Sunday, March 02, 2008

Rebirth of the Democratic Party?

This morning's polls show Obama ahead in Texas and the two candidates tied in Ohio (I have seen nothing on my home state of Rhode Island, but I have been away for a week and haven't returned yet.) Barack Obama's nomination seems more and more likely, but Hillary Clinton could pull a comeback. But in either case, the effect of this year's campaign has been profound. At long last, after 16 years of triangulation, the Democratic Party is beginning to stand for something once again--as shown by the shift in Senator Clinton's positions over the last few months.
Let's face it--essentially, the Democrats since the 1980s had become the responsible, moderate Republican party. Yes, they were liberal on social issues--and more importantly, they showed genuine fiscal responsibility under Bill Clinton. (In so doing, actually, Clinton continued a trend that had begun under George H. W. Bush with his famous tax increase.) But the Democrats had essentially abandoned any attempt to protect the working class, as shown most famously by Clinton's embrace of NAFTA. Wall Street's ascendancy over both parties was as complete as it had been in the 1920s. Nor did Clinton take any major risks in foreign policy, caving in shamelessly, for instance, to the Cuban-American lobby and failing to live up to the agreement he reached with North Korea to keep it from acquiring nuclear weapons.
9/11 led to the complete collapse of the Democratic Party as the representative of any alternative foreign policy. With rare exceptions--such as the late and much-regretted Paul Wellstone and the ancient Robert Byrd--they rolled over in the fall of 2002 and authorized the Iraq War. Hillary Clinton, of course, was no exception. For the first seven years of the Bush Administration she played it safe, allowing Republican irresponsibility, incompetence, and extremism to open up the chance for her to realize her lifelong ambition. As the primary season opened, she had corralled most of the major Democratic contributors and was already looking forward to the fall, taking relatively conservative stands on the Iraq war, which she promised to wind up "responsibly."
It turns out, however, that Democratic voters were having none of it. Barack Obama is winning partly because of his personality and partly because of his age--but he is also winning on the issues. When Clinton late last week ran an inflammatory ad suggesting that he was not ready to be commander-in-chief, he replied quickly and devastatingly with substance, noting that she had failed the critical foreign policy test of the last 7 years by voting for the Iraq War resolution. Meanwhile, she has now had to promise an almost immediate withdrawal from Iraq as well. More to the point, with the nomination riding on the primary in Ohio, she has had in effect to repudiate NAFTA, something which would have seemed inconceivable six months ago. What is good for Wall Street no longer seems good for the country, particularly as Wall Street begins to feel the pain of the last fifteen years of excess. Clinton thought she could win on a mixture of responsible, center-right government, social issues, and women's votes. It looks as if she was wrong.
November, I suspect, will ratify a profound shift in public opinion across most of the country on these issues, and especially on foreign policy. As the economic collapse continues, John McCain will have to run on the "success" of the Iraq War, and I don't think that is going to resonate in much of the country either. Translating such shifts in opinion into policy will, however, be far more difficult. The Republicans will almost surely have enough votes for Senate filibusters next year, and they will be as ideological as ever. The New Deal succeeded only because distress was too enormous to ignore, and we will not be at a point like that one next year. But we have a good chance of electing a President with some sense of the need to live in a world in which not everyone agrees with us, and some sense of the needs of the mass of the American people--and that alone will be a huge step forward.
I'll be back next week with a longer post on a completely different topic.

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