Fault Lines in Democratic Party

Fault Lines in Democratic Party

By Salena Zito - July 14, 2013

Sometimes things fall apart right in plain sight but no one sees it unraveling until too late. That’s especially true in politics.

The conventional wisdom (which many consider not that wise at all) is that the sky is falling for Republicans but all is well for unified Democrats.

What is probably closer to the truth is that America is fatigued with all politics, especially anything involving Washington – and Democrats will have to contend with the electorate’s mistrust in the midst of Obama administration scandals, and just as our second great experiment with embracing progressivism slides behind us.

They also face a still painfully slow economy that has been tough on most Americans outside of Washington. And they will compete in the next election cycle without a rock star at the top of their ticket, one who can inspire liberals to vote and persuade undecided voters to stay home – a phenomenon that skewed the numbers in both directions in the last two cycles.

The days of blaming Republicans for getting America into its economic mess have passed, mainly because Democrats are not accruing any credit for getting us out of it. In fact, Democrats don’t have much to brag about at all with Barack Obama's presidency; if we continue limping along with slow growth for the next few years, they will be hard pressed to make the argument that their party is better for the country than the GOP.

Another problem for Democrats is that they have allowed Obama to build a separate machine with Organizing for Action (OFA), his leftover campaign apparatus, modeled on former presidential candidate Howard Dean's Democracy for America.

The trouble with such candidate machines is that they fundamentally are not party organs; their supporters back the individual candidates who founded them, not the party.

The dirty little secret, which no Democrat ever admits on the record, is that the OFA exists essentially because the party is no longer working. So OFA has taken over the party and refashioned it from the ground up around Obama.

This will have a devastating impact on the party because it has enabled OFA to act as a predator, while the party has failed to groom its own partisan bench for the future.

Then there is the Michael Bloomberg factor: The New York mayor’s anti-gun lobby hurts Democrats by supporting only pro-gun-control elected officials, essentially shrinking the Democrats’ coalition.

Finally, there’s the disconnect that Democrats have encountered with blue-collar whites and Main Street voters. That began way back in 2000 with Al Gore’s presidential campaign, but it escalated with President Obama's class-warfare-themed reelection in 2012.

Minorities and young people made up great big portions of the electorate in 2008 and 2012, partly because whites and elderly voters did not turn out in numbers as high as those in past elections. Such a shift makes it hard to know whether Democrats (if they pick a less charismatic candidate in 2016, such as Joe Biden, Hillary Clinton, Martin O'Malley or Andrew Cuomo) will be able to replicate those draws of the past two presidential elections.

Aside from that unknown, lots of more-traditional voters feel abandoned by Democrats – and a continued push by the party toward its more progressive "urban hipster" base (technology workers, highly educated liberals, young people, minorities) may only further alienate blue-collar white voters in places such as Minnesota, Wisconsin, Michigan, Pennsylvania and Ohio.

That would become doubly troubling for Democrats if Republicans can discover ways to connect with those alienated voters and then turn them out to vote for GOP candidates.

As Sean Trende, senior elections analyst for RealClearPolitics and co-author of the 2014 “Almanac of American Politics,” has noted before in this column, there are really three major fault lines running through the Democrat Party.

“The first is the ideological gap between the downscale, minority branch, the second is the middle-class suburban branch, and the third is the upscale liberal branch,” according to Trende.

“A lot of times they see things the same but, when Democrats are in power, it never seems to take long for things to fall apart.” 

Salena Zito is a Pittsburgh Tribune-Review editorial page columnist. E-mail her at
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