Liberals are celebrating, and conservatives are bemoaning, the seeming dissolution of the old Reagan coalition. And it’s true that the party under Reagan managed to embrace groups that have proved more and more incompatible over time: social issue conservatives, national security conservatives, economic conservatives, and a healthy portion of libertarians. As we’ve written recently in our magazine, the GOP is needing to revitalize the conservative brand, and it’s likely to be a contentious process.
But don’t think the Democrats have an ideological unity either. There are incompatibilities within their coalition, too, which will begin to roil the party soon enough.
If you’re not noticing those tensions it’s because, much like the Republicans of the 1980s, there is a common enemy that makes allies—for now—of the various Democratic factions. The Republicans once had the primacy of winning the Cold War to unite them; the Democrats have the primacy of repudiating George Bush and his party at the ballot box. In both cases, fear and loathing created a band of brothers.
In the event Obama wins and his party winds up with unassailable majorities in Congress, the Democrats will face what the Republicans faced when the Soviet Union collapsed. The band of brothers who won the big war can now look forward to internecine struggles. Without a common outside enemy, they devolve quickly into self-interested factions.
Here are a few of the groups that will start throwing sharp elbows inside the Democratic tent:
1. Blue Dog Democrats: These tend to be the fiscal hawks within the Democratic party, wary of government programs with enormous price tags. They voted time and again with the Reaganites in the 1980s and Obama already is trying to give them special attention. He’ll need their votes so that a filibuster doesn’t unfold within his own party. Oh, and if you think this sort of moderate to conservative Democratic coalition died out decades ago, well, the Democrats themselves are reviving it. The party has made the decision to nominate more conservative Democrats for office if that’s what it will take to win in some locales. That can help your overall numbers in Congress but at the cost of undermining a national party agenda.
2. Big government Democrats: No, they don’t refer to themselves in quite this way, but there are plenty of Democrats who feel there’s a government solution to nearly every social ill—and these people are bound to clash with the Blue Dogs. They might also fight the remaining New Democrats (see below).
3. Internationalists: They don’t trumpet their internationalist philosophy too loudly these days—you might sound Republican, after all—but there remain Democrats (like Joe Biden) who believe that America must play a strong role in the world. This is a group that still believes in our military alliances and obligations, and still believes in free trade and open markets; they explain to suspicious Democrats that they merely want to use that power more wisely. This has been Obama’s rhetoric, as it happens.
4. Angry Left: That’s the common shorthand for the liberal activists who want America to pull back, to stop “meddling” in others’ affairs. They want out of Iraq, and may start seriously questioning Obama’s military commitment (rhetorically for now) to Afghanstan. They’re angry, also, that the rich have gotten richer and that American workers are seeing their jobs shipped overseas. To them, internationalists are caught up in a superpower paradigm that ought to be abandoned.
5. New Democrats: This is a group that tries to split the difference somehow among all the factions, per Bill Clinton, who ran with the phrase in 1992. They don’t satisfy anyone in the end because they don’t appear grounded in real beliefs. They “triangulate,” as Dick Morris famously put it—going along with a smattering of things like welfare reform or free trade agreements or maybe merit pay for teachers as evidence that they can think outside the old liberal box and take issues away from the other side. But they’re neither fish nor fowl—not consistently liberal enough to satisfy the Angry Left and Big Government types, not consistently moderate enough to satisfy the Blue Dogs and Internationalists.
I could go on. There are more divisions than these and the battles for policy supremacy will get rough. As the Republicans learned post-Reagan, the price of success is having to make the choices that alienate and divide your own kind. Mark my words, the day of reckoning for the Democrats is not so far off.
Bill Beaman is editor-in-chief of Politics magazine. firstname.lastname@example.org