Right to left? In what direction will Dems take national politics?

The Top Story by Chris Graham

 

It hasn’t been that long since some in the punditry and the blogosphere were speculating aloud about how Republican victories in the race for the White House and in Congress in 2004 might be signaling the dawn of a GOP century.

And it seems that now, instead of having learned our lessons, we’re going back down that same road again, speculating about how the Democratic victories in the 2006 midterms are signaling the dawn of a New Direction in American politics.

All you have to do is listen to Nancy Pelosi, a California Democrat who is expected to ascend to the position of speaker of the House when the new Congress is sworn in after the first of the year, to begin to get that sense.

“The American people voted for change, and they voted for Democrats to take our country in a New Direction. And that is exactly what we intend to do,” Pelosi said after the election two weeks ago.

“The American people voted for a New Direction for a fairer economy. Democrats intend to work for an economy where all Americans participate in the prosperity of our great country,” Pelosi said. “And nowhere did the American people make it more clear that we need a New Direction than in the war in Iraq. ‘Stay the course’ has not made our country safer, has not honored our commitment to our troops, and has not made the region more stable. We cannot continue on this catastrophic path.

“And so we say to the president: ‘Mr. President, we need a New Direction in Iraq. Let us work together to find a solution to the war in Iraq,’ ” Pelosi said.

Democratic National Committee chairman Howard Dean sounded a similar message in his weekly radio address on Nov. 10.

“Americans across the country made it clear that they want a New Direction in Iraq and in the war on terror. Voters also made it clear that they want defense policies that are tough and smart. Our agenda includes a New Direction in defending America at home and around that world. We will listen to the military, take their advice, and ensure that our troops and agencies have the tools and equipment they need to defend our freedom. And we will keep our promises to our brave men and women when their service is done,” said Dean, a former Vermont governor and 2004 Democratic Party nomination contender.

“Americans also chose hope and opportunity over fear and cynicism, returning Democrats to power in Congress, state houses and legislatures with a clear call for honest, competent leadership, accountability and change in Iraq, and economic policies that put working families first,” Dean said.

“Democrats are honored by the trust voters placed in us. And on their behalf, we fight for the New Direction that Americans want and America needs,” Dean said.

This talk of a New Direction doesn’t sound all that much different from the talk that Republicans offered after recent elections about “the mandate” that they felt they were given by the American people to move the country in a decidedly conservative direction – despite their narrow wins in the 2000 and 2004 presidential races and the slight gains made in the 2002 midterms that could be attributed to a great degree to the fallout from the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on New York and Washington.

Even with the strong showing of Democrats across the country earlier this month, it wasn’t exactly of a resounding nature, by any means – indeed, many of their victories in House and Senate races, including in Virginia, where Jim Webb, a moderate Democrat who until this time last year was a Republican, unseated George Allen by 9,000 votes of the nearly 2.4 million votes cast, were rung up by the slimmest of margins.

“Until these guys actually present alternative ideas and legislation, we’re probably headed back to the GOP majority after two years of Democratic gridlock in the House,” said Steven Sisson, a conservative Democrat from Rockingham County who ran unsuccessfully for the 24th District seat in the Virginia Senate in 2003 and is the author of Adventures in Warnerland: My Political Soap Opera in Mark Warner’s Virginia.

“Watching the news, I notice a certain smugness with the Dems’ victory with these newly elected officials. They have not been ladies or gentlemen in their victory bravado over the Republicans,” Sisson told The Augusta Free Press.

Lowell Fulk, a moderate Rockingham County Democrat who came up short in his bids for the 26th District seat in the Virginia House of Delegates in 2003 and 2005, has noticed something of a similar trend himself.

“The Democrats, honestly, have to resist the temptation to think that people are rushing wholesale into the Democratic camp. What they’re doing is they’re looking for centrist, moderate, common-sense, fiscally responsible candidates. This doesn’t mean that they’re ready to run to Howard Dean. That’s not the case at all,” Fulk told the AFP.

What is emerging as the conventional wisdom on the ’06 elections and what they mean as far as the current political landscape is concerned is that the voters were more interested in bringing the status quo back to the middle of the road than they were necessarily trying to move things to the left side of the political ledger.

“You hear some people saying, Well, this was a vote against the Republican Party, and not for the Democrats. That has some validity,” Fulk said.

“At the same time, this didn’t just happen in 2006. This has been building. If you look at the Republicans, the fallacy of attaining power is that you think you have a mandate to pull people one way or the other. They thought they could do that. What they lost sight of is, your responsibility is to represent,” Fulk said.

“I would say that it was an attempt to go back toward the middle, even if it’s a moderate conservatism as opposed to hard-right conservatism that has largely been the case the past few election cycles. Democrats are going to have to recognize that,” Bridgewater College political-science professor David McQuilkin told the AFP.

“What you might have seen is the election of some Reagan Democrats, as we might call them,” Virginia Tech political-science professor Bob Denton said. “Certainly, if you look at some of the voters, it seems that the Reagan Democrats came home. It’s interesting that even here in Virginia, Jim Webb, as a Republican, went back as a candidate to the Democratic Party. So it’s kind of interesting that Democrats in Virginia had to win with Republicans. It wasn’t portrayed that way, but that’s what happened.
“It’s going to be interesting to see how this shakes out. But clearly, being moderate, in the center, there’s no question that poll after poll shows that when most people identify themselves as liberal, moderate or conservative, most people are right there in the moderate center,” Denton told the AFP.

That’s where Staunton Democrat Lee Godfrey is. Godfrey is active in local Democratic Party leadership circles, but she doesn’t see herself – or the Democratic mainstream – as fitting into the liberal mold that Republicans want to put Democrats in.

“Liberals and progressives are always labeled as tax-and-spend – and of course that couldn’t be further from the truth,” Godfrey said. “I think especially now – some of those tax credits given to corporations and to the wealthiest will be withdrawn, but I certainly don’t see the Democrats raising taxes on the middle class. They’re going to fight for the middle class. That’s why I voted for them – because I am part of the middle class.

“Old labels just don’t apply anymore in the political realm. They always try to tag progressives and liberals as being a certain way, and that just doesn’t hold true anymore,” Godfrey told the AFP.

“A lot of the Democrats elected around the country this year are very moderate,” Christopher Newport University political-science professor Quentin Kidd said.

“If you compare this midterm election to ’94, ’94 was kind of an insurgency from the right – and so there were a lot of ideologically extreme Republicans elected who really felt empowered to take the Congress in a particular direction,” Kidd said. “The difference between that and 2006 is that a lot of the Democrats who were elected are actually more moderate than their party is. So in a funny sort of way, the primary race in Connecticut where Joseph Lieberman lost to Ned Lamont was an anomaly – because in most of the country, the Democratic candidates who were being nominated by their party were more moderate than the sort of insurgency from the left within their party.

“I don’t expect to see the Democrats push an extreme envelope on the left out of this election – simply because a lot of these people elected are more moderate. Take Heath Shuler in North Carolina, for example. The guy wouldn’t campaign on Sunday. Look at Jim Webb in Virginia. He’s really conservative on the issues. I mean, a year ago he was a Republican,” Kidd told the AFP.

“I don’t think you’re going to see the Ted Kennedy wing, so to speak, really take over and dominate, except on a certain few issues, like minimum wage, drug prices and legislation of that nature,” said McQuilkin, the Bridgewater College professor.

“Yes, the Democrats came into power. But now they have to essentially govern – and establish a program that’s going to allow them to be re-elected in two years. And if they get too far from the center, they’re probably not going to get re-elected,” McQuilkin said. “American politics is a centrist political structure and political system. You can have the wings from time to time dominate the political scenery, but generally speaking, oftentimes this provokes a reaction. And when it provokes that reaction, very often the majority party is sent out of power, and the other guys are put in – because the voters are tired of the confrontational type of politics that the extremes represent.”

A potentially significant development in the recent elections was the success of so-called Blue Dog Democrats – typically conservative Democrats from the South whose views on social issues like abortion and gay rights and in particular fiscal issues are very much out of alignment with their partymates from the liberal Northeast.

The number of Blue Dogs in the House of Representatives will grow from 35 members in the current Congress to 44 in January – and as Eric Wortman, the spokesman for the House Blue Dog Coalition, notes, that number does not include several conservatives and moderates elected this year who will not formally be members of the coalition but whose interests and ideologies are consistent with coalition members.

“You have Virginia, Montana and Missouri where fairly moderate senators are elected, and then you look at the House – not only the nine Blue Dogs, but others as well. You see it across the board. There was strong voter support for a voice of moderation,” Wortman said.

The coalition aims to be a moderating force in the House Democratic Caucus, Wortman said.

“The Blue Dogs have always been known as folks who are willing to work with anybody to do what’s in the best interests of the nation. And I think that means that when you see policy across Congress, it’s going to go through a process, and you’re going to see a moderation in the process – and you’ll see the best results possible,” Wortman told the AFP.

That is not just idle talk – while it might seem at first glance that the 44-member Blue Dog Coalition could easily find its voice drowned out in the din of the 232-member House Democratic Caucus, you have to consider that Democrats hold only a 29-seat majority in the junior legislative chamber.

“This is probably a good thing for the Democratic Party – because I think Republicans who have charged that Democrats are too far out of the ideological mainstream have been right, in a way. And so I don’t think it hurts the Democrats to wander back over to the middle of the mainstream a bit – especially if their electoral health is on the line,” said Kidd, the Christopher Newport University professor.

And even though the new Congress has yet to take the oath of office, the clock is already ticking in that regard – the 2008 elections, after all, are already less than two years away.

“You are your most vulnerable the first time you stand for re-election. And what Republicans should do, if they’re smart, is obviously challenge every one of those freshmen House members elected this year,” said Denton, the Virginia Tech professor. “If you give them a pass on one or two cycles, as we know, incumbents get re-elected at 97 or 98 percent of the time. The real challenge comes with your first re-election – and so with these freshmen, that’s going to be very important to them, for sure.”

The time to strike in that regard would seem to be now – given the uncertainty over the direction that the national Democratic Party is going to take.

“Back in ’94, with the Gingrich Revolution, there was pretty much uniformity in terms of the various initiatives that were there. It was a common playbook, if you will. I’m not sure if we see that structure yet with the Democrats,” Denton said.

“Whether you’re talking about the war, taxes, impeachment, these hot-button kinds of issues, the Democrats right now, the new and the old Democrats, are saying two different things. They don’t seem to be in the same hymnal yet or using the same playbook. And it may take them some time for the dust to settle for them to come up with their priorities,” Denton said.

Sixth District Republican Congressman Bob Goodlatte agrees that the jury is very much still out as far as how the Democrats will be able to put together an effective strategy for governing.

“If they’re smart, they’ll focus on doing some of the things that are necessary to keep our economy growing strong – which would be extending the tax-relief provisions that we put into law that have played a major role in the very strong economy that we have today, and they’ll be a strong supporter of the president in our effort to crack down on terrorism,” said Goodlatte, who was elected to his eighth term representing Virginia’s Sixth Congressional District this month.

“But that remains to be seen. Some of the things that they talk about have strong public support, and other things I’m not so sure about,” Goodlatte told the AFP.

Staunton Republican Chris Saxman, who represents a swath of Western Virginia in the Virginia House of Delegates, sees the potential for an intraparty fight on the horizon in the coming weeks and months.

“The moderate Democrats who were elected are going to have to be willing to buck their own leadership rather than follow lock-step with their own,” Saxman said. “I mean, that’s what they had issues with the Republicans for – for following lock-step with their leadership in the Republican Party and the president. But are they going to be free to go their own way and vote their conscience? There’s no way.

“Do you really think George Soros is going to give that much money to the Democratic Party if that’s what they’re going to do? Do you think MoveOn.org and all of the bloggers out there are going to let them do that? Two words – Joe Lieberman,” Saxman told the AFP.

So what will all of this mean in terms of policy? That seems to be the $64,000 Question right now.

“I don’t see the Democrats as a body being able to move too far to the left. I know everybody says their leadership, their old guard, the people who are going to be committee chairs and Nancy Pelosi, are much more left than quote-unquote America is. But I don’t think the leaders can pull too far without their members following – and I don’t think a lot of these members are going to follow,” Kidd said.

“Winning is one thing – but are they going to govern from the center? That’s going to be kind of an interesting challenge,” Denton said. “Is there going to be a critical mass that they can demand conformity to some of the ideas and the notions? When you’ve got the leadership, Nancy Pelosi and some others, who are so much to the left, how will these freshmen congresspeople – the moderates – how will they survive in that environment?

“So, winning, yes – governing, different question,” Denton said.

“We may see the middle shift to the left somewhat from what we’ve seen it in the past six or eight years – but that shift is not going to be dramatic, and it’s not really going to change many of the things that are currently being done,” McQuilkin said. “You’re probably going to have a few of the tax cuts rolled back, but not all of them. You’re going to deal with some of the issues like the minimum wage and drug costs and things of that nature – and we might even see an attempt here on the part of the Democrats to begin to tackle the issues of the uninsured.

“The fact of the matter is, the Democratic Congress is not going to be able to force a program literally on the administration that’s going to be dramatically altered from where we are now,” McQuilkin said. “They’re going to probably take a somewhat go-slow-and-let’s-not-get-too-far-ahead-of-ourselves-type of approach.

“They’re going to continue to press on the issues of security – and at some point the issue of so-called cut-and-run that the Republicans have been very clearly trying to tag them with will come up. I think you’re going to find that there’s a fair amount of support for the military in Iraq – and what they’re going to try to do is find some means by which gradually, yes, we can extricate ourselves from that, but not anything of dramatic immediacy, which is what some are trying to suggest,” McQuilkin said.
“I don’t expect any dramatic revisions to the Iraqi policy. We may begin to hear talk of phased withdrawals and things like that, but it’s going to be slow, it’s going to be spread over time, and it’s not going to be something that’s going to be a dramatic issue in terms of, you know, we’re leaving tomorrow. I suspect that if we see anything at all that it’s going to be spread over a number of years,” McQuilkin said.

In this sea of political uncertainty, one thing is clear.

“The spotlight is on the Democratic Party right now,” said Fulk, the Rockingham County Democrat.

“I think the potential is there for the Democratic Party nationally and for President Bush,” Fulk said. “Both of them want to be successful in showing the American people that they are representing their best interests. And I think the potential is great right now for President Bush to work with the Democratic Congress and accomplish things in the last two years of his presidency. And I think his desire is there for that. And I think if the Democratic leadership is smart, they will work together with the president and really, truly make some gains.

“And that would be refreshing, I have to say,” Fulk said.

 

(Published 11-20-06)

 

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