The Coming Rift
Pundits are fond of talking about the disconnect between the GOP and the American electorate. Conservatives are out of step, so the wisdom goes. They need to drop the frightening Pentecostalism of Sarah Palin and the bellicosity of John McCain. Republicans must consider dismantling the whole trickle-down apparatus and turning their direct attention to the neglected segment of the population for whom “the promise of America,” as Barack Obama likes to call it, remains unfulfilled.
True, voters may not be in sync with Republican leaders. But if the current political climate is any indication, they could end up feeling mightily betrayed by Democratic ones.
Since November’s supposed referendum on Republican ideology, a string of Democratic figures has been sullied by impropriety and entitlement while other members of the party are making an airtight case for the timeliness and resiliency of conservatism. On matters of foreign policy, social policy, and economics, Democratic leadership is largely indistinguishable from the Republican variety. And Democratic voters have noticed. On Saturday, Glen Greenwald complained in the Chicago Sun Times:
It’s not at all surprising that Republican leaders — from Dick Cheney and John Bolton to virtually all appendages of the right-wing noise machine — are unquestioning supporters of the Israeli attack. After all, they’re expressing the core ideology of the overwhelming majority of their voters and audience.
Much more notable is the fact that Democratic leaders — including Harry Reid and Nancy Pelosi — are just as lock step in their blind, uncritical support for the Israeli attack, in their absolute refusal to utter a word of criticism of, or even reservations about, Israeli actions.
Did Greenwald (no relation, by the way) expect a stirring defense of a terrorist organization? Maybe, maybe not, but the important thing is that whatever Reid or Pelosi said (or failed to say) about the Gaza operation, it was troubling to most of those who voted for them. Greenwald noted that “Democratic voters overwhelmingly oppose the Israeli offensive — by a 24-point margin,” and went on to write, “is there any other position, besides Israel, where a party’s voters overwhelmingly embrace one position (Israel should not have attacked Gaza) but that party’s leadership unanimously embraces the exact opposite position (Israel was absolutely right to attack Gaza and the U.S. must support Israel unequivocally)?”
Funny he should ask. There’s the Iraq War. A December Washington Post/ABC News poll found that 7 in 10 voters believed that Obama “should fulfill his campaign promise to withdraw U.S. forces from Iraq within 16 months.” If that figure represents the average voter, we can safely assume that more than 70 percent of Democratic voters supported this sentiment. But as Eli Lake argued in an indispensable New Republic article from Christmas Eve, “For all the talk of withdrawal and timetables, however, nothing like that is likely to happen.”
What is likely to happen is that President Obama will stick to the ratified status of forces agreement, keeping troops in Iraq for three more years and allowing for a renegotiation which will probably keep troops there a good deal longer, if not indefinitely. This likelihood is, of course, of a piece with Obama’s choice to stick with George W. Bush’s last Secretary of Defense Robert Gates.
There’s gay marriage. In October, Michelle Obama stood before a gay and lesbian Chicago audience and said, “I feel like I’m preaching to the choir because you know Barack’s record” on “issues of interest to the LGBT community.” Maybe they didn’t know as much as the future first lady assumed. Between the President-elect’s previously ignored stand against gay marriage, Proposition 8 support from a key Obama voting bloc, and his scheduling of Rick Warren to give the invocation at his presidential inauguration, the liberal gay community isn’t quite sure what hit it. As the Washington Editor at Large for the Huffington Post put it on CNN, “From what I gather, every gay person who paid attention to this [the Warren announcement] today felt like we were kicked in the stomach.” Democratic leadership’s opposition to gay marriage certainly isn’t what Glen Greenwald might call “unanimous,” but it’s strong enough and comes from a high enough office to smart.
On the economic front, what Larry Kudlow deems “a pleasant surprise” has the spread-the-wealth crowd in a tizzy. The punitive tax hike on the “rich” that Obama spoke about throughout the campaign is on hold, while a program of new business tax cuts and personal tax credits has been offered in its place. Again, the base is watching. At the progressive Campaign for America’s Future blog, President-elect Obama has been accused of “buying into the right-wing frame that raising any taxes – even those on the richest citizens and wealthiest corporations – is bad for the economy.” That’s about right.
Open-ended global instability has made certain that the U.S. will stick to the most vital Bush national security positions. Similarly, economic uncertainty requires the continuation of the Bush tax cuts and the indefinite postponement of pie-in-the-sky entitlements. Despite the campaign scraps thrown to the left-wing chorus and the sham apologetics offered to the international community, many liberal policies have been temporarily rendered non-starters. But if Democratic leaders are resigned to the judicious employment of conservative principles, and Democratic voters are not, where is the party heading?
It’s hard to say, but it can’t hurt to look at how this gap came about. One place to start is with the netroots. The runaway train of preposterous (and liberal) expectations that delivered Barack Obama into the White House first gained speed as a runaway train full of preposterous accusations against George W. Bush. With their cartoonish demonization of every Bush policy and associate, groups like the Daily Kos and Moveon.org made it impossible for any liberal with a web browser to give a single conservative policy a fair shake. Barack Obama’s exploitation and mobilization of this online hysteria made for an unstoppable campaign, but also for an illusory state of political affairs. Democratic politicians, President-elect Obama included, always knew better than the frenzied multitude that voted in “change.” But the netroots were duped as a result of their own momentum.
It’s too early to know how the betrayed will repay their leaders in the next Congressional or Presidential elections, but if Democratic fragmentation is to be avoided down the line, perhaps the introspection about re-branding, redefining, and reaching out needs to happen on the Left.