The Divergence between Progressives and Centrists and its Strategic Implications
This is a brief analysis and commentary on the single most important schism among Democrats – that between progressives and centrists - its recent aggravation, how this plays out in terms of policy and party politics, and its implications for progressive strategy. The crucial question is whether there is enough potential for convergence or whether the divergent orientations will be further exacerbated. In large part, this will be determined by two variables: Whose infrastructure is stronger and whose message resonates better with the US public. As before, we again find the interdependence of objectives, analysis, and tactics.
Underlying this divergence is the crucial question of whether progressives can continue to keep their central promise of significantly expanding opportunities for the poor and middle class in the age of globalization, which I analyzed in a previous post. To the extent that the American Dream has ever really worked – and there is considerable controversy on this point – is it still credible that it will work even better in the future? If not, what are viable alternatives for progressive strategy?
In the last month, we have seen the gulf between progressives and centrists widening. Three key events were the controversy over the DNC’s 50-state strategy, the publication of the 2006 report on the DLC’s American Dream Initiative, chaired by Hillary Clinton, on July 24, and Ned Lamont’s victory over Joe Lieberman in the Connecticut Democratic primary on August 8, and the revealing responses to those developments.
These events accentuate the familiar divergence between the centrist New Democrats, clustered around the DLC and related centrist think tanks, closer to Clinton, and what is referred to as the progressive grassroots ‘movement’, reinforced most recently by the netroots, and closer to Howard Dean and the DNC’s 50-state strategy.
This conflict manifests itself in a struggle over primacy in the Democratic Party and over policy. The battle over dominance in the Democratic Party is primarily between Clinton and Dean, and their respective networks. The controversy over policy concerns both domestic and foreign policy. While Clinton appears to have proven that she can unite centrists on socioeconomic issues, she is far from doing so on foreign policy and the crucial question of Iraq. Here, she seems stuck between a hawkish DLC and progressives who are highly critical of a unilateral and militaristic foreign policy. And while some proposals in the American Dream Initiative point in the right direction, for many progressives they don't go far enough.
On July 24, 2006, the DLC published the 2006 report on the American Dream Initiative, and Hillary Clinton gave a major speech on the topic. In 2005, DLC Chair Gov. Tom Vilsack asked Clinton to chair the project to ‘address the central economic challenge of our time – saving the American Dream.’ The DLC prides itself on the fact that ‘a broad and unprecedented coalition of progressive think tanks took part in developing this agenda: the Democratic Leadership Council, the Progressive Policy Institute, the Center for American Progress, NDN, and Third Way.’ Indeed, this cluster of the top five centrist think tanks and advocacy organizations represents what could be called the institutional core of the self-described New Democrat Movement.
In The Dream and the Nightmare (Huffington Post, July 25, 2006), Bob Borosage, co-director of the Campaign for America’s Future and president of the board of Progressive Majority, points out that Clinton tries to ‘navigate the currents’ between the centrist DLC and the rising tide of progressives representing a ‘growing majority of Americans,’ by emphasizing areas of agreement and by avoiding positioning herself on areas of disagreement, most importantly the Iraq war. It is not entirely clear to me whether the 'nightmare' only refers to Iraq or whether it also means that the centrist version of the American Dream represents a progressive nightmare ... Be that as it may:
It omits mention of the Iraq War or foreign policy. It tiptoes around America's failed global economic strategy. It focuses on areas where Democrats agree - making college affordable, expanding access to health care, home ownership, retirement security. It drops the old DLC swagger - embracing an increase in the minimum wage that the DLC once disdained. Its proposals on college affordability have the scope to make a difference. Its "Baby Bonds" - a $500 savings bond at birth and at age ten for low-income families - could be politically attractive.Written before Lamont’s victory over Lieberman, Borosage concludes that the success of Lamont’s campaign suggests that this positioning is too cautiously centrist:
But otherwise it is characteristically cautious. Its health care proposals would do nothing for most uninsured Americans and little to control prices. It says nothing about empowering workers to organize and little about holding CEOs accountable. It skimps on any investment agenda, while promising to don a permanent budgetary straight jacket. It fails to call for either fundamental tax reform or rolling back any of Bush's top end tax cuts, while offering up a bushel of new tax credits and write offs.
And while Hillary omits mention of the war in her American Dream agenda, the DLC continues to champion the Iraq nightmare -- most recently calling for putting the economy on a war footing, raising the military budget and rallying the Americans for an extended commitment to nation-building in Iraq and transforming the Middle East.
Some of the proposals in Hillary's American Dream Initiative will contribute to that, but she'll have to swim a lot faster and reach a lot farther if she hopes to catch the coming wave of progressive change.
Andrea Batista Schlesinger, executive director of the Drum Major Institute, in her article Middle Class Isn’t Middle Ground (TomPaine, July 26, 2006), reminds Senator Clinton and the rest of us of the importance for progressives to favor policies that truly benefit the middle class. She rejects the frequently expressed 'logic' according to which you are ‘populist’ when talking about poverty, but ‘centrist’ when talking about the increasing difficulties of the middle class:
That is the kind of shallow analysis that has divided our politics for far too long between the poor and the middle class. The truth of the matter is that, in a nation in which the very wealthy control almost all of our wealth and in which their agenda is the driving force behind most of the governing party's agenda of tax cuts and power consolidation, we are all in this together.Given that Clinton was one of the few who received an A on DMI’s annual Congressional Scorecard in 2005 (Obama only got a C, which will surely come as a surprise to many), she reminds her that she should not only remember all this but also say so.
For a long time, people would give DMI a hard time for using the language "middle class." To us, the equation is simple. If there is no American middle class, there is nothing for the poor to work their way into. If there is no American middle class, our democracy suffers. […]
But middle class doesn't equal middle ground. Advocating for the middle class isn't inherently some kind of political compromise or centrist bargain, ala the Democratic Leadership Council. [sic] […]
Advocating for the strengthening and expansion of our middle class shouldn't just be political code for "I'm inoffensive." It should mean that you're willing to do whatever it takes to create the economic policy that will directly benefit the overwhelming majority of Americans.
In contrast, she dismisses Robert Rubin’s Hamilton Project at the Brookings Institution, run by the highly respected economist Peter Orszag, as a ‘centrist’s dream,’ and criticizes it for trying to build ‘credibility’ with conservatives rather than with the middle class.
Closely related to this divergence over policy is the struggle over primacy in the Democratic Party between Hillary Clinton and Howard Dean (and their respective networks), that Thomas B. Edsall, Washington Post staff writer and special correspondent for The New Republic reports on in The Grudge (The New Republic, July 27, 2006).
Edsall, a longtime observer of US politics, provides very interesting background information on the struggle between the Clintons and Dean, going back to Dean’s 2004 campaign and book, and his campaign for the DNC chairmanship in 2005, which Clinton had tried to sabotage:
The result? Dean and Clinton--the Democratic Party's two power centers--find themselves locked in a struggle for intraparty supremacy. Each camp considers the other's political strategy fundamentally flawed. Dean loyalists dislike Clinton's stance on Iraq and her cautious approach to leadership, and they also fear she is too polarizing a figure to win a general election. Meanwhile, Clinton partisans doubt Dean's competence in managing the DNC and believe him to be just the sort of antiwar, elitist, left-wing Democrat who will scare off white middle- and working-class voters.Edsall points out an interesting reversal of roles: While Dean was the insurgent back in 2003, today the Clintons are the insurgents, but representing the establishment. But I doubt whether this is really the case. It seems to me that Dean is still the insurgent, in spite of being chair of the DNC, while the Clintons still represent the establishment of the Democratic Party, due to their close connection with the DLC and the centrist infrastructure:
What makes the Dean-Clinton struggle so interesting is that it represents an inversion of the party's previous power structure. When Dean began his rise to national prominence in 2003, he portrayed himself as an insurgent who would challenge both the Democratic Party's Washington establishment and the ideological legacy of Clintonism, which he argued had pushed the party too far to the center. That tactic once looked likely to propel Dean to the Democratic nomination. But, today, Dean heads the DNC, and it is Clinton who wants her party's nomination. To win, she will have to make inroads among Dean's followers and loosen his grip on the party's apparatus. This time, it is the Clintons who are the insurgents, but insurgents who represent the Democratic establishment.
The schism between the two camps has its roots in Dean's early 2003 discovery that running against Clintonism held a lot of appeal for Democratic primary voters. Many liberals were hungry for a politician who would tell them what they wanted to hear on Iraq, gay rights, and the role of religion in American life--and, just as importantly, one who would denounce Democratic triangulators, equivocators, and compromisers. On all those counts, Dean delivered. During his presidential campaign and later in his 2004 book, You Have the Power, Dean offered a forceful critique of Bill Clinton's centrism. "After nearly a decade of widening income inequalities, campaign-finance scandals, noxious inside-the-Beltway compromises, and political catfights ... the American people felt equally disenfranchised by Democrats and Republicans," Dean wrote. He added, "The Democrats have made a fundamental mistake in watching Bill Clinton and thinking it was his strategy--and not his extraordinary personality--that enabled him to do all the things he did."According to Dean, Democrats lose elections because they are too conservative. In order to win elections, they have to become more progressive. The way to get there is by rebuilding the party from the grassroots up, and not from the consultants down:
He continued to press this theme while running for DNC chair, but, instead of citing either Clinton by name, he simply lashed out at the Democratic establishment. "Here in Washington," he said, "it seems that every time we lose an election, there's a consensus reached among decision-makers in the Democratic Party that the way to win is to be more like Republicans." Dean's alternative was simple: "The way to rebuild the Democratic Party is not from the consultants down, it is from the ground up." Such rhetoric continued even after Dean won the chairmanship. This spring, Dean told a group of reporters, "We don't really have any consultants. ... We try to do everything in-house. We don't have a stable of Washington consultants telling us what to do."But, as Edsall points out, this is not really the case. In fact, Dean not only spent more on consulting fees than his predecessor, Terry McAuliffe, but also concentrated it much more on a single company, Blue State Digital, which grew out of his 2004 campaign, and is said to dominate his consulting network.
In sum, Dean succeeded not only in distancing the DNC from the so-called Clintonistas, but also continued to enjoy the support of the emerging netroots, who viciously attacked Clinton.
Now Clinton's camp is seeking to change this landscape. Its strategy appears to be twofold. First, it is laying the groundwork to circumvent the DNC in the event that Clinton wins the nomination. Her advisers see Dean as a maverick, and they want to depend on him as little as possible during the general election. "The DNC is going to be peripheral," says one Clinton strategist. "We are going to have our own field staff, starting way before the primaries begin, right through November 7." He points out that she is prepared to reject public financing during the primaries and the general election. (Clinton does not lack for money: She has raised $32.2 million for her Senate reelection and has $22 million in the bank--all transferable to her presidential campaign, according to PoliticalMoneyLine.) This would allow her to keep the field staff she develops during the primaries on her payroll during the general election--instead of shifting it to the DNC, as previous candidates have done. Plus, in a move widely and correctly interpreted as a rebuke to Dean, Clinton strategist Harold Ickes recently established a private voter database to compete with a similar database being built by the DNC. Ickes's move--as well as Clinton's formidable array of experienced advisers, including Terry McAuliffe, Howard Wolfson, James Carville, Mark Penn, and others--will give Clinton added independence from the DNC.Clinton’s second line of attack is to divide and conquer the progressive blogosphere, first by announcing that she would endorse the winner of the Democratic primary in Connecticut, and secondly by hiring Salon blogger Peter Daou, and Jesse Berney, who managed blog operations for the DNC in 2004, as consultants for her Senate campaign, and generally striking a more conciliatory tone towards the netroots.
Edsall believes that Clinton is in a better position than Dean to win the struggle over primacy in the Democratic Party, both in the short and in the long term, essentially because the netroots will be increasingly tempted by strong incentives to fracture, making it all the less likely to coalesce behind one single candidate.
So who will win the showdown between Howard and Hillary? In both the long term and the short term, the odds favor Clinton and her allies in the party's more moderate wing. Take the long term first. Many of the troops brought into politics by the Dean campaign are desperate to turn their avocation into a paying profession. Many left-wing bloggers are struggling to survive financially and would love to begin earning salaries as political operatives. For instance, Bowers and two friends, Hale Stewart (aka "bonddad") and David Atkins (aka "thereisnospoon"), recently announced the creation of NetRoots Research, Strategy & Analysis. As bloggers like these enter the competition for consulting contracts and campaign jobs, the pressures of the political marketplace will likely work to moderate idealism--and to make compromise and accommodation more acceptable within the netroots.
In the short term, Clinton's strategy of dividing and conquering the blogosphere will be abetted by the near impossibility of Web-based Dean loyalists uniting around a single candidate in 2007. Zack Exley--formerly organizing director for MoveOn.org, an Internet specialist on the Dean campaign, and director of online organizing and communications for Kerry-Edwards 2004--puts it this way: "I think Hillary is going to surprise everyone with the netroots. Every candidate who is flirting with the idea of running is trying to do it like Dean did it. You could have ten candidates trying to be the insurgent dark horse. All those candidates are going to split the netroots, leaving Hillary to be the standout." The netroots have simply become too large to be the exclusive agent of any one candidate. With her front-runner status, Clinton doesn't need to actually win the blogosphere outright; she just needs to make sure no one else does. And odds are there will be no repeat of 2003, when the liberal blogosphere rallied overwhelmingly to one contender.
That, in the end, may be Clinton's biggest advantage in her battle with Dean. Of course, there is always the possibility that Clinton will falter. But, if she does not, then Dean, with his supporters unable to coalesce behind a single candidate, will likely find himself without a proxy to run against her. Then again, he may not even want one. After all, there is probably only one candidate Dean could ever truly back, and he is sitting out this race. His name, of course, is Howard Dean.