WASHINGTON – With three years remaining in the presidency of Barack Obama, the party he has led since mesmerizing members with his 2008 campaign has begun debating a post-Obama future.
Although more united than Republicans, Democrats nevertheless face simmering tensions between the establishment and a newly energized populist wing, led by the unabashed liberalism of New York Mayor Bill de Blasio and the fiery rhetoric of Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren.
The schisms are as much stylistic as substantive. But however defined, they offer a challenge to the party’s next leader, whether former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, Vice President Joe Biden or any number of lesser-knowns who await a decision by Clinton before making their own.
All will have to grapple with this reality. The Democratic Party, by various measures of public opinion, has moved to the left in the past decade.
But that does not necessarily mean that progressives have become the party’s dominant force or that the policies and messages they advocate can carry the day in a national election.
Nothing moves a party more than copying successful people, said Andrew Stern, the former president of the Service Employees International Union, as he pointed to the prominence of de Blasio and Warren. I think the party tends to drift in the direction of its successful innovators.
But Stern cautioned that the bigger test of who holds power inside the party is proving those ideas can attract voters beyond staunchly liberal states or cities.
It is fair to say that more liberal places find politicians first who are more willing to step out on these issues, he said. But it is not a shift until it’s seen to work in Minnesota or Wisconsin or New Mexico or Arizona.
Adam Green, a co-founder of the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, a grass-roots group that has helped propel Warren’s rise, said the populist wing of the party is clearly ascendant.
There’s been consensus in both parties since the 1990s Clinton days where big corporations run the show and both parties suck up to them and everything else falls into place from there, he said. The Elizabeth Warren wing really believes in challenging the current state of who has power and who has influence.
But other Democrats counter that the party must be careful about how it shapes its message and policies. Delaware Gov. Jack Markell, who came up through the centrist ranks of the party, noted that in the past when the progressive or liberal wings of the party were flourishing – he cited George McGovern’s candidacy in 1972 and Walter Mondale’s in 1984 – the party suffered major defeats.
The idea of us as a party not continuing to understand where the people of the country are – we ignore all of that at our own peril, he said.
The Democratic Party of 2014 is one shaped both by the influences of former President Bill Clinton’s New Democrat ideas and the more liberal policy initiatives and cultural changes that have defined Obama’s presidency.
Obama’s tenure has intensified the debate over whether the Democrats are more ideologically liberal than they were a decade or two ago.
Conservatives see a president who has brought government much deeper into the health care system, whose economic policies significantly increase the deficit and whose bent is for more government and more spending. But progressives see a president who lacks the populist edge they say the times demand and who has fallen short of the promise of his first campaign.
By many measures, the party is certainly seen as more liberal than it once was. For the past 40 years, the American National Election Studies surveys have asked people for their perceptions of the two major parties.
The 2012 survey found, for the first time, that a majority of Americans describe the Democratic Party as liberal, with 57 percent using that label. Four years earlier, only 48 percent described the Democrats as liberal.
(In the same survey, 59 percent said they saw the Republicans as conservative, up from 52 percent four years earlier.)
Gallup reported last month that 43 percent of surveyed Democrats identified themselves as liberal, the high-water mark for the party on that measurement. In Gallup’s 2000 measures, just 29 percent of Democrats labeled themselves as liberals.
Still, liberals are a plurality of the Democratic Party, not a majority, which is strikingly different from the Republican Party, where Gallup found that 70 percent identified themselves as conservative.
Democrats are most united on cultural and social issues, and it is here where the party has most obviously moved to the left, particularly on same-sex marriage and the legalization of marijuana. But the party’s shift reflects changes in public attitudes that have kept the Democrats within a new political mainstream on these issues.
Women’s issues have provided even more cohesiveness within the party’s coalition.
We’ve seen a gender gap for two decades now, but what we saw in 2012 was a larger step toward women voters standing with the Democrats in a much, much larger way, said Stephanie Schriock, president of Emily’s List, a group that helps elect pro-choice Democratic women.
On issues of national security and foreign policy, divisions remain. Obama may be president because he opposed the Iraq War and Clinton voted as senator to give then-president George W. Bush the authority to take the country to war.
Obama has ended the war in Iraq and is ending the war in Afghanistan, but some progressives are at odds with him over other aspects of his national security policies.