Molly Redden’s essay in the New Republic about the waning of Democratic centrists may be off-base in its examples—Christine Quinn’s deficiencies as a candidate competed with her ideological positioning as a source of her troubles, and Bill Daley’s withdrawal from the Illinois Governors’ race can hardly be attributed to a leftist backlash when he was running ahead in the polls—but her premise is certainly not one an expatriate former Democrat like myself would argue. In fact, I will use her observations to go one step further: the declining appeal of centrism in Democratic politics is not only tactically relevant to candidates, it is about to become just as culpable from a policy shaping standpoint as the much more heralded implosion of the old governing “establishment” wing of the Republican Party.
To be sure, Redden and her like-minded colleague Noam Scheiber aren’t spending much anxiety on the erosion of Democratic social conservatism, but they are highlighting that essentially one economic world view is tenable within internal Democratic fights. The tenets are that the inequitable distribution of wealth is the dominant economic threat; an aggressively regulated marketplace promotes fairness in a manner that overshadows any costs to innovation or growth; and the only adequate response to more systemic conditions like high unemployment and poverty is an assertive infusion of public dollars. In practical campaign terms, this means a candidate with a record of alliances with corporate institutions will need to spend time disgorging any rhetoric that helped forge those ties (for example, the Cory Booker who 16 months ago was defending private equity’s capacity to invest in underserved neighborhoods has morphed into the soon to be senator whose stump speech laments the failure to hand down prison sentences to Lehman executives); and a Bill de Blasio will have a built-in advantage over a more pro growth oriented message even without the special circumstances of identity politics around his mayoral nomination in New York City.
But the demise of the corporatist sensibility in Democratic politics has arguably spilled into an aversion to the reform minded brand of politics that was until recently an underpinning of both the party’s strategic and policy framework. This plays out most decisively in the context of entitlements. There is a near universal consensus among Democratic politicians and elites that the current entitlement structure is morally and fiscally sound enough that a genuine overhaul is neither desirable nor necessary: a sharp movement from the Simpson Bowles approach a notable number of Democratic thought leaders praised in 2011 and a lifetime of difference from some of the thought experiments of the late Clinton era.
The same antipathy to reform surfaces in the disappearance of the old Robert Kennedy critique of bureaucratic anti-poverty institutions, and in the field of education reform, where accountability and strengthened teacher standards are about as unpopular among today’s Democrats as vouchers or parental choice; that is to say, almost toxic. And, as fellow right-leaning reformers like Reihan Salam and Ross Douthat might point out, there is no meaningful discussion in contemporary liberalism of the kind of pro family tax reform that would advantage major portions of the Democratic Party’s low wage base; and it is conservative pundits who are churning out proposals to make the earned income tax credit more flexible or to permanently reduce FICA taxation on the working poor.
So, what is left is a Democratic orthodoxy which taken at its most serious point intellectually, distrusts institutional reform as a wedge in the door for conservatives who don’t share the underlying values behind the programs they are seeking to change; at its most shallow, it is the politics of client group liberalism, which trades off a public vision for the sum total of the aspirations of the factions turning out the votes and raising the money. Under either version, the Democratic Party is actively in the process of disinheriting it’s best post civil rights contribution—namely, a centrism that knew how to augment wealth and reduce poverty at the same time and that provided at least an occasional partner for creativity from the right on subjects like welfare and public education.
That liberal commentators like Scheiber and Redden and Peter Beinhart are taking a stab toward acknowledging this trend, without viewing it as the potential calamity that I do, is a welcome development. It adds a new texture to the narrative about the collapse of the Republican center being the decisive development in the Obama era. And their observations corroborate what anyone who has run a Democratic campaign can attest: as much as the most engaged wing of the Republican electorate is its economic libertarian, death-to-compromise constituency, it is the leftist mirror image, with its own reactionary critique of the center, which supplies the heart and soul of the Democratic Party’s turnout base. (See Peter Beinart’s slightly different but similar argument that the millennial generation is the most radicalized part of the Democratic universe and it will only grow in influence).
I’ll save for another day the issue of how Republicans could do a much more adept job of exploiting the rising tensions in the Democratic camp, and how a reform oriented conservative politician might go about picking off the voters who are more torn than ideologues in either party about the complexities of modern governance. But for now, it’s enough to point out that two parties and not just one are being driven by internal forces to divorce the middle ground that most Americans still occupy.