Why Democrats Are More United Than Republicans (And Why That’s Good)

Bill Scher

36,120 Virginia Republican primary voters just tossed out the House majority leader, a sign that the GOP civil war continues to simmer.

But earlier this month, conservative New York Times columnist Ross Douthat opined that it’s the Democratic coalition that is a fractured mess, held together by a roll of duct tape otherwise known as Hillary Clinton: “the post-Obama Democratic Party could well be the Austro-Hungarian empire of presidential majorities: a sprawling, ramshackle and heterogeneous arrangement, one major crisis away from dissolution … [Clinton] might be its Franz Josef — the beloved emperor whose imperial persona … helped keep dissolution from the empire’s door.”

That does not ring true. Signs of long-lasting Democratic unity abound.

Democratic Unity, By The Numbers

Unlike Republican Reps. Eric Cantor and Ralph Hall (and possibly Sen. Thad Cochran next week) no incumbent Democrats have been ousted in the 2014 primaries. Walter Shapiro of the Brookings Institution deemed the policy debates among the House Democratic primaries this year as so nonexistent that they amount to “a hefty dose of Xanax.”

And in 2012, only two Democrats lost primaries. One had ethics problems. The other was beat by a challenger on his left, but his district had become more liberal because its lines were redrawn, so it’s not much of an example of a progressive uprising.

Recent history of presidential primaries shows little evidence of Balkanization. President Obama did not suffer a primary challenge in 2012, nor did President Clinton in 1996. When presidential primaries were hard fought, in 2008 and 2000, the bruises did not prevent the party rank-and-file from coming together in the general election and winning the popular vote (notwithstanding the tiny but consequential Nader 2000 campaign).

Unity is the word not just on the campaign trail but inside the Capitol. In 2013, the Senate Democratic caucus broke the record for “party-unity votes,” in which a member votes with the majority of his or her party, with 94 percent. House Democrats were off their 2008 peak of 92%, but still tallied a strong figure of 88%.

The Democratic Fissures Under The Stats

And yet, numbers aren’t everything. Vox’s Matt Yglesias’ retort to Douthat that the Democratic Party is “more united than ever … because there is no issue that divides the mass of Democrats” doesn’t ring terribly true either.

While there is a basic ideological glue – belief in active government – that defines the Democratic Party, there are many areas of significant disagreement within the party’s big tent.

For example, plenty of Democrats are critical of the President’s approach to Wall Street: supporting bailouts, refusing to cap the size of banks and flinching at fights to reduce mortgage principal for distressed debtors. The divide on trade is so wide the President has been stymied by his own party in his quest for “fast-track” negotiation authority. Obama’s willingness to negotiate on Social Security benefits produced howls, and prompted the White House to back off.

The policy divide is not only between the President and congressional Democrats. The ideological range within the Democratic caucus is far wider than the Republican caucus.

There is a big divide on climate, with Democrats in fossil fuel-friendly states hesitant to support caps on carbon. In 2009, with President Obama still enjoying a first-term honeymoon, 26 Senate Democrats joined Republicans to block the ability to protect climate legislation from filibusters.

Contra Yglesias’ claim that “all Democrats think that inequality is out of control … and that it should be addressed through tax hikes on high-income Americans,” a faction of Democrats have made it difficult for Obama to raise taxes on the wealthy throughout his term. Several Senate Democrats, liberal and moderate, pressured Majority Leader Harry Reid to shelve the matter of repealing the Bush tax cuts before the 2010 midterm elections. And once the issue was brought to a head during the 2012 “fiscal cliff” talks, a faction of Democrats supportive of low estate taxes made it necessary for Obama to accept a high $5 million exemption.

On Social Security, opinions range from Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s view that benefits should be raised, to Sen. Dick Durbin’s insistence that cutting benefits by raising the retirement age is “hardly radical.”

Most fundamentally, there is a policy gulf between the Congressional Progressive Caucus, whose “Better Off Budget” would dramatically increase public works, Social Security and anti-poverty spending while raising taxes on the wealthy, and House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer who wants a Simpson-Bowles-style budget that eyes cuts to “entitlement programs” as the path to a budget deal.

The Ironic GOP Civil War

But what are the Republican divides?

Look at the “Candidate Comparison” that David Brat used to beat Rep. Eric Cantor, and you mostly find trumped up nonsense.

Yes, he knocks Cantor for “bail[ing] out the big Wall Street banks”, but we all know that most conservatives who rail against Wall Street are just fine with deregulating Wall Street. This is just a narrow difference of opinion about role of government during emergencies.

Brat complains Cantor “voted to raise the debt limit ten times.” Sane people know that means Cantor voted to let the U.S. Treasury pay the bills that Congress incurred, lest America defaults and sparks a global depression. This is less an ideological dispute than a reality dispute.

Brat claims Cantor “voted to fully fund Obamacare.” What he means is Cantor voted to re-open the government after Tea Party Republicans shut it down in an idiotic attempt to block funding for a legally established program. Cantor and Brat have no policy dispute over Obamacare itself. Brat also hits Cantor for “the Ryan-Murray budget which eliminated
the spending caps imposed by the sequester.” “Eliminated” is overstating it, but the sequester was scaled back after Republicans weakened their negotiating position with the shutdown. Cantor would have gladly kept spending lower if the votes were there. Again, this is a dispute over when to accept reality.

Despite Cantor’s efforts to block nearly every expansion of government proposed by Obama, Brat insists Cantor is a “a consistent supporter of big government” because he voted for George W. Bush’s Medicare prescription drug program, which uses private companies to deliver benefits; his No Child Left Behind education reforms, which as it turns out Brat supported in 2005; and the bipartisan bill from last March to hold down flood insurance premiums, which some conservatives complain subsidizes homeowners in high-risk areas, hardly one of the grand ideological disputes of our time.

Are there some substantive differences regarding how much to reduce government, how much to cut spending, and when to accept half (or three-fourths, or seven-eighths) of a loaf? Sure, but the distance between Brat and Cantor is not as far as the distance between Sen. Elizabeth Warren and Sen. Mark Pryor.

What Binds The Democratic Party, And Why It Matters

What all this means is: The Democratic Party is more politically united despite encompassing more ideological diversity. Republicans have largely purged their party of moderates, but ideological purity has not saved them from a low-boil civil war between right-wing conservatives and far right-wing conservatives. And you can’t claim Democrats are hypnotized by their love of Obama or Hillary because they’ve been accepting of their “big tent” party for some time.

In turn, what keeps Democrats unified is not rigid political homogeneousness or leader worship, but a tolerance for differences of opinion and an acceptance of political pragmatism that many conservatives lack.

Does that dynamic make the Democratic Party stronger? Absolutely.

Some of the left might chafe at the power of the corporate-friendly wing, but the “Democratic wing of the Democratic Party” wins some of these intra-party battles. For example, there have been no Social Security cuts under Obama. And fair trade advocates have held the upper hand to date in “fast-track” fight.

More often, the two wings hammer out compromises that adhere to liberal principles, such as with Obamacare, Dodd-Frank and the Recovery Act. This is what effective governing parties do. As the Washington Post’s Dan Balz put it: “A party big enough to aspire to becoming a majority is a coalition of people and groups that don’t always see eye to eye.”

Meanwhile, the shrunken, ideologically purified Republican Party can’t govern its way out of a paper bag. Speaker John Boehner can only keep the government open by letting the Tea Party faction lead the party into a brick wall first. Moreover, while the right-wing keeps the party leadership on a short leash by winning scalps of Establishment favorites in primaries, some of those coups have been short-lived. What should have been easy Republican victories were given away in Delaware by nominating Christine O’Donnell, in Nevada with Sharron Angle, in Colorado with Ken Buck and in Indiana by firing incumbent Sen. Dick Lugar. The perpetual chasing of the Tea Party tail has left the Republican Party with 29% approval in the latest NBC/WSJ poll, 9 points lower than the Democrats.

Why Democrats Don’t Need More Primaries

Sometimes progressives, eager to chase corporate-friendly Democrats out of the party, have tried the same gambit, though with saner alternatives. Activist rallied behind Ned Lamont against Sen. Joe Lieberman (Conn.) in 2006 and Bill Halter versus Sen. Blanche Lincoln (Ark.) in 2010. Neither race turned out well. Lieberman rebounded from his primary defeat to win as an independent. Once freed from fealty to the Democratic base, he proceeded to be an even bigger jerk, endorsing Sen. John McCain for president and flip-flopping on expanding Medicare to people ages 55 and over, sinking the chance to include such a “public option” provision in Obamacare. Lincoln survived her primary challenge, but was so beat up she was easy pickin’ in the general election, leaving Arkansas with far more conservative representation.

The failure of this strategy is not new: the urge to purge also boomeranged on President Franklin D. Roosevelt. In 1938, he targeted several conservative Democrats in primaries that had been blocking his reforms. But he came up short in most of them and further drove the conservative wing of his party into the arms of the Republicans, permanently stalling the advance of the New Deal.

Of course not all primary challenges backfire. An exhaustive study by Daily Kos user Darth Jeff of the 44 incumbents defeated in primaries since 1994 found that the other party won the subsequent general election only nine times.

However, most primary ousters are not over ideology: the majority of Democrats defeated in primaries lost because of perceived ethical failings or redrawn districts. There was only one case of a right-leaning House Democrat who was beat by liberal challenger in a stable district that went on to win the seat outright: the defeat of Maryland’s Al Wynn at the hands of Donna Edwards. There are not too many opportunities to beat an incumbent that is more conservative than his or her district, and going after a Democratic incumbent already representing a right-leaning area runs a big risk of handing the seat to a Republican.

So let Republicans have their civil war. Democrats have gotten plenty done inside of a bigger tent thanks to a tolerance for differences of opinion and a willingness to compromise. Liberals have been able to keep conservative elements of the party in check, without scorched-earth primary challenges, through effective organizing around issues and winning arguments on the merits. And the 2016 presidential campaign begins with the Democratic frontrunner beating all possible Republican opponents handily.

That’s what deep party unity, solidly built on the parallel foundations of common belief and respect for differing views, will yield.

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