Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Republican Insurgents, Mainstream Democrats

In the course of a debate with Ross Douthat about the comparative significance of Michele Bachman’s association with eccentric evangelical theologians and Obama’s association with illiberal leftists like the Rev. Jeremiah Wright and William Ayers, Jonathan Chait makes a telling point (my emphasis):
“The real problem with the right-wing obsession with Obama's "real" roots is that they do not reflect in any way upon Obama's public record. Obama is a mainstream Democrat, surrounded by Clinton-era veterans, and pursuing roughly the same policies that Bill Clinton would be pursuing if he were president under current circumstances. Bachmann and (to a slightly lesser extent) Perry are at the forefront of a movement to redefine their party's ideology in far more radical hues. Their ideological and theological roots offer useful clues to figuring out this new direction.”
Chait’s pointing to a real and noteworthy difference between the parties. There’s a generational dimension to the Republican Party’s ideological composition owing to the fact that it’s been the site of three successful ideological insurgencies over the last forty years. Think of figures like Orrin Hatch who came to Washington as part of the Reagan insurgency, John Boehner who came to Washington as part of the Gingrich insurgency, and Bachmann who’s part of today’s Tea Party insurgency.

All of them arrived in Washington as members of an ideological cohort that was substantially more conservative than the one they displaced and thereby moved the median Republican politician farther to the right. So it has made perfect sense at any given point over the last forty years to regard intra-Republican-Party politics as an ideological contest between a party establishment fighting a real-guard action against an insurgency putting its own stamp on the party. That dynamic is personified by the contest between Mitt Romney and Rick Perry/Michele Bachmann for the Republican presidential nomination.  Romney may win the nomination, but there's not much doubt as to who's winning the heart and soul of the Republican Party.

My one quarrel with Chait’s formulation is that calling Obama a “mainstream Democrat” suggests that his ideological relationship to his own party is analogous to Romney’s ideological relationship to the Republican Party. But that would be comparing apples to oranges.

Granted, you can divide Democratic politicians into generations easily enough—there are old liberal warhorses like Joe Biden who came to Washington during the Watergate and late-Vietnam era, New Democrats like Hillary Clinton who came to Washington in the 1990s and youngsters like Obama. Yet there's no readily discernible ideological divide among them corresponding to those generational divides. When they all ran for president in 2008 there wasn’t a dime's worth of ideological difference among them. Even now, when it’s widely opined that Obama’s losing touch with his liberal base, that’s much more a matter of disagreement over political tactics than ideological principles. At the end of the day, Obama wants, or at least says he wants, to achieve the same things the liberal base does.

So, if you ask me, Chait’s right. Obama’s association with figures committed to some eccentric ideological principles doesn’t matter much, because ideological principles don’t matter nearly as much to Democrats as they used to. (Try imagining Hillary Clinton conceding the 2008 Democratic presidential nomination to Obama by proclaiming that "the dream will never die.")  You can decide for yourself whether that’s altogether a good thing.

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