, although they don't seem inclined to do so. There are many conservative gays and lesbians, blacks, Hispanics, Asian-Americans, Muslims and Jews who are kept out of the GOP by its insistance on describing our nation as a Christian one, its crypto-racist tendencies, virulent anti-immigrant stances, and stark opposition to gay rights.

Many of the blue collar, ex-military and public safety workers who belong to unions are sympathetic to Republican stances on social issues and many economic issues as well, but can't embrace a party that sees no place for unions at all in the political economy.

Many more in the big business world would like to more openly support the Republican party, which has had their back on so many issues, but are reluctant to do so because some Republican party stances on social issues are so toxic from a public relations perspective.

And, it is hard to see how the Republican party coalition can ever expand with their leaders calling for deep cuts in Social Security and Medicare, as many of their Tea Party members have this election cycle.

Yet, why would anyone in the Republican party veer from a veer to the right strategy that won them major electoral gains in 2010 for the 2012 election?

Still, with both parties retreating to small tents, in the 2014 election cycle, there will be an open season as small tent, ideologically well defined parties grasp for their piece of the ideological center. Both can do so, but only if they make a conscious effort to see how that can be accomplished in a way consistent with their values and holding on to essential components of their existing coalitions.

No comments: