IN 2008, Barack Obama’s presidential campaign seemed to rewrite all the rules in electoral politics and herald a new progressive era in America. Democrats assembled a huge Congressional majority and, in the euphoria that followed the historic election, were poised to enact sweeping change. However, despite some notable successes — the stimulus package, health care reform, tighter rules for the financial industry — things have not gone according to plan. Just two years later, Democrats face a bad economy, a skeptical public, a re-energized Republican Party and a coming avalanche of losses in the midterm elections.
What happened? One important explanation is that divisions inside the Democratic coalition, which held together during the 2008 campaign, have come spilling out into the open. Conservative Democrats have opposed key elements of the president’s agenda, while liberal Democrats have howled that their majority is being hijacked by a rogue group of predominantly white men from small rural states. President Obama himself appears caught in the middle, unable to satisfy the many factions inside his party’s big tent.
Conservative Democrats in the House of Representatives — whose election in 2006 and 2008 enabled Nancy Pelosi to preside over a supermajority (there are 255 Democrats and 178 Republicans) — increasingly question whether she should relinquish her position as speaker. Representative Heath Shuler of western North Carolina, a leader of the restive Blue Dog Coalition of Democrats, has even hinted that he may run for her job. Representative Shuler is an unlikely candidate for leader of the party — a devout Southern Baptist who voted against the stimulus, the bank and auto bailouts and health care reform. Yet he’s exactly the kind of Democrat that the party worked very hard to recruit for public office.
In 2005, Howard Dean, who was then the chairman of the Democratic National Committee, carried out a campaign to elect as many Democrats as possible. In long-ignored red states, both Mr. Dean and Rahm Emanuel, then the chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, backed conservative Democrats who broke with the party’s leadership on core issues like gun control and abortion rights. Mr. Shuler was one of Mr. Emanuel’s top recruits. The party leaders did not give much thought to how a Democratic majority that included such conservative members could ever effectively govern.
With President Obama in office, some notable beneficiaries of the Democrats’ 50-state strategy have been antagonizing the party from within — causing legislative stalemate in Congress, especially in the Senate, and casting doubt on the long-term viability of a Democratic majority. As a result, the activists who were so inspired by Mr. Dean in 2006 and Mr. Obama in 2008 are now feeling buyer’s remorse.
Margaret Johnson, a former party chairwoman in Polk County, N.C., helped elect Representative Shuler but now believes the party would be better off without him. “I’d rather have a real Republican than a fake Democrat,” she said. “A real Republican motivates us to work. A fake Democrat de-motivates us.”
Ms. Johnson is right: Democrats would be in better shape, and would accomplish more, with a smaller and more ideologically cohesive caucus. It’s a sentiment that even Mr. Dean now echoes. “Having a big, open-tent Democratic Party is great, but not at the cost of getting nothing done,” he said. Since the passage of health care reform, few major bills have passed the Senate. Although the Democrats have a 59-vote majority, party leaders can barely find the votes for something as benign as extending unemployment benefits.
A smaller majority, minus the intraparty feuding, could benefit Democrats in two ways: first, it could enable them to devise cleaner pieces of legislation, without blatantly trading pork for votes as they did with the deals that helped sour the public on the health care bill. (As a corollary, the narrative of “Democratic infighting” would also diminish.)
Second, in the Senate, having a majority of 52 rather than 59 or 60 would force Democrats to confront the Republicans’ incessant misuse of the filibuster to require that any piece of legislation garner a minimum of 60 votes to become law. Since President Obama’s election, more than 420 bills have cleared the House but have sat dormant in the Senate. It’s easy to forget that George W. Bush passed his controversial 2003 tax cut legislation with only 50 votes, plus Vice President Dick Cheney’s. Eternal gridlock is not inevitable unless Democrats allow it to be.
Republicans have become obsessed with ideological purity, and as a consequence they will likely squander a few winnable races in places like Delaware. But Democrats aren’t ideological enough. Their conservative contingent has so blurred what it means to be a Democrat that the party itself can barely find its way. Polls show that, despite their best efforts to distance themselves from Speaker Pelosi and President Obama, a number of Blue Dog Democrats are likely to be defeated this November. Their conservative voting records have deflated Democratic activists but have done nothing to win Republican support.
Far from hastening the dawn of a post-partisan utopia, President Obama’s election has led to near-absolute polarization. If Democrats alter their political strategy accordingly, they’ll be more united and more productive.