Wednesday’s headlines provide an important lesson in the difference in strategy between the two political parties. In Chicago, the Obama operation quashed former Rep. Debbie Halvorson, who enjoyed an “A” rating from the National Rifle Association, in favor of anti-gun radical Robin Kelly, who openly declared her intention to become a “leader” in “banning guns.” In Washington, Sens. John McCain (R-AZ) and Lindsey Graham (R-SC) met privately with President Barack Obama and praised his efforts for “comprehensive” immigration reform.
Note the distinction. Democrats are preparing for a major nationwide fight on the gun issue by purging the party’s moderates–including the very candidates it cultivated in 2006 and 2008 to win seats in conservative districts. Republicans are preparing for a major debate on immigration reform by purging the party’s conservatives, casting opponents of bipartisan legislative efforts as bigots who will doom the party to ongoing electoral failure.
It is true that both parties have shown little tolerance towards moderates lately. Democrats began the purges in 2004, when the left netroots commandeered the Democratic National Committee elections. In 2006, the anti-war movement succeeded in defeating Sen. Joe Lieberman in the Democratic primary in Connecticut. In 2010, the Tea Party began defeating establishment, moderate Republicans in the GOP primaries before going on to wipe out the Blue Dog Democrats, finishing what the anti-war movement had already started. In effect, Capitol Hill today is divided not by two governing parties but two opposition movements, speaking past one another.
But the Democratic Party has managed to maintain a striking degree of party unity, even amidst grumbling and dissatisfaction with President Obama’s disappointing performance. It has done so primarily through Chicago-style carrot-and-stick patronage dished out by the White House, partly by demonizing Republicans, but also by defeating, silencing or otherwise co-opting the party’s moderates before going into big legislative battles.
During the fight over Obamacare, for example, President Obama made a pledge to Rep. Bart Stupak and other pro-life Democrats that Obamacare would not fund abortions. It was a lie, of course, and provoked much grumbling among the party’s most extreme abortion advocates, but it secured the five-vote majority necessary to pass the law. Prior to the debate over Chuck Hagel’s confirmation as Secretary of Defense, the White House made sure its nominee courted the support of Jewish leaders and Sens. Chuck Schumer (D-NY) and Barbara Boxer (D-CA).
The Democratic leadership has used more heavy-handed tactics against internal dissent in the gun debate, largely because of geography: while there are pro-Israel and pro-life advocates even among liberal coastal elites, most of the Democratic Party’s core activists and donors live in jurisdictions already inhospitable to gun ownership.
Regardless, the pattern remains the same: the new, netroots-and-community-organizer Democratic leadership dispenses with party’s moderates, while the old Republican establishment tries to marginalize the grass roots conservatives who are largely responsible for the limited electoral successes the party has enjoyed in recent years.
Of course it might be more satisfactory to have a more inclusive and tolerant style of politics. But in the age of Obama, who came to D.C. as a uniter and has governed as a divider, confrontation has become the norm. The Democrats’ strategy may deepen national divisions, and lead to bad policy, but it is, so far, the winning approach.