With the 2010 campaign over, Washington can start to do what it does best – obsess on the next campaign. And here is an early bulletin: Each party enters the cycle deeply split.
Everyone knows about the divide between Tea Party Republicans and party moderates. Some of this division is over policy. The Tea Partiers and those who sympathize with them were enraged at run-ups in federal spending and deficits between 2000 and 2006, when Republicans controlled the White House and, for much of the time, the two houses of Congress.
So the GOP’s decision in both chambers last week to renounce earmarks, at least for the coming congress, is a good sign that the party’s congressional leaderships heard the election’s command: Cut spending; restore limited government.
Critics scoff that earmarked budget items total a small part of national outlays, one or two percent. But earmarks have become legal tender for buying votes in Congress – as in, you vote for this bill, I’ll give you that earmark. There is a rule in economics: more money, more inflation. And sure enough, as Congress’s play money has proliferated, the much-too-serious budgets that that money buys have inflated, massively.
Still, there are holdouts in the anti-earmark revolution. Alaska’s newly reelected senator Lisa Murkowski has announced she will continue to seek them. California congressman Jerry Lewis has fought reform. Both are on their body’s appropriations committee and have history of across the aisle solidarity in support of spending.
And yet the Republican split goes beyond attitudes about the budget.
Starting with Richard Nixon and accelerating under Ronald Reagan, the GOP pulled previously Democratic groups – particularly southern Baptists and Irish Catholics – into its orbit. At the same time, some old line Protestants – groups that had dominated the party for a century — began moving towards the Democrats.
These related but still distinct “Tea Party versus moderate” and “old party versus new party” conflicts proved largely constructive for the GOP this past year. But early rumblings for next time sound more ominous. It doesn’t take much imagination to envision how the shifting of political tectonic plates could open up an unbridgeable fault line in the year ahead.
The Democrats’ split could prove just as deep, maybe deeper.
In 2008, the mainstream media portrayed the Clinton-Obama primary battle as turning on everything but, with one exception, what it actually turned on. They were all agog at Mr. Obama’s oratorical style, at his use of technology and social networking, at his post Baby Boomer age. All of this was interesting, but once the campaign got going was more or less immaterial. Instead, 2008 proved a replay of 1984, the year when Gary Hart faced off against Walter Mondale.
Remember that the first time the media talked about “yuppies” – young urban professionals – was during the Hart campaign. Mondale drew from the old union and blue-collar base of the party (including African-Americans), Hart from a new, upscale, hip element. And as there were more blue-collar voters, Mondale prevailed.
In 2008, Mr. Obama drew the Hart voters and Mrs. Clinton attracted the Mondale ones. Except this time, the yuppie faction was larger, the union faction smaller, and, thanks to Mr. Obama’s ethnicity, African-Americans switched sides. In state after state, the balance in the strength of these competing factions determined which candidate won the presidential primary.
A peculiar trait of the Obama administration has been a tendency to champion policies that attack key elements of their support, particularly their intra-party support. For example, it is widely believed that Wall Street sided heavily with the president in 2008, giving financial backing that was critical to his nomination and election. Yet he has gone out of his way to demonize the financial community. More broadly, his Hart-like base within the party is upscale. Yet in the tax debate he has set the threshold for the rich so low as to catch a sizable portion of this faction in the critical peak-earning years of their career.
Meanwhile, the Democrat’s industrial blue-collar faction is unhappy with the performance of the economy, not to mention the appearance of indecision in national security matters. And voter repudiation of the last two years earlier this month has begun moving the Democrat’s own tectonic plates. Last week Svengalian billionaire George Soros reportedly told big dollar party donors that it might be time for another change at the top.
Not since 1860 have we had two major parties so deeply at odds with themselves going into a presidential election. There is time yet for each side to pull together. But chances are that one of these intra-party divides or both will play a decisive role in the 2012 campaign.