The Democratic Era that May Not Come

By: Guest Authors

By: Jeffrey Schmidt

Since the 2006 elections saw a reversal in GOP fortunes, cocksure Democratic strategists, and not a few pundits, have been predicting the coming of a new Democratic era. They cite changing demographics and economics, voter trends and a spent Republican Party. These predictions may just be resoundingly wrong.

Democratic strategist Bob Beckel has been conspicuous as of late, arguing that Barack Obama will skunk John McCain. And that Senator Obama is the next Ronald Reagan, with the implication being that he has the potential to initiate a political sea-change.

Whether as a result of smart analysis or the reading of tea leaves, predictions – especially big ones – are dubious things. They can’t account for the most likely of occurrences: unforeseen events. Or the most complex and ficklest of things, human nature. Or the changing perceptions, aspirations and needs of people, especially as hitherto unforeseen events unfold.

Here’s an example of why the predictions trade makes for great sport but falls short.

The nomination of Barack Obama wasn’t even a blip on the political radar just five months ago. The smart money was on a fast Clinton coronation and a protracted and contentious fight for the GOP nomination. Senator McCain won a largely bloodless fight in his party. Obama and Clinton have just wrapped up their battle, and that battle has revealed numerous serious fault lines within the Democratic coalition, or the majority coalition that Democrats hope to construct.

Start with the recent Puerto Rico Democratic Primary results. Hillary Clinton trounced Barack Obama by better than two-to-one among Hispanic voters. In state after state, the Hispanic vote went lopsidedly for Clinton. A deep brown-black divide exists in the country. The Democratic presidential nominating dustup has brought that divide into full view, and in some regards, has exacerbated it.

So why does that divide exist, and why may it work against creating a durable Democratic majority coalition?

Culturally, Hispanics are predominantly Roman Catholic, socially conservative and have yet to be snared in welfare dependency. They are generally upwardly mobile, and as they move up the economic ladder, their political views grow more independent and conservative.

In areas of the country – Los Angeles, for example – where poor African-Americans and poor Hispanics come regularly into contact, friction results. African-Americans often blame immigrant Hispanic labor for declining wages and high unemployment rates in their communities. Hispanics frequently resent the political advantages enjoyed by African-Americans in the Democratic Party.

While Democrats can count on near solidarity from African-American voters for the foreseeable future, Hispanics are, for the reasons given, far more problematic.

White working class voters (Reagan Democrats) and better educated, affluent liberal white voters constitute another significant fault line.

The differences between these two groups are stark. Reagan Democrats are religious, gun-owning, favor traditional marriage and oppose abortion in higher numbers than upscale whites. They are strongly patriotic and pro-military. Their opposition to the Iraq War centers more on a “Fortress America” mindset than on the “America Wrong” mindset of upscale liberal whites.

Economic distress, principally in Rust Belt states, has moved working class whites back toward the Democrats – or specifically, toward Hillary Clinton. Upscale whites are more disposed to free trade, while Reagan Democrats incline toward protectionism. White working class Americans are still, generally, against higher taxes and intrusive government. And they seem ready to migrate to John McCain in November.

Other important divisions exist, too. Though the Democratic Party is the liberal party, a key to regaining the United States House of Representatives in 2006 was running candidates who were more conservative in conservative-leaning districts. The early House special elections won by Democrats this year in conservative districts have followed the same pattern.

None of the self-style conservative Democrats elected in 2006 have compiled much in the way of voting records. The Democratic leadership undoubtedly allows these members to “take a walk” on votes that would hurt them with their electorates. Not that the Democratic majority has done much legislatively, anyway.

Expect Democrats to push an aggressive liberal agenda in 2009. When they do, what are the implications for their members from conservative districts? Will conservative-leaning constituents tolerate their representatives voting for higher taxes and spending and bigger government? Will they believe that taking a walk is good enough?

Young voters are often mentioned as another key to Democratic dominance. But young people are naturally and notoriously changeable. An eighteen year old voting for Barack Obama in 2008 may well vote for Republican Bobby Jindal in 2016, for instance, when the then twenty-six year old is counting on a paycheck and, perhaps, starting a family. It takes more than one vote to establish a reliable pattern.

Women continue to lean Democratic, but that edge is still furnished by younger, single women and professionals. Older and married women tilt toward the GOP. Many single women will eventually marry and have children. Economic opportunity and security will continue to matter to them; they may not entirely surrender liberal social views, but in a dangerous world, where challenges from radical Islam are far from resolved, national security will be an ever-present concern. That issue does not favor the Democrats.

Democrats might argue that reconciling and managing unwieldy majority coalitions is nothing new to them. They point to FDR’s New Deal coalition as the preeminent example. And the New Deal coalition was, indeed, made up of disparate constituencies and sprawling. But it cohered as long as it did for two very critical reasons.

One was the cataclysm known as the Great Depression. Its magnitude was exceptional; only the Civil War surpassed it in impact. The New Deal, in response to the Great Depression, welded together conservative southern and rural whites, northern liberals and big city Catholic ethnics (Irish, Poles, Italians, etc). The other reason was Franklin Roosevelt, who, like Ronald Reagan a generation after Roosevelt’s death, made a compelling case for the argument that a man, if he doesn’t exactly make history, has a decided impact on its direction.

Neither the unpopular Iraq War nor a slow growing economy comes anywhere close in magnitude to the Great Depression. Barack Obama, despite his superficial charm, has proven to be an inexperienced and, frequently, bungling candidate. His liberalism is further left than most Americans want.

If Senator Obama captures the presidency, and Democrats expand their Congressional majorities, it will be more attributable to voters wanting to throw the rascals out, rather than a desire to inaugurate a new Democratic era.

It is wise to beware of predictions offering grand happenings. The world and all the people in it, and the events, both natural and of human origin, make for a complex mix. If none us knows quite what tomorrow will bring, how can any of us speak with confidence of coming times?

Jeffrey Schmidt is a public affairs consultant based in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

Jeffrey Schmidt
Public Affairs Consulting

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