I don’t want to sound too optimistic, but it appears that, in a year when the Democrats were supposed to make their triumphant re-entry into Presidential politics, we may be witnessing the final demise of the New Deal.
The Pennsylvania primary was a clincher. Obama has two constituencies — African Americans and college-educated liberals. They’re both passionate bloc voters and will turn out in droves. But their numbers are limited. They’ll give Obama Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Mississippi, Illinois, and maybe California and Oregon, but that will be about it.
Hillary’s votes come from the Democrats’ other constituency — blue-collar workers, Catholics, and people without a college education. Catholics rejected Obama by 70 percent. That’s scary. Catholics have been a core constituency for the Democrats since the days of Rum, Romanism, and Rebellion. If they drift over to the Republicans — as they were doing under Ronald Reagan — there’s very little left in the Democrats’ portfolio.
I’ve just been reading Amity Shlaes’s The Forgotten Man, a revisionist history of the New Deal. It’s a wonderful effort and makes it clear that, although the Roosevelt Coalition was the greatest single voting bloc in American history, it was also cobbled together from very disparate elements.
Most important, it was led, fore and aft, by East Coast intellectuals and university professors. The New Deal was hatched in academia and among left-wingers who had made pilgrimages to the Soviet Union. But they had the people on their side. The Republicans had messed things up hideously and there wasn’t any reason not to try something new. Herbert Hoover caved to the Republican Midwest-and-manufacturing coalition to pass Smoot-Hawley and what could have been just a bad downturn became the Great Depression.
Even though they were united against the Republicans and Big Business, however, the Roosevelt Coalition was a hodgepodge of conflicting constituencies. There was the blue-collar working class, much bigger in those days, and the natural adversary of Big Business. There were Catholic immigrants, always wedded to urban Democratic machines. (Only four years before, Al Smith had become the first Catholic to be nominated for President.) Then there was the “Solid South.” It was still fighting the Civil War. The most conservative region of the country, the South still voted Democratic to get back at Abraham Lincoln. African Americans, on the other hand, were Republicans at the time, but that didn’t help much because Jim Crow laws kept them from voting.
THIS WEIRD COLLECTION held sway over American politics for fifty years, functioning like something put together by Rube Goldberg. A Southerner always had to be on the ticket. When Northern intellectuals got overconfident, they nominated someone like Adlai Stevenson, who had almost no appeal outside academia. Southern senators and congressmen remained in office forever and rose to controlling positions in both Houses. Thus when northern liberals wanted reforms, they always found them blocked by their own Southern committee chairmen. John Kennedy spent most of his presidency wrestling with this dilemma.
The breakthrough came in 1964, when the civil rights movement threw African Americans into the Democratic camp. Lyndon Johnson was the first and only Democrat to benefit from this grand coalition, winning by the biggest popular margin in history. But Barry Goldwater’s seemingly quixotic campaign got Southern conservatives thinking maybe they had more in common than they realized with rural people in the Midwest and Far West.
Ronald Reagan picked them off in the 1980s, but the tectonic shift didn’t come until 1994 when Newt Gingrich, Dick Armey, and other Southern congressmen who had switched sides led the South into the Republican ranks. “The Civil War is finally over,” said Newt after the election and he was right as usual. Instead of living with the anomalous legacy of the Civil War, the country has now divided neatly into liberal and conservative — which generally means urban versus rural. That is why American politics over the past 15 years has become so evenly divided and so uniquely contentious.
Liberal analysts are always celebrating the supposed fissures in the Republican coalition– the inherent dissimilarity between business executives and religious social conservatives. I personally think that hideous movie, There Will Be Blood, was made just to try to exploit this division. The Huckabee-McCain contest was also supposed to embody this dilemma. But Republicans are team players — they know how to lose gracefully and close ranks. Huckabee just announced he will be campaigning for McCain this fall. It was a perfect Republican gesture.
Unfortunately for the Democrats, the contest this year isn’t just about politics and issues — it’s about identity. That won’t be easy to mend. The big problem is the role for African Americans. No Democratic presidential candidate since Lyndon Johnson has won the white vote. African Americans — usually voting 90 percent Democratic — have become the party’s core constituency. The Clintons knew this in their bones. That’s why the constantly kowtowed to Jesse Jackson and every other black leader — and why they feel so bitterly betrayed now.
YET IT WAS ONLY GOING to be so long before blacks tired of carrying water for the Democrats and asked, “What about one of ours?” The Obama phenomenon was inevitable. At some point there had to emerge a bright, articulate appealing African American who would step forward and say, “Now it’s our turn to run.”
The problem with Obama isn’t that he’s African American. It’s that he’s a pure product of academia — Columbia, Harvard Law School, Hyde Park. He’s never been outside that circle, never bowled (imagine that!), and didn’t even realize he had insulted tens of millions of small-town Americans with his guns-and-religion remarks. You have to feel sorry for this guy. He didn’t mean anything nasty. He was just repeating the scuttlebutt he’s heard ever since he entered college — small-town Americans don’t know their own minds, religion is a crutch, guns a sign of underlying pathology. (My favorite in this genre has always been Katie Couric’s remark on the morning of John Kerry’s defeat, when she turned to her co-host and said, “Who are these voters?” She still doesn’t know — and neither does Obama.)
And that’s why the Democrats may be carving another historical milestone but without returning to power. Hillary has spotted Obama’s weakness and is rousing blue-collar voters against him. But McCain will win them easily with the same arguments. From a coalition that once included about 75 percent of America, the Democrats have now whittled down to two constituencies — African Americans and liberal intellectuals. That’s enough to win Cambridge and San Francisco but not much else. When 2008 is over, the Democrats will have made history. They will have nominated the first African American for President, just as they nominated the first Catholic in 1928, and the first woman for vice president in 1984. But as in both of those years, they’ll also have to go back and start trying to rebuild their increasingly narrow base.
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