The argument for a populist Democratic Party: Not the Obama Coalition

Elizabeth Warren and Hillary Clinton
Neither of these women hinder or help the Emerging Democratic Majority.

Egberto Willes in arguing that the "Obama Coalition" is not truly a Democratic coalition, wrote:

President Obama won the presidency twice. Each time he won he did so by substantial margins. His 2008 winning percentages were 43, 95, 67, 62, and 66 for the white, black, Latino, Asian, and other groups respectively. His 2012 winning percentages were 39, 93, 71, 73, and 58 for the white, black, Latino, Asian, and other groups respectively. . . . The above numbers are electorally balanced given today’s realities. It should put a fear in every Democratic presidential candidate’s psyche. Just like Karl Rove was wrong about a permanent Republican majority in 2001, those who claim some sort of Obama coalition that guarantees a 2016 Democratic president are wrong. The "Bush coalition" of 2004 actually looks much more balanced and sustainable than the mythical Obama coalition. . . .

All Republicans need to do to replicate the 2004 Bush coalition is to simply not act crazy. A few months back I wrote the piece “Don’t laugh but Rand Paul could be our next president” that had many calling me naive. This even as we are a country that elected an articulate actor (Reagan) and a less than intellectually competent "Yale" graduate (George W. Bush).

What is Egberto arguing for? I'll get to that in a second, but his notion that 2004 is the "true" breakdown is unsupported. On top of that, it only leads to a squeaker win for the GOP. Frankly, a better candidate would have beaten Bush in my opinion.

But is there really an "Obama Coalition?" Certainly Obama maximized African-American turnout and, in 2008, maximized the youth vote. That can't be replicated by any Democrat right now. But the basic contours of the "Obama Coalition" have existed for quite some time. I'll just give you one data point to prove my point: Michael Dukakis in 1988 collected votes in the demographics as follows: 40 percent of whites, 89 percent of African Americans, 70 percent of Latinos. In essence, he won the "Obama Coalition." Of course, he lost to Bush 41 by eight points. What happened in the following 20 years was the emerging Democratic majority. One data point—in 1988, whites were 85 percent of the electorate. In 2012, they were 72 percent.

Egberto's title tells his thesis "Democrats cannot rely on a mythical nontransferable 'Obama Coalition." This is incorrect on a number of levels. First, as I think I demonstrated above, it's not an "Obama Coalition," it's a Democratic Coalition. If Mike Dukakis can achieve it, you simply can't attribute it to Obama.

Second, Democrats can rely upon the basic makeup of the vote of those demographics. Even in Egberto's representative "true" year, 2004, Bush 43's principal gains were amongst Latino voters and even then Kerry took 56 percent of the Latino vote. And that was the GOP highwater mark, and an anomaly. This is especially clear when you consider that Bush and Rove were assiduously courting Latino votes with initiatives like, yep, immigration reform. That thrust has been utterly repudiated by the GOP. In short, 2004 was sui generis.

Okay, so what's the argument for abandoning this formula if it is (1) a Democratic coalition, not an Obama coalition; (2) not a myth, and in fact resilient? The argument is simple, winning elections is necessary, but not a complete condition to governing progressively.

In short, absent a transformation of the dynamic of Democratic governing and the elimination of the legislative filibuster, progressivism can only gain in increments absent a large electoral win. Thus while the emerging democratic majority can win the presidency in most cases, it can't win a governing majority.

What's needed for that? Winning more white voters. How to do that? Well the DLC/Third Way types will argue for "moderation" as the path. And perhaps they are right. But "moderation" does not win for progressivism. It may win for Democrats, but not for the ideas of progressives.

Egberto argues:

The Democratic nominee better take on issues directly that solidifies the Democratic base. Prosperity likely will not have trickled down by November 2016 even with a seemingly good economy. The Democratic nominee will have to be unabashedly populist and anti Wall Street, the arbiters of capital extraction.They must be the embodiment of our just lost liberal orator Mario Cuomo. The nominee must bring back to life the essence of Cuomo's 1984 keynote speech and FDR's 2nd Bill of Rights.

As elitist Democrats continue the coronation of some with the expectation that the Obama Coalition is static for their taking, a big surprise might just be in the making. Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result. One hopes the lesson will be learned in due time.

I'm for Egberto's remedies, but not for the reasons Egberto is arguing for them. First, a Democrat, let's say, Hillary Clinton, can certainly win in 2016 without doing these things. But can she govern in a progressive way? (Of course many doubt that is how she wants to govern.) The answer is pretty clearly no.

Winning elections is one thing, winning a governing coalition for progressive policies is something else altogether. To gain that in the short term, Democrats need more white votes. And populism as described by Egberto could be the way to do that.

The Warren Wing of the Democratic Party does not have a particular appeal to the existing emerging Democratic majority (nor is it a drawback). But perhaps its appeal can draw in more white working-class votes. And of course it speaks to very important progressive policy preferences regarding the economy.

In making the argument for this approach, I think we need to stay true to the political facts: (1) a Hillary Clinton does not threaten the emerging Democratic majority, but it also does not expand it. (2) The Warren Wing does not insure the emerging Democratic majority nor does it lessen it. (3) We need electoral expansion for progressive policies. And there may be fertile ground among working-class white voters. That type of expansion requires Democratic populism.

As to what Hillary Clinton wants, I'm more cynical than most. She wants to win but also won't stand in the way of progressivism.

In the short term, I'm arguing for progressives influencing presidents. What comes after that, who is to say?

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  • Display: Sort:
    This (5.00 / 1) (#2)
    by CaptHowdy on Fri Jan 30, 2015 at 03:45:50 PM EST
    All Republicans need to do to replicate the 2004 Bush coalition is to simply not act crazy

    Sounds so simple.  

    Yes (none / 0) (#4)
    by Ga6thDem on Fri Jan 30, 2015 at 04:56:12 PM EST
    I think not crazy is beyond their reach at this point. So far the crazy has been cranking up pretty good and it's not even the official primary season yet.

    I have made (none / 0) (#1)
    by Ga6thDem on Fri Jan 30, 2015 at 02:58:27 PM EST
    the point about Obama winning with just the Dukakis coalition and people simply just don't believe it.

    Willes sounds kind of pouty here to me. He should be following your advice and pressure whoever to answer questions and propose solutions.

    Egberto Willes (none / 0) (#3)
    by KeysDan on Fri Jan 30, 2015 at 03:54:42 PM EST
    does not make a persuasive differentiation between an historic Democratic base and Obama coalition.  It is a difference without a distinction when the dynamics of an electoral coalition is considered across time and among candidates.  The twin goals are to solidify the base and to get out the vote.  The need to get out the vote is constant, the base to be solidified changes in character with the times and demographics.

    Perhaps, by the Obama coalition it is meant a solidified base with a high black voter turnout. The base, in composite, is progressive. Populist policies serve both goals.   Mrs. Clinton, the presumptive nominee, needs to take into account that which is enduring and that which in flux in the Democratic base.  It seems to me that she can manage, overall, not only to capture the base of 2012, but also, expand upon it.  

    The notion that Rand Paul will erode the black turnout seems fanciful--there is so much for Rand to overcome, starting with his shallow and different understanding of civil rights, just as his non-interventionist foreign policy loses it gloss with further inspection.

    A moot point, probably. A Rand Paul Republican candidacy seems unlikely. Perhaps, as a running mate to Bush, the more likely Republican presidential candidate. Although, given Bush family selections for veep (Quayle, Cheney)  Rand may be too normal.  I would go with Joni Ernst--less normal and a woman.  

    While it is said that vice presidential running mates do not make a difference, it may be that the getting out the base to vote part will be important in 2016.  Mrs. Clinton will surely be looking at a Spanish/speaking running mate--an important part of the Democratic coalition and  a politically savvy move if faced with the Spanish speaking Jeb.