When Americans think about government in the big picture, they can seem like a nation of Ayn Rands. People want to lay waste to the Leviathan. But when Americans consider specific aspects of government, a curious thing happens. People rediscover their love of Washington. On issue after issue, Republicans are winning the argument in general, whereas Democrats are winning the argument in particular.
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In the middle of his in-your-face pre-Super Bowl interview, Bill O’Reilly picked up the dreaded “L word” and began wielding it menacingly in the direction of the president of the United States.
“Are you the most liberal president in U.S. history?” O’Reilly asked. Obama quickly initiated evasive maneuvers. “In a lot of ways, Richard Nixon was more—more liberal than I was,” the president replied, before insisting that “I tend not to think about these things in terms of liberal and Democrat—or liberal and conservative”
It wasn’t always this way. In the first half of the 20th century, “liberal” enjoyed a certain prestige. When Franklin Roosevelt began using it to describe the ideology of the New Deal, for instance, small-government types accused him of linguistic theft, claiming that since the expansion of state power threatened liberty, they—and not the New Dealers—were the true liberals.
But by the 1960s, the American right had stopped claiming “liberal” and begun demonizing it. Over the next two decades, being a liberal came to mean letting criminals terrorize America’s cities, hippies undermine traditional morality, and communists menace the world. It meant, in other words, too much liberty for the wrong kind of people. Fearful of its negative connotations, Democratic politicians began disassociating themselves from the term, and as the Obama interview showed, they still do.
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Time magazine’s cover this week asks, “Can Anyone Stop Hillary?” The answer to that question is yes, but you’d never know it judging by the overwhelming belief among Democratic insiders that the party’s 2016 presidential nomination is simply Hillary Clinton’s for the asking.
For all her popularity among party power brokers, the sense of invincibility that currently surrounds Clinton reflects a kind of suspension of disbelief by Democrats that a more detached reckoning should dispel.
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The tragic news that forces linked to al-Qaeda have retaken Fallujah is just the latest reminder that George W. Bush’s war of choice was a historic, catastrophic misjudgment. “Any Republican seeking nomination for the 2016 presidential election should at a minimum be willing to admit Iraq was a mistake,” Jeremy Lott writes at RealClearWorld. “It was an error that cost us upwards of $1.5 trillion, thousands of U.S. lives and hundreds of thousands of Iraqi dead, while seriously hindering our efforts to track down the real culprits of September 11, 2001.”
The issue is going to be tough for Republicans to navigate, given that public opinion has turned against the war, even as powerful GOP factions still support it. Marco Rubio and Chris Christie are probably already gaming out their strategy. What’s less remarked upon is the challenge Iraq will pose for Democrats. The war was foisted on America by a propagandizing Republican administration, and Democratic hawks have been better than Republican hawks at acknowledging error. But as Daniel Larison notes, “Virtually none of the politicians mentioned as 2016 candidates in the GOP were even in national office during the Bush year,” whereas several prominent Democrats, including Hillary Clinton, Joe Biden, and John Kerry, all have pro-war votes on their resumes. (And it’s hard to believe that any of those three were hoodwinked by Dick Cheney.)
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In his inaugural address Wednesday, incoming New York Mayor Bill de Blasio tried to establish an intellectual pedigree for his focus on economic inequality. He invoked Bill Clinton, Hillary Clinton, Franklin Roosevelt, Eleanor Roosevelt, Al Smith, Frances Perkins, Fiorello La Guardia, Jacob Riis, David Dinkins, Mario Cuomo, and Harry Belafonte. It reminded me of when Democrats, eager to prove their national-security bona fides, tell audiences they hail from the party of Roosevelt, Truman, and Kennedy. As if there wasn’t some other Democrat after Kennedy who dabbled at war and peace, some guy from Texas.
De Blasio’s speech was a bit like that. He left out the politician who more than any other kindled the Democrats’ renewed interest in economic inequality because that politician has been airbrushed from Democratic Party history. His name is John Edwards.
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Things are not going well for Democrats. Riding high just weeks ago after Republicans shut down the government, the party now finds itself in a swoon: President Obama’s ratings have hit an all-time low. The implementation of healthcare reform remains a mess. Vulnerable Democrats are scrambling to distance themselves from the White House, and the party is on track to lose seats in the House and Senate next year.
Parties in distress tend to fall to bickering, and today’s Democrats are no exception. On one side, liberals calling for a muscular agenda of government expansion and progressive taxation; on the other, centrists who believe restraint is necessary in both policy and politics. Progressives have been emboldened by liberal victories like that of the new mayor of New York, Bill de Blasio. Centrists fear that liberals will drive the party out of the American mainstream with their talk of income redistribution and political correctness.
In the post-Obama era and without an incumbent on the ticket, “Where does the party go?” Jon Cowan, president of the centrist think tank Third Way, asked me. “I think that is going to be an incredibly heated debate.”
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Hint: It’s the same reason an auditorium of Goldman Sachs executives gave her a warm welcome recently.
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Between 1968, when Lyndon Johnson left the White House, and the end of the century, the nation elected only two Democratic presidents. Both were Southern populists who had been careful to differentiate themselves from Great Society and their liberal predecessors. That all changed in 2008, when Barack Obama defeated the party-establishment candidate, Hillary Clinton, and then Republican John McCain with a campaign that pledged to end political and ideological polarization with pragmatic problem-solving—from a liberal point of departure.
Before 2008, Obama looked like a liberal of moderate temperament. He had the bad luck to take office at a time of financial and economic crises overshadowing everything else. He has said since that he underestimated at the time the depth of the crises. That no doubt led him, before growth and stability had been restored, to undertake in 2009 a remake of the entire health sector. Both his stimulus package and healthcare proposal were mainly designed by House Democratic leaders and the interest groups that supported his 2008 campaign. There was no serious attempt, in formulating either program, to draw Republicans into participation, as LBJ had done in 1965. Provisions allowing the sale of health-insurance products across state lines, and providing for meaningful tort reform, could have done that without forfeiting Democratic support. Trial lawyers would have objected but not jeopardized the bill’s passage.
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President Obama’s current travails have diverted attention from his and the Democratic Party’s substantive agendas and longer-term outlook. Democrats currently believe that demographics will doom the Republicans for years to come, and they rate their own chances high in the 2016 presidential elections and beyond. But beneath the surface, Democrats’ problems are at least as serious as Republicans’.
Presidential second terms are historically unproductive, but the botched rollout of Obamacare threatens to overshadow all else in the months ahead. And that’s only the latest stumble for the White House, after alleged NSA, IRS, and Justice Department abuses of power; the aftermath of Benghazi; and disputes over drone strikes. It’s hard to see anything else on the horizon but continuation until 2016 of the partisan polarization and gridlock that have reigned since Democrats lost control of the House of Representatives in 2010. Worse, the party could be facing setbacks comparable to that in next year’s midterm elections.
Long-delayed immigration-reform legislation may be enacted. But, otherwise, the period ahead is likely to be marked mainly by a rolling series of fractious federal-budget battles and transparently inadequate budget compromises.
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The Democratic Party is hoping 2014 will be a Year of the Woman—again.
As party operatives prepare for the midterm elections, Democratic women are being cast in starring roles, on the ballot and at the ballot box, as the party tries to take back politically important governor’s mansions and keep its fragile majority in the Senate.
"The importance of women to the Democratic Party in 2014 cannot be overstated," said Jess McIntosh, a spokeswoman for EMILY’s List, which recruits and supports Democratic women candidates. "They are running in our biggest, most important races in the country."
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