Focus | Democratic divide
Battle brewing between progressives, centrists over direction of party
Story by Chris Graham
The 2001 election that ushered in the Democratic Decade in Virginia gave power in Democratic Party circles to the centrists in the mold of Mark Warner and Tim Kaine who led the mini-revolution that fall.
The model that they laid out wasn’t all that complicated. Emphasize management efficiency, avoid at all costs anything even remotely controversial on social issues.
Progressives weren’t and aren’t among the biggest fans of Warner and Kaine and their brother-in-RepublicanLite-arms Jim Webb, but for the most part they self-muted their criticism, because, well, Democrats were winning elections, with Kaine holding the Governor’s Mansion in 2005, Webb knocking off U.S. Sen. George Allen in 2006, Warner landsliding former Gov. Jim Gilmore in a 2008 Senate race, and Virginia going blue in the ’08 presidential race for Barack Obama.
It didn’t take long after the lopsided loss in the 2009 state races for Democrats to emulate their Republican friends who responded to their decade in the desert by splitting down their moderate and conservative divide.
“Parties are strongest when they have a message and are on offense about message. I think that’s the place we need to get to, where voters, even if they’re more conservative, will respect the strength of our beliefs and our agenda with what we want to do with government,” said Mike Signer, who lost his bid for the Democratic Party nomination to run for lieutenant governor to Jody Wagner, whose Republican Lite campaign went down in flames in November.
“We need to get to a place where we’re on a strong footing, where we’re aggressive, where we’re involved in this because of conviction, because of principles that are clear on their face, and where we’re trying to help ordinary people, not elites, but we’re trying to listen to and help ordinary people. I think if they get that from the party, then we’ll win,” Signer said.
“What we need to do is continue talking about Democratic values, and not shying away from progressive values,” said Krystal Ball, a candidate for the 2010 Democratic congressional nomination in the First District, which is generally regarded as among the more strong-Republican districts in the state.
“I really think in 2010 the key is going to be not running to the right and being sort of Republican Lite. It’s going to be to energize the base and get them excited enough to have a reason to come out and vote. We have to give people a reason to show up. And then we can think about independents and moderates,” Ball said.
Which sounds similar to the internal debates among Virginia Republicans, whose move to push further to the right in response to the Warner-Kaine-Webb revolution helped grease the skids for the Democratic gains in the ’00s. It shouldn’t be lost on partisans on either side that the new governor-elect, Bob McDonnell, based his appeal to voters in the ’09 elections not on his ideological credentials but rather on his promise to focus on jobs and the economy and sensible solutions to longstanding unresolved issues like transportation.
“It doesn’t quite make sense for Democrats to say, Let’s model what we do on what Republicans are doing, because it seems like they have realized that what they’d been doing wasn’t a good strategy, and now Democrats may be falling into the same trap,” said Isaac Wood, a political analyst at the University of Virginia Center for Politics.
Republicans seem to finally get it, at least at the state level. The Mark Warner-type candidate in the ’09 governor’s race wasn’t the Democrat, Creigh Deeds, who had Warner’s endorsement, but it was McDonnell, who ran to the middle even as the Deeds campaign tried to paint him into an ideological corner by pointing to his ties to controversial televangelist Pat Robertson and by pointing to the thesis written by McDonnell as a 34-year-old graduate student in 1989 that had disparaging things to say about working women, gays and lesbians and the state public-school system.
“When you start losing, you start looking for things to blame. When you’re winning, nobody really cares. It’s like football. When things are going well, the team is winning, everybody gets along. When things start going bad, everybody starts blaming the quarterback or the offensive line or the defense or the coach. It’s really no different here,” said Marshall Pattie, the newly elected chair of the Augusta County Democratic Committee.
Pattie, a management professor at James Madison University, whose research interests include organizational behavior and theory, pointed to something from his academic research as another possible variable to consider.
“I’ve done a lot of research on diversity, the differences between minorities and whites and women and men, and what we’ve found in our research is the within-group diversity is always greater than the between-group diversity. So if you look at the average position for the average Republican, or the average position for the average Democrat, they’re going to be closer than the within-group variance. That’s all we’re seeing here,” Pattie said.
Translation: The average moderate Democrat, by Pattie’s reckoning here, has more ideologically in common with the average moderate Republican than the average moderate Democrat has ideologically in common with the average progressive Democrat and the average moderate Republican has ideologically in common with the average conservative Republican.
“Most political battles are fought in the middle,” said Wood from the UVa. Center for Politics. “Which is why it can be a mistake for a political party to go too far one way or the other. And it’s short-term political memory on the Democrats’ part if they think the secret to their success is appealing to their base,” Wood said.