The Democrats’ Surprising Emergence as a Real Governing Party

The Republican Party is reconstituting itself in ways that are reshaping the Democrats into a genuine governing party.    The tip-off is the GOP's growing inability - and that's what it is -- to engage with the President and congressional majority in any meaningful give-and-take about the deepest recession since the early 1930s or some form health care reform.  So, despite the Democrats' incorrigible factionalism, they find themselves acting as a true governing party, in which new national directions are determined by negotiations within the party.   That gives their divisions a different character: The conservative-to-moderate minority inside the Party has assumed the role which used to belong to mainstream Republicans - a loyal opposition calling for spending restraint, opposing tax increases, and remaining skeptical of bigger government.    For all this, the Democrats have to thank the Republicans, whose shrinking base seems intent on remaking the party into a much more conservative, populist movement with little interest in governing.

The eclipse of traditional Republicans, evident in the sharp rightward turn of the House Republican caucus and most of the Bush presidency after year one, left the Party unable to use its hold on Congress and the White House to score real achievements even before their inability to respond effectively to the economic implosions of 2007 and 2008.  Those failures not only made Barack Obama's ascendance possible; they also weakened the political allegiance of millions of mainstream Republicans, leaving the GOP base largely in the hands of hard-right conservatives.  John McCain's nomination by happenstance briefly obscured the new character of the GOP base, but only until he chose Sarah Palin.  Far from a vetting mistake, Ms. Palin's nomination reflected an acute understanding of just how critical right-wing foot soldiers have become to the GOP's electoral prospects.  Their enthusiasm wasn't enough to hold the White House; but with the Democrats choosing an African American newcomer to national politics, it was sufficient to run a credible race. 

What's new is the emergence of an even more extreme, grassroots movement led not by elected Republicans, but by such media figures as Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck.  Their interest lies not in governing but in ratings, which in turn have responded powerfully to their version of attack politics.  The extreme nature of this populist movement is evident in their often, truly irrational reactions to the Obama presidency.  This actually began during the campaign with fantastic notions about Mr. Obama's alleged foreign birth, which cast his potential presidency as illegal and now might be said to cast normal negotiations with his administration as almost subversive. This extremism was even more obvious in the boisterous attacks at health care forums across the country, even featuring armed critics appearing at presidential events.

Traditional Republicans still dominate the corps of elected GOP offices; but most GOP Senators and governors apparently now believe that the movement has become too strong inside the Party to resist.  (Translation: They're afraid the movement could challenge them in primaries - and either win or weaken them enough to cost them re-election.)  That's most evident  in their extraordinary gyrations to appease the movement -- Chuck Grassley endorsing the notion that Obama believes in death panels,  for example, and John McCain rejecting part of the Democrats' health care plan that were drawn from his own proposals.  And those are only a few examples of this groveling.  There was also Bobby Jindal's attacks on federal assistance for Louisiana Katrina victims, loud public threats by other GOP governors to refuse federal stimulus assistance (they all quietly took the money), and Tim Pawlenty's recent quasi-secessionist threat to wall off Minnesota from new, Obama-inspired health care spending and reforms. 

How utterly different this movement is from the Reaganism its followers sometimes pay lip service to.  The Reagan White House, intent on actually governing, pursued countless compromises with Democrats and ultimately jettisoned cardinal conservative principles by raising taxes and negotiating with the Soviets to reduce nuclear arms. The new movement-driven GOP draws its character instead from the moralistic and nativist populism of Pat Buchanan's challenge to George H.W. Bush's traditional Republicanism and from the post-9/11 exclusionary politics of the second Bush's presidency.  The result is a GOP defined increasingly by a media-powered, outsider movement uninterested in governing and powerful enough to cow just about every Republican in Congress.

That leaves the Democrats in the position of governing party, with its own moderates assuming the role of a responsible opposition negotiating and compromising with the President and Democratic congressional leaders.  And like Reagan and Clinton, the President is prepared to compromise too - for example, dedicating one-third of his stimulus to tax cuts which he probably knew would have little stimulus effect, and this week telegraphing his readiness to walk away from any element of health care reform that could cost him the Democratic votes he needs to enact it.

This is all very good news for professional Democrats, but maybe not for the rest of us.   Almost all far-reaching reforms - Social Security, the nuclear test ban treaty, Medicare, the tax reforms of the 1980s, the WTO's transformation of the rules of international trade, and even the brief balanced budget - have been bipartisan achievements.   And today, Democrats cannot speak for the tens of millions of moderate conservatives who built mainstream Republicanism -- although the President actually may have ambitions to do so.   So with the far-right movement's new power inside the GOP, moderate Democrats are all that's left to keep a real debate going.