The Congressional Spectator

The Democrats’ Left Turn

The survivors of the Obama-Pelosi-Reid wreck are more liberal than ever before.

By From the February 2011 issue

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DID THE DEMOCRATS LEARN ANYTHING from the midterm elections? It didn't take long for the party's congressional wing, at least, to reveal that the answer is "no." House Democrats didn't just retain ousted Speaker Nancy Pelosi as minority leader rather than turn to the more centrist Steny Hoyer. In the lame-duck session, the defeated Democrats also went on a political kamikaze mission with high-profile liberal votes on economic, social, and foreign policy issues.

To be sure, the lame-duck Democrats weren't as ambitious as many conservatives had feared during the summer months. There were no votes on a comprehensive immigration amnesty, card check for union organizing, or cap and trade. But there were miniature versions of some of this legislation: the House passed the limited DREAM Act amnesty only to watch it stall in the Senate. Congress repealed the "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" compromise on gays in the military that sucked up so much political oxygen in the early Clinton administration. The Senate ratified the New START treaty over conservative objections.

But the most reckless position the Democratic majority took on the way out the door concerned taxes. It was very clear that many Democrats, particularly in the House, were willing to let taxes go up across the board, hitting the middle class while the economy teetered on the verge of a double-dip recession, rather than extend the Bush tax cuts for upper-income earners. Only President Barack Obama, no centrist he, prevented his congressional colleagues from engaging in this dangerous game of chicken. Liberals made it clear they were not grateful for this particular favor.

Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-NJ) fumed to reporters, "I've had a good business career and I don't give a damn about tax cuts." House Democrats were in an even more profane mood. "F--k the president," an unidentified Democratic lawmaker was quoted as saying during a closed-door caucus meeting. Congressman Jerrold Nadler (D-NY) told fellow Democrats "we can't trust [Obama] not to cave" to the Republicans on taxes. Only as the polling data became clear -- the public favored the president's tax deal with the Republicans -- did House Democrats less than overwhelmingly approve a tax hike prevention measure.

If you think the Democrats are going to get better in the minority, think again. The Democrats from safe liberal districts survived the election. It was mostly the centrists, who made passage of the health care bill and cap and trade as painful as possible, who lost their seats in the "shellacking." The Blue Dog Coalition -- which wasn't terribly effective at moderating the Pelosi machine at full strength -- was basically cut in half. Only 25 of its 54 members won reelection. Two of the group's leaders, Rep. Stephanie Herseth Sandlin of South Dakota and Rep. Baron Hill of Indiana, were unseated by Republican challengers.

"That's why Pelosi was able to hang on to the top leadership spot," says a Capitol Hill staffer. "Steny Hoyer's base got crushed in the election." Blue Dogs will only represent about 13 percent of the new House Democratic conference. The Congressional Progressive Caucus, which thought the final health care bill was too conservative, holds nearly 80 seats. Nearly all of its members will be overwhelming favorites for reelection in 2012, no matter what the political conditions are.

Progressive Caucus co-chair Lynn Woolsey (D-CA) believes the Democrats lost their House majority because "we weren't bold enough." (She said this in an interview with Radio Pacifica, of course.) The Nation's Ari Berman -- who had written a pre-election New York Times op-ed titled "Boot the Blue Dogs" -- quoted former Democratic National Committee chairman Howard Dean as saying of the Democratic majority, "If you don't use it, you lose it."

In other words, most of the remaining Democrats in the House and many of their allies in the broader progressive movement believe they are in the minority because the stimulus was too small, the health care bill too tolerant of private enterprise, and the president wanted to keep taxes too low. And while it is implausible that the country as a whole would be receptive to that message, it is certainly what many of the surviving Democrats are hearing back home in their liberal districts.

THE PICTURE IN THE SENATE is somewhat different. Because of the six-year terms, a number of relative moderates -- many of them elected in red states during the 2006 elections -- remain in the Democratic caucus. They will not be rewarded by their constituents for compiling the most liberal voting records imaginable. In fact, many of these Democrats have to fear they have already done enough damage to their reelection prospects by voting with their party over the last two years.

Yet liberals are not in the mood to let these Democratic senators do what it takes to win re-election. Politico reported on the rebellion on the left against Sen. Jon Tester (D-MT), a darling of the netroots during the 2006 campaign, for his vote against the DREAM Act. "Not only will I do absolutely nothing to help his reelection bid, but I will take every opportunity I get to remind people that he is so morally bankrupt that he'll try to score political points off the backs of innocent kids who want to go to college or serve their country in the military," wrote Daily Kos founder Markos Moulitsas.

Moulitsas continued: "To me he is the Blanche Lincoln of 2012 -- the Democrat I will most be happy to see go down in defeat. And he will. Nothing guarantees a Republican victory more than trying to pretend to be one of them." Remember that Tester, a near-perfect candidate running against a deeply flawed Republican incumbent in a landslide year for the Democrats, won his first term by just 3,500 votes. David Frum, a critic of purism among conservatives, acknowledges that it is sometimes "rational to prefer to lose a campaign -- even a congressional majority -- to score a big and enduring gain," citing health care as an example. "But the DREAM Act?"

Sen. Jim Webb (D-VA) is in a situation similar to Tester. Beloved by liberal bloggers in 2006 because he was a combative Iraq war opponent who could win in a red state, progressives tolerated his deviationism on the Second Amendment (he's for it) and other issues. Webb still barely won and likely would have lost were it not for the effect of the Washington Post's daily "Macaca" headlines in Northern Virginia. He nevertheless proceeded to vote with the Democrats on nearly all their biggest policy initiatives of the last four years. Facing reelection in a state that has swung back to the right, Webb is starting to sound once again like the Republican he used to be.

Webb told the Real Clear Politics website that he always knew the health care bill he voted for would be a "disaster" for Democrats, something he now says he warned Obama about. He has started criticizing the White House from the right for its treatment of detained terrorism suspects. Webb penned a Wall Street Journal op-ed arguing that affirmative action programs discriminate against working-class whites and should be confined to the descendants of slaves.

Webb's voting record has yet to catch up with his evolving rhetoric (Tester's conservative votes remain few and far between as well). But even this has been enough to garner some liberal criticism. The head of the Virginia NAACP sent Webb a letter asking the senator if he was "pandering to the divisive, conservative, Tea Bagger types." Former governor Douglas Wilder also blasted Webb. "If it's not for the civil rights movement and diversity programs, he would not be a United States senator today," Wilder told the Associated Press. "Things are tough enough without having people you thought were friends do things like this." [On February 9, weeks after this issue had gone to press, Webb announced he won't run for reelection.--Ed.]

A certain degree of moonbattery can be tolerated in the House, where Democrats have a smaller minority than they did after the 1994 elections. Republicans have the votes to overcome a Democratic conference dominated by the Progressive Caucus. But in the Senate, Democrats still have a majority. Republicans will need Democratic defections to pass legislation and advance health care repeal for the next two years. A lot will depend on whether embattled Democratic incumbents fear swing voters in their home states more than they do liberals in their own party.

From the Club for Growth to the Tea Party, conservatives have enjoyed increasing success mounting primary challenges within the GOP. Last year, conservatives were even willing to risk losing the general election to defeat moderate to liberal primary candidates anointed by the party establishment. Angry progressives have not been as successful. Sens. Blanche Lincoln (D-AR) and Michael Bennet (D-CO) and Rep. Jane Harman (D-CA) all survived liberal primary challenges. The biggest scalp on the netroots' wall belongs to Sen. Joe Lieberman of Connecticut, who bounced back from his 2006 primary loss to defeat Ned Lamont that November.

Democrats like Lincoln ended up losing to more conservative Republicans rather than insurgent progressives. Rep. Gene Taylor (D-MS), easily the most conservative Democrat in Congress, lost his House seat based simply on his vote for Nancy Pelosi for Speaker. That's why Rep. Heath Shuler (D-NC), one of the Blue Dogs who held on last year, made a show of running against Pelosi for minority leader. So swing-state Democrats may decide to buck the liberal tide. No less a liberal than Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-OH) flip-flopped and ultimately voted for an extension of the tax cuts.

THE LIBERAL TEMPER TANTRUM could end up helping one Democrat: President Obama. In his presentation of the tax deal with Republicans, Obama demonstrated his visceral distaste for triangulation. The Obama who once mocked Bill Clinton's school uniforms proposal had to trot out Clinton to make public case for the deal, since he was personally unable to do so without rebuking the Republicans. But House Democrats tried to push so far to the left on the issue that Obama couldn't help but be to their right.

Then again, liberal dyspepsia could also complicate triangulation by denying Obama any meaningful Democratic support for future deal-cutting with Republicans. Obama-backed policies that become law only through the votes of Republicans and Blue Dogs will deflate his liberal base ahead of the 2012 presidential campaign. The reason Clinton could afford to triangulate was that liberals felt they couldn't do any better after three straight election losses to Ronald Reagan and George Bush. Today's liberals are in a much different mood.

If liberals keep pushing Democrats to the left of Obama, people will no longer ask if the party has learned anything from electoral defeat. Instead they will have to ask another question: Do the Democrats have a death wish?

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About the Author

W. James Antle III, author of the new book Devouring Freedom: Can Big Government Ever Be Stopped?, is editor of the Daily Caller News Foundation and a senior editor of The American Spectator. You can follow him on Twitter @jimantle.