Obama Threatens to Break the Democratic Coalition

Obama Threatens to Break the Democratic Coalition

By Troy Senik - July 29, 2009

Barack Obama may have learned the wrong lesson. The president's strategy for overhauling American healthcare was supposed to be crafted with a keen eye to the deficiencies of the Clinton Administration's reform efforts in the early 1990s. Where the Clintons had micromanaged the contents of their colossal bill, Obama would lay out broad principles and let Congress do the detail work. Where the Clinton plan had withered on the vine after months of criticism, Obama's would move through Capitol Hill at a pace fast enough to prevent a critical mass of hostility from gathering. But Obama's ideological inclinations seem to have blinded him to an even greater lesson from the Clinton fiasco: don't abandon your moderates.

What the Obama team failed to realize about Clinton's setback was that details and deadlines were merely tactical setbacks rooted in a larger strategic deficiency: the failure to produce a reform package that would unite the Democratic majorities in Congress and attract some measure of Republican support. As a result, the White House is repeating Clinton's mistake of holding fast to a plan that unites the opposition while fracturing the majority. They are presently failing coalition-building 101.

To understand the dynamics at work here, you need to understand the fluid and diverse nature of party identification in America. While liberals and conservatives are the dominant ideological forces in the Democratic and Republican parties, respectively, the ranks of the philosophically pure are too thin to constitute a governing majority. Thus, the two major parties are made up of coalitions that might well break into five or six parties of their own in a parliamentary system.

Republicans have two primary camps: cultural conservatives from the South and Westerners who emphasize freedom and small government. This leads to the inherent tension in the Republican Party between its traditionalist and libertarian wings. In the not too distant past, the party also had a dedicated, if small, cadre of moderate Rockefeller Republicans in the Northeast, but the last few election cycles have left them all but extinct.

The Democratic coalition is a much different beast. The liberal wing of the party is anchored in the Northeast and the West Coast, with garrisons in major urban centers throughout the nation. Meanwhile, the more populist, FDR-style Democrats (from whom many of the congressional Blue Dogs are drawn) tend to be concentrated in the Midwest and a few parts of the South that have resisted the growing Republican tide in Dixie.

The problem that Democrats have had to contend with for the last several decades is that the old New Deal coalition is increasingly susceptible to Republican poaching. This trend began with the South's transformation in the wake of the civil rights movement - a development that Democrats like to blame on Republican exploitations of racial tension. However, the growing influence of the New Left within Democratic ranks was also a decisive factor. As the liberal social views and internationalist foreign policy predilections of the coastal classes began to hold greater sway in the party, many of the populists who had previously trended towards Democrats because of economic issues or labor rights grew increasingly alienated. And today, the parties continue to struggle over a swath of Middle America on precisely these issues.

During the past two election cycles, a combination of opportunity and initiative have once again given Democrats the upper hand in these perpetually competitive parts of the country. Widespread dissatisfaction with President Bush during his second term (a perception of performance failure is the best way to rend a coalition) gave Democrats a plausible argument for the country to give them a second look. Meanwhile, Bush's own management of the Republican coalition increasingly estranged the party's libertarian wing, opening a new front for Democrats in the West. Capitalizing on this discontent, Democratic leaders in Congress - led by Chuck Schumer and Rahm Emanuel - brilliantly recruited a slate of heterodox candidates who sounded more like Republicans on issues like abortion, immigration, spending, and guns. It may have given George Soros heartburn, but it also gave the Democrats congressional majorities.

During his campaign for the presidency, Obama looked prone to capitalize on these newfound majorities by fusing his undeniably liberal worldview with a spirit of outreach towards moderates of both parties. But as his administration passes the six-month mark and his approval ratings slip below 55 percent for the first time, it is becoming obvious that the center is not holding. And Obama is perilously close to breaking the coalition that was built for him.

The problem is that there is no check on the most left-wing impulses of the Democratic Party. Obama is the closest thing to liberalism's platonic ideal that Democrats have ever managed to put in the White House. And by farming out the heavy lifting of his legislative agenda to the Congress, he has empowered the left-wing leadership of both houses at the expense of conservative and moderate Democrats who, by the contentious nature of their states or districts, tend to be less senior.

This evinces a profound misreading of the moment and the mandate. In a time of economic crisis, Obama has a wide berth to advocate for the kinds of economic activism that unite his party and demonstrate presidential empathy (I should note that as one of the aforementioned Western libertarians, I don't condone this course of action, but that's immaterial to Obama's political calculations). But after ramming through the stimulus package, the Administration has seemed increasingly out to lunch on economic issues, even as unemployment numbers hit double digits in 15 states.

Instead, Obama has chosen to focus on root and branch domestic reforms, most notably in his proposed health care and energy plans. But in both cases, the resulting legislation is tilted so heavily towards the preferences of liberals that its prospect for passage is threatened.

Health care reform for the left is about the holy grail of single-payer coverage (which Obama's "public option" is a backdoor avenue towards) and getting a stranglehold on the for-profit medical industry that liberals find morally offensive. For the centrists (and independents as well), however, the issue tends to turn more on controlling costs and ensuring stability - aspirations which, despite Obama's rhetorical protestations to the contrary, are not meaningfully addressed in current proposals for reform.

By the same token, the left fundamentally misunderstands that the first and last concern of the vast majority of Americans when it comes to energy is how much it costs them. Global warming is a wonderful source of income for left-wing fundraisers, but recent polling indicates that it's near the bottom of the public's list of pressing political issues. That Obama would throw his considerable heft behind a byzantine proposal to make energy more expensive illustrates that the White House is either ignorant or apathetic of the public pulse on this issue.

And indeed, the public is turning. Recent polling shows a majority of Americans now opposed to the president's healthcare reform. And by a margin of two to one, they believe that cap and trade will have negative effects on the economy. Obama only compounded his difficulties last week when he said at a press conference that Cambridge, Massachusetts police had acted "stupidly" in arresting a noted black scholar who grew belligerent under questioning. At a time when Obama's political success is contingent on the Blue Dogs, this was a serious misstep. For urban liberals of Obama's ilk, the presumption of racial profiling is second nature. But the constituents of many Blue Dog members of Congress are decent, tolerant people who long ago tired of urban liberals assuming they were subconsciously racist just because they are white and live south of the Mason-Dixon line. For Obama to add cultural insult to these members' political injury was the height of folly.

It's becoming increasingly clear that Obama's best-case scenario on health care and energy are probably watered-down versions of his earlier proposals. His worst-case scenario is no bill at all. On the heels of these rebukes, the President will be faced with a choice. Will he, ala Bill Clinton, opt for ideological reinvention and a rapprochement with America's broad middle? Or will he, like Jimmy Carter, believe that his moral superiority is too sacrosanct to be compromised by the exigencies of the political system that he signed on to lead? If he chooses the first route, he'll be able to hold the Democratic Party together. If the latter ... well, he should give Jimmy Carter a call.

Troy Senik served in the White House as a speechwriter for President George W. Bush.  He previously wrote for California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger and former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich.  He can be reached at

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