So now the struggle begins.
Less than 24 hours after Barack Obama’s historic election, the first salvos of ideological warfare could already be heard on the Democratic Party battlefield. The battle will be for the heart and soul -- and especially the spending priorities -- of the new president’s administration. It will be a hell-bent struggle between the party’s newly energized left wing -- the blogosphere, the “netroots,” the liberal intellectuals -- and the entrenched realists, mostly former members of Bill Clinton’s centrist regime.
Each approach contains inducements and risks. The consensus builders remember the Democrats’ years in the wilderness (losing seven of the previous 10 presidential elections) and have an eye on ensuring Obama a second term. They want to be careful about using Obama’s strong victory and the Democrats’ new congressional strength to overreach, alienate voters, and lose in 2012.
The ideologues of the left want the opposite: a president who, in the manner of Franklin Roosevelt’s famous first 100 days of pell-mell reforms, pushes his mandate to the limit in pursuit of every dream on the Democratic wish list.
At first blush, it appears that the centrists are in a good position to control at least the body, if not always the brain, of the new president. That was apparent in the choice of Rahm Emanuel, the street-savvy Chicago politician, to be Obama’s chief of staff. Known for his sharp elbows and blunt ways, Emanuel is a Clinton-style centrist to the core. He spent eight years in Clinton’s White House keeping Democratic Party forces in line for a president who, despite his peccadilloes and scandals, left office in 2001 with a soaring 68 percent approval rating among the American public (George W. Bush, by comparison, now has a 20 percent approval rating).
Emanuel again proved his centrist -- and realist -- instincts in the 2006 congressional elections. He was chief architect of the Democrats’ victory, and he did it by forcing choices of candidates who, in another year, might easily have been Republicans -- conservative politicians who were in a position to win in their conservative-leaning districts even when wearing the Democratic mantle. A wiry man with conspiratorial-looking dark circles around his eyes, Emanuel constantly fought off pressures from ideological Democrats to lean left. He controlled the choices, and the flow of election money, in his trademark way: by knocking heads and knowing how to curse into two different mobile phones at the same time. I know. I’ve seen him at work. Emanuel even famously shouted down Democratic Party Chair Howard Dean in a dispute over sharing campaign cash.
Of all the stories that swirl around Emanuel, here is my favorite. One day Emanuel went to his best friend in the West Wing, domestic policy chief Bruce Reed. The mild-mannered Reed, regarded as a genius on policy questions, was such a nice guy that he never had a harsh word for anyone, no matter how bitter the battle. Emanuel, by contrast, was infamous as Clinton’s political pit bull and all-around enforcer, but embarrassingly ignorant in matters of policy. “Bruce,” Reed recalls Emanuel pleading, “If you’ll teach me how to do policy, I’ll teach you how to be an asshole.”
There are other important signs of Obama’s instinctive centrism, and a willingness to pick up where Bill Clinton left off. One is his choice of John Podesta, Clinton’s last chief of staff, as his own transition boss. This puts Podesta, another architect of Clinton’s success, in the catbird seat of naming key players in the new administration, including cabinet members. (The incoming president has appointment power over 3,000 top federal government jobs.)
That Obama has centrist tendencies has been apparent in his writings, too. His most recent book, “The Audacity of Hope,” reveals a keen understanding of how the Democratic Party went off the rails in the late 1960s and 1970s and found its way back only in the post-ideological politics of Bill Clinton.
Obama has spectacularly succeeded at creating a new Democratic coalition. It is built above all on the young, African-Americans, Hispanics and women (even while winning 52 percent of all votes, Obama won only 43 percent of white votes). To some on the left, this is precisely the progressive (read: liberal) coalition they have been longing for since the 1970s. And, because of the explosion of the liberal blogosphere, they rightly claim a good share of credit in creating the coalition.
Emboldened by their success, they now want a take-no-prisoners approach that will, in short order, undo all the perceived wrongs of the Bush years. Writing Wednesday in the left-liberal The Nation magazine, Katrina Vanden Heuvel lashed out at a “timid incrementalists” who counsel caution and called Obama’s election “a watershed moment -- a historic opportunity for a progressive governing agenda and a mandate for bold action.”
Vanden Heuvel’s definition of bold -- a heavy push on healthcare reform, a speeded-up withdrawal from Iraq and even Afghanistan, big public works spending -- would seem like political suicide to the Emanuels and Podestas.
But there is another way to interpret Obama’s victory as a transformational moment without driving over the ideological cliff. That is to see it in demographic and geographic terms. Examined closely, Obama’s success is a reflection of dramatic shifts in living patterns, educational gains and income increases in America’s rapidly shifting population. One key word is: suburbs.
America’s fastest-growing areas are the suburbs and exurbs around the cities. These areas of sprawl and shopping malls are where the political action is today. These include, for example, the now-famous swath across central Florida known as the I-4 corridor (named for Interstate Highway 4), the high-tech world of the post-industrial economy around the San Francisco Bay, even the bio-tech centers of North Carolina’s Research Triangle area. Here live the affluent, the educated and those with rising incomes -- all increasingly likely to vote Democratic. Here, too, increasingly, are immigrant groups with no historic doubts about race and none at all about ethnic or national origin.
All these shifts suggest an historic realignment of US politics, argues John Judis of The New Republic. Many American political historians believe there have been about five major realignments -- in 1828, 1860, 1896, 1932, and 1980. If you examine those dates, you’ll notice that they are roughly 30 years apart. 2008 is nearly 30 years after the Reagan Revolution. Could there now be another one? Political scientist Walter Dean Burnham calls realignment “America’s surrogate for revolution,” notes Judis.
If the nation is ripe for realignment, then maybe the ideologues are right. Maybe Obama should reach for the stars and try, as he promised in his campaign, “to save the world.” Or maybe he should keep his feet on the ground and find a way to make bipartisanship the hallmark of his governance -- the opposite of the Bush method -- and get what is gettable rather than forcing a revolution down the throats of the 46 percent of voters who did not choose him.
Obama’s tendency is to reconcile harsh opposites. Whether he can do it within his own party, now that he is its head, will be one of his first great challenges. The Congress, especially the House of Representatives, will lean toward the transformationalists. The White House, if the early personnel choices are any guide, will lean toward the consensualists. If they win, those of us who originally supported Hillary Clinton because we pined for a Clinton restoration may, ironically, end up getting what we wanted in an Obama administration.
In any case, the fireworks are coming. Get ready for the first great party battle of the Obama era. How it plays out will be a telling guide to the success, or stumbles, of the young president’s first term.
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