Why Are the Democrats So Unified?

Although you may not have heard about it yet, some people on the left are trying to organize opposition to military action in Iraq. Democracy for America, the group started by Howard Dean, is starting a lobbying campaign against any action. MoveOn has told its members to share a statement saying: "President Obama should reject the use of military force in Iraq, including air strikes. We must not be dragged back into yet another war." CREDO has gathered 80,000 signatures on a "Don't Bomb Iraq" petition.

It's safe to say that if the White House is even aware of this organizing, they are utterly unconcerned about it. It's partly the old story of mainstream Democrats paying no attention to their left flank unless it's to dismiss it. (As the aphorism has it, Republicans fear their base while Democrats hate their base.) But it's also an indicator of a phenomenon that hasn't gotten as much attention as it should: the extraordinary unity of the Democratic coalition at this point in history.

For good reason, we've spent a lot of time lately examining and analyzing the fractures within the right; as I've argued before, the seemingly endless civil war within the Republican Party is the defining dynamic of this political era. It's so interesting in part because it's a reversal of what was the norm for so long: a GOP that skillfully balanced the agendas of its various constituencies and kept them all focused on common goals, with plenty of successful elections as the result.

But there has been an equally notable reversal on the Democratic side. For as long as I can remember, liberals lamented how fractured and quarrelsome their coalition was. The clichéd "Dems Divided!" headline reflected a real truth, that it was nearly impossible to get all the left's constituencies together to act in a unified way. But these days, what dissent there is on the left isn't just quiet, it has almost no impact on the course of events.

The other day, Paul Krugman offered a good explanation of why there isn't more anger toward Barack Obama on the left over his presidency's shortcomings. For starters, there isn't that much disagreement on the left about policy. He goes on:

This policy unity has been helped by the fact that Obama has had a moderate degree of success in achieving these goals. If he had had an easy time, the party might be divided between those wanting more radical action and those not in a hurry; if he had failed utterly, the party might be divided (as it was for much of the past three decades) between a liberal faction and a Republican-lite faction. As it is, however, Obama has managed to achieve a lot of what Democrats have sought for generations, but only with great difficulty against scorched-earth opposition. This means that the conflict between "the Democratic wing of the Democratic Party" — exemplified these days by Elizabeth Warren — and the more pro-big-business wing is relatively muted: the liberal wing knows that Obama has gotten most of what could be gotten, and the actual policies haven't been the kind that would scare off the less liberal wing.

The other key driver of Democratic unity is the extraordinary level of Republican opposition to President Obama and to Democrats in general, both in terms of its sheer venom and in the practical ways the GOP has obstructed all attempts at governing. When the barbarians are at the gate, internal disputes tend to be put aside, so dissent on the left has been muted. That helps maintain broad unity, and unity on specific questions like Iraq as well.

So in this case, no matter what Obama actually does, Republicans will argue that he is being catastrophically weak and should be taking more aggressive military action (if Obama launched a nuclear strike against every other country on earth, John McCain would be on Meet the Press the next Sunday saying that true leadership would have been to nuke the moon). That sends a signal to liberals, that if conservatives are angry at Obama then he must be in the right neighborhood. The angrier the opposition is, the more likely the president's supporters are to rally behind him. And whatever action Obama takes, it will almost certainly be limited, which will please most liberals; it's hard to have an anti-war movement if you don't have a real war to oppose.

That isn't to say there aren't differences among prominent Democrats, with Elizabeth Warren the leader (whether she wants to be or not) of a group that would like to see a more populist agenda, and ample complaints about specific policies the Obama administration has undertaken. But at least in my lifetime, I can't remember when the Democratic Party was less contentious and those differences presented less of a threat to their overall project. The Democrats have their share of problems, but for the moment, infighting isn't one of them. 

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