In a piece in today's Washington Post, Ruth Marcus outlines a report I wrote for Third Way - a centrist Democratic organization. The report, Family Feud: Democratic Activists v. Democratic Voters - The Ideological Gulf that Thwarts a Sustained Majority, seeks to unravel a defining mystery of the modern political era. Since 1972, Democrats have held a lead in the number of Americans who identify with the party, but that hasn’t translated into sustained Congressional and White House dominance. In “Family Feud: Democratic Activists v. Democratic Voters,” I explain this quandary and its serious electoral consequences for Democrats. Essentially, the Democratic coalition is more divided between activists and rank and file members than are the Republicans. Most Democrats are moderates and this has not change in 40 years. Party activists are liberals. Republicans of all stripes are conservative, but many moderate Democrats find themselves situated between the extremes of the two parties and can "go either way." I conclude odds favor a re-emergent Democratic majority, but only if liberal party activists will cede control of the agenda and allow the party to move in the direction of its moderate non-activist voters.
Of course many in the political world argue there are no moderates and that the only strategy that matters is a base strategy - appeal to and turn-out your core voters. I think a base strategy can work - so long as 40% of the electorate stay home on election day. But a base strategy is the right choice only if your only concern is the current election cycle. The present base strategy approach being used by both parties is part of the reason we see such dramatic shifts in control of government. There are two parties with roughly matched bases. Each election comes to out motivating the other side. I argue the key to sustained party control is to move beyond the base strategy and bring moderate voters into the fold in a permanent way. The data I show in the report suggests Democrats have a real opportunity to do that - Republicans don't.
I have already heard from several members of the Democrats' activist base accusing me of trying to turn Democrats into "Republican-lite." This is simply not the case. My report shows the Republican party - activists and rank and file alike - have moved right since the 1970s and have reached a point where there is little divide between activists and non-activists. The Republican party is a uniformly conservative party. But there remains a divide between Democratic activists and non-activists. Non-activists are a very moderate bunch and include quite a few conservatives. Furthermore, non-activists make-up the vast majority of the party and those moderates are ideologically situated right between the liberal and conservative "peaks" of each party's activist base. Republicans have a smaller voting coalition, but can win by winning those moderate and conservative Democrats - the GOP is sunk without them. If Democrats can bring them securely into the fold they are unbeatable.
We see some of this playing out on the national scene right now. When President Obama essentially vetoed the Keystone XL Pipeline or issued the initial ruling on religious affiliated organizations providing contraception as part of their health care plans, he was following a path paved by party activists. If the U.S. does not partner with Canada on the pipeline another country will work with them. The tar sands will be tapped, the oil extracted. Blocking the pipeline was a symbolic measure with no actual effect other than to eliminate even modest job opportunities and contribute to more expensive fuel prices when the U.S. imports the extracted oil. The Obama administration realized its mistakes - the contraception order was hastily changed and the white House is now trying to backtrack on the Keystone decision by arguing that the White House had no choice in the matter. The initial actions created the impression of a party too far left.
On the GOP side we see a party that is moving too right, too fast to win over Democratic party moderates. The clash between Romney, Santorum, and Gingrich has resulted in an effort by each candidate to "out-conservative" the other. Add to that the fact that Republicans horribly overplayed their hand on the contraception issue. Witness Santorum's seeming attacking on the moral ills of contraception and the legislative efforts to limit coverage of contraception - this has created a clear picture of a party too far right.
President Obama is enjoying a resurgence in the polls - but this resurgence has little to do with anything the White House has done. Rather it's being driven by two things 1) signs of life in the economy and 2) and GOP veering right and making the President appear more moderate in comparison. This can work for the President but only if both factors remain. The rising price of oil may well derail the present boost of optimism and if the GOP does settle on a nominee and that nominee is Mitt Romney the intra-party battle that has resulted in the rightward shift will end. Romney will have time to reposition and focus will shift equally to the President.
The President must remain committed to keeping moderate Democrats in the fold. And there is reason to believe that he'll have difficulty doing that. A poll in December found that Americans see themselves as centrists - on a 5 point ideological scale voters rate themselves as a 3.3 - right or center. The rated Obama a 2.3 and most of the GOP candidates as around 3.5. In a new poll just out, 51% of voters described Obama as too liberal. Obama has a problem - his base is angry because they think he has been too moderate. Most voters, however, think he has been too liberal. Obama's advisor's are going to tell him to fire up that base - this is just bad advice. Think Rick Santorum is unelectable? Think again. 2012 will be a referendum on Obama. He needs to secure the support of the vital center.
The question for Democratic activists is clear, do you want to engage in a ping-pong battle for control and as a result have no coherent long term policy agenda or do you want to establish a sustained hold on power? With a sustained grasp on the mechanisms of government Democrats could begin to rebuild voters' trust in government, first through moderate and incremental changes - changes especially geared toward working class voters - and then, after trust has been restored, consider what larger reforms may be possible. At present, the American people fundamentally lack trust in their government. That lack of trust alone will derail the emergence of a truly progressive majority any time soon. As the anti-statist party, that lack of trust aids Republicans.
Democrats need to re-establish a permanent link with their moderate membership and then slowly work to build faith in a progressive agenda. There is a pervasive myth in America that at crucial times in our history strong leaders have emerged and through force of will these great leaders took the country in a new direction. This is myth. In presidential studies we refer to this as directors of change v. facilitators of change. Directors are revolutionaries, they change the system and take the people where they did not want to go. Facilitators are tacticians,the work the system to take the people where they already wanted to go. Directors of change are rare if the exist at all. Franklin Roosevelt came to power at a time when the people were ready for social change. His ideas weren't revolutionary, rather they were an extension of state-based reforms. And when Roosevelt tried to direct change through packing the Supreme Court or intervening in Democratic congressional primaries the public rose up and swatted him down. Ronald Reagan did not direct a conservative revolution, rather he channeled and gave voice to a growing public dissatisfaction with government. Reagan got his tax and regulatory reform. He got his defense budget. But he never unraveled he New Deal safety net. He never brought the force of the American people into his battle against communism in central America. He was not a director.
If Democrats on the left want a progressive revolution in America they need to understand that it will not happen from the top down - that's not how it works here. What they need to do is find the areas where activists and non-activists overlap. They need to facilitate the change that the vast and vital center is seeking. If they can accomplish that, then perhaps the vital center will become ever more open to a more progressive government. Then, when the people are ready, Democrats can help facilitate the change. Right now, however, Democrats need to focus on how they can win and win consistently - that requires engaging the party's centrists. Democrats can embrace the middle and win. If Republicans push too hard to embrace the middle they will lose too many of their activists and non-activists. The key to victory for Democrats is to force Republicans to fight for the middle.