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Fault Lines Loom for "Dominant" Dem Majority

Fault Lines Loom for "Dominant" Dem Majority

By Sean Trende - April 19, 2013

So what do a governor’s race in Rhode Island, President Obama’s proposed Social Security and Medicare cuts, a bankruptcy in Stockton, Calif., the fiscal cliff, and the funding mechanism for the Affordable Care Act have in common? This isn’t some quirky setup for a joke only a wonk could love. The common thread here is that they all involve cross-currents in the Democratic Party that pose existential threats to their coalition.

For most of the past decade, elections analysts have been consumed with a debate over whether there’s some sort of dominant Democratic majority emerging, based demographically among African-Americans, Hispanics, working-class whites, suburbanites, and liberals. (In the mid-’00s, there was a brief interlude of speculation about whether Republicans were producing such a majority.)

In my book, “The Lost Majority,” I express doubts regarding the theories of inherent party dominance, whether propagated by either side. One of the major themes of the book is that parties have, indeed, put together broad-based “coalitions of everyone.” But these coalitions are almost always unstable, as constituent groups’ interests inevitably bump up against one another, and as the other party adapts. Sooner or later -- almost always sooner -- some new issue cleavage emerges to split the prevailing party’s coalition apart.

Consider 1920, when Warren G. Harding and the Republicans won by what is still the largest popular vote margin in United States history, bringing over 300 Republican congressmen and 59 senators to Washington. But scandal and a severe-but-brief recession nearly cost Republicans the House in 1922; progressives bolted the GOP in 1924 rather than vote for the conservative Calvin Coolidge; Northern working-class whites left in 1928 to support the Catholic Al Smith.

In 1932, amid a severe-but-lengthy recession, Franklin Roosevelt, the losing vice presidential candidate in 1920, fused these dissatisfied elements of the Republican majority into a new Democratic majority. It was utterly dominant in the early-to-mid-1930s. But as the Democrats veered leftward and brought African-Americans into the fold, Southern whites began to exit, and were functioning as a de facto third party in Congress by the late-’30s.

As war with Europe loomed, white ethnics from Germany and Italy became dissatisfied with what they saw as FDR’s needlessly confrontational approach to their homelands; Wendell Willkie actually carried heavily Italian Queens in 1940 after FDR accused Italy of stabbing France in the back. Democrats lost the Northern vote in the 1938 congressional elections, lost the national popular vote by five points in 1942, and lost the House and Senate in 1946, launching a decade-long period of parity with the GOP; Michael Barone calculated that by the mid-1940s, less than a quarter of Congress could be identified as New Dealers.

So where are we today with the Democrats’ coalition? In theory, a grouping of blacks, Hispanics, some working-class whites, suburbanites, and urban liberals seems a powerful, ascendant force. In practice, it is exceedingly fragile, as the interests of these groups will frequently collide once the party is handed the reins of power.

We saw this in 2009 and 2010 when Democrats had sole control of Congress and the presidency. Most economic analyses of the midterm election suggested Democrats should have lost 20-30 seats in the House. But the coalition was torn much more deeply than that. Hispanics were dissatisfied by the administration’s desire to protect its flank with working-class whites by putting off immigration reform and stepping up deportations.

Liberals were disheartened by the administration’s reluctance to press for single-payer universal health coverage. Suburbanites disliked the deficit spending, and working-class whites, especially in Appalachia, were turned off by the administration’s cultural liberalism and push for stricter regulations on coal usage. The end result of this was the disaster of 2010, which would have been much worse had Republicans not nominated unacceptable candidates in a half-dozen vulnerable House seats and three Senate races (the GOP has its own, widely commented upon, coalitional problems).

And that brings us back to the events mentioned in the introduction, which have all exposed important fault lines in the current Democratic coalition. Consider the Rhode Island governor’s race. National Journal’s Kevin Brennan has done a nice job summarizing the Democratic primary, which will likely pit state treasurer and former venture capitalist Gina Raimondo against Providence Mayor Angel Taveras.

Raimondo has earned plaudits for reforming the state’s pension system, effectively minimizing the need for tax hikes on upscale constituents by cutting benefits for the state’s unionized workforce. Taveras is critical of these moves. The direction the Democratic Party opts for in this primary really could transform the state party. Over time, it could open an opportunity for the moribund state GOP to pick off some of the losing side’s voters.

Brown University political scientist Wendy Schiller commented that “[t]hese really incredible forces that could make the Democrats a permanent majority at the national level could also start cannibalizing the Democratic Party.” The second “could” in that sentence is probably more of a “will,” as Democrats are increasingly confronted with either raising taxes on their suburban constituents or cutting spending on their downscale voters to deal with debt; either move will likely enrage the affected group.

We also saw this type of split play out in the fiscal cliff fight, where several Democrats from wealthier states argued for a higher cutoff for tax rates than the $250,000 the administration was proposing. As the tax rates needed to fund the “blue state model” -- a term coined by Walter Russell Mead -- rise higher and higher, more and more pressure will be placed on Democrats from upscale districts to oppose those rate increases; these voters are much more likely to vote on social issues when the debate is whether the top rate should be 35 percent or 39 percent, but when it becomes whether the top rate should go over 50 percent, it becomes a different story.

Consider also the case of California, where cities are increasingly opting to declare bankruptcy rather than raise taxes and make good on municipal pensions. Mead has written extensively on the implications of these bankruptcies for the long-term future of that blue state model.

These moves aren’t without far-reaching consequences. As red and blue states alike have difficulty delivering on commitments to workers made long ago, will those workers continue to believe that government programs are a key component of economic security? Or if the other path is taken, will upscale voters continue to vote Democrat? Perhaps, but it really does seem like an either-or proposition is more likely.

Indeed, we’ve already seen this play out once on the national stage. In 2010, Democrats opted to pay for the expansion of health care in large part by cutting Medicare. In one sense it was good optics: It allowed Democrats to claim a “balanced approach” to funding the new program.

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Sean Trende is senior elections analyst for RealClearPolitics. He is a co-author of the 2014 Almanac of American Politics and author of The Lost Majority. He can be reached at strende@realclearpolitics.com. Follow him on Twitter @SeanTrende.

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