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Saturday, August 14, 2004

McCain-Feingold and the mother of all unintended consequences  

(This was begun during the convention in Boston, so a number of links refer to articles and postings from that time)

Noah Millman fisks Kerry's convention speech:
"This is the most important election of our lifetime." Why? Well, we're at war. But let's not talk too much about that; really, this is the most important election of our lifetime because the middle class is squeezed by rising costs and stagnating wages.

Now, this is a legitimate problem. And Kerry's section on economic performance is a relative high point in the speech. But is this really the reason this is 'the most important election of our lifetime'? Is our economic situation more precarious than in 1980, say, to pick a point within the lifetime of pretty much everyone voting in this election?
Noah, a wonderfully insightful guy, is only looking at the surface - not at the things people aren't supposed to say out loud. This is the most important election of our lifetime because democracy itself is at risk. If Bush is re-selected in 2004, there may not be elections in 2008. Or civil rights. Or a Constitution ...

Too loony? Not for a significant number of voters Kerry desperately needs to hang on to to win. But also maybe this: because the Democratic party is at risk.

The Democratic majority coalition died in 1968, a casualty of the Wallace insurgency and the Chicago convention. (Or, one could claim, Vietnam.) Unfortunately, the party hasn't had the decency to fall down and get out of the way so another can take its place.

In part, it's been kept on life support by the post-Watergate Campaign Finance Reform v.1.0 thru 1.3, artificially infusing cash payments to the pre-existing party structures. Which makes it only appropriate that CFR v.2 may be the death knell.

The pre-'68 party had three competing factions: Dixiecrats, Progressives, and Liberals. (In 1948 terms, the Thurmond, Wallace, and Truman wings.) In '68, the Wallace Democrats - George, not Henry - split off for good. Some came back briefly in '76 to vote for Carter, making him the last Democrat to break the 50% barrier, but by '80 the transition to the GOP as Reagan Democrats was complete.

Since then, the party has been characterized by a two-sided struggle between the Progressives and the Liberals (no, not Classical ones, but they once proudly claimed the label and may again) that became increasingly bitter as the party grew smaller.

Some cycles, the Liberals would get the nomination and eke out a win - if there was a scandalous pardon, or a strong third-party candidate - or lose respectably. Other cycles, the Progressives would prevail in the primaries and get their clocks cleaned in the general election. It's a division without an easy resolution. They need each other to approach a majority, but even combined they're not quite there.

Noam Scheiber (via Andrew Sullivan):
Since Al Gore lost the election in 2000, the debate among Democrats has been whether the party should head in the direction of Clinton-era neoliberalism, or McGovern-era new left-ism. Last night Kerry's answer was c) none of the above. And that just may turn out to be the right one.
It's been going on a lot longer than that. What Scheiber thinks Kerry is trying to do (and he may not be; one thing the convention demonstrated is that Kerry is such an empty suit that a variety of Democrats can pour their hopes and desires into him with little fear of contradiction) is resurrect the Scoop Jackson wing of the party to mediate between the competing factions. That's why Clark, Lieberman, and Cleland had pride of place on the final night, and the red meat for the left was kept deniably in code.

David Broder, who's been around longer, says:
The Democrats have convinced most of the journalists covering their convention here that their party has eliminated most of its internal differences. That is true, unless you count the gap between the party's head and its heart. ...
This gap, acknowledged on both sides, is nothing new. It goes back to the Mondale and Dukakis campaigns of 1984 and 1988, and it survived the Clinton-Gore years to emerge once again at this Kerry-Edwards convention.
Clinton's Third Way was an attempt to force a Hegelian synthesis, with hopes of rebuilding a future majority from the new base. Historians can argue whether the failure was due to his personal shortcomings, the VRWC, the two factions' incompatibility or unwillingness to change, or the fact that Newt Gingrich was spearheading a contemporaneous GOP reconfiguration and the body politic can only handle one major change at a time. (Tony Blair seems to be having greater success with a harder task in Great Britain - if he survives the next election.)

So far, the Kerry campaign hasn't tried to reconcile the two, playing to each in turn. There's been a division of labor, with the party establishment running a positive, issues-centered operation and the Progressives (and the 527s they fund and operate) staying consistently on the attack, with non-coordinated deniability. The wonky head does the policy thing, and the passionate heart gets a free rein. (No one seems to have been assigned to do damage control, which has been a problem so far.)

But this has dangerous implications for the future. The Liberals have kept loose control of the party for the past few years because they're 1) more numerous and 2) the DLC has provided an institutionalized base for that wing. The Progressives have been passionate but fewer, and forced to reinvent an organizational structure with each campaign cycle. But - and this is the important point - they're the ones doing most of the soft money fundraising, and who see the potential. They have also pioneered the first steps in web-based decentralized campaign structure. If the likes of Stephen Bing and the Hollywood mafia ever despair of the Democratic mainstream and let their money follow their hearts farther left, the Progressives can decide they don't need the party structure or the fake-Republicans any longer and strike out on their own.

When this might happen depends mightily on November. If Kerry loses, the Progressives will argue that Dean could have energized the base more; Liberals will blame the messenger; both sides will start building soft-money warchests for the next cycle, and the fear and loathing of Bush will continue apace. If Kerry wins, the center-left will likely be complacent about the effectiveness of the DLC/MSM support axis, leaving the new arenas to their rivals. A Kerry administration with Congress narrowly controlled by Republicans, stalemating each party's domestic agenda and the promised increases in spending and revenues, could well be a replay of the Carter years: a party leader with limited executive experience and no real support from either internal faction, surprised by international events and perfidy. The divorce could come quickly, after a truly Pyrrhic victory.

No later than 2016, I expect to see a Progressive third party that will survive its founder/standard-bearer and maintain matching-fund percentages. Once the Democrats fracture, the Republicans won't be far behind - maybe a decade or so (remember the One Realignment Rule above) before they split into, say, the Freedom party and the Restoration party. In thirty years (give or take) election maps may need to be multi-colored.

All made possible by campaign finance reform.

Update: Breaking the political duopoly has too many ramifications to predict. One indirect result may be an increase in political truth-in-labeling. Today, everyone has an interest in blurring the distinctions between Leftists and Liberals; the left, to appear more mainstream; liberals, to appear more of a majority; the right, to make liberals appear more extremist.

Having a Liberal party and a Left party gives incentives to both to sharpen and define and celebrate the differences. That, in itself, would be a good thing.

posted by Kelly | 4:10 PM link