Building a Strong Party
by Jonathan Singer, Tue Sep 18, 2007 at 06:01:51 AM EDT
Over the past few days Matt Stoller and I have been having a bit of a back and forth (he writing at Open Left and me here at MyDD) about the Virginia Senate race and the ramifications of supporting candidates who may not be with us on all issues but who would help push the Democrats' numbers in the Senate to 60 members.
Responding yesterday to my post suggesting a value in seeking a filibuster-proof margin in the Senate even if that majority included some members who weren't terribly progressive, Stoller writes that I suggested that he believed "that Mark Warner or Jean Shaheen should lose their race to a Republican", and that thus I was using a "straw man that is often used to discredit so-called intolerant progressives." He also writes that I "believe that criticism of these Democrats is harmful to the party."
To begin, I think we should all agree to not put words in each others' mouths. I don't believe and am not saying that I think Stoller wants Warner and Shaheen to "lose their race to a Republican." And I think MyDD readers know that I would never hold back from criticizing a bad Democratic candidate. I'm someone who cares about the good of the progressive movement and works hard to elect Democrats -- two characteristics that I do not believe are in opposition and which, at least I would hope, don't make me a partisan hack bereft of ideals.
I do believe that a party is stronger if it holds a 60-seat majority in the Senate that includes a handful of members who defect occasionally or even often than it is if it only has 40 or 45 members in the Senate, regardless of whether they vote in unanimity the vast majority of the time. More broadly, I think a party is stronger when it enjoys the support of a large coalition than when it is relegated to minority status, however unified that minority is.
This isn't to say that I don't think it's important to have that core of 40 or 45 members in the Senate. Of course as a part of that 60-seat majority there will be an abundance of members who maintain the progressive ideal at all or most times, even if there is a small minority of the caucus willing to diverge from the progressive line at times. But in general I'd rather have a caucus comprosed of 45 solid progressives and 15 moderates or centrists than a caucus just comprised of those 45 solid progressives (and it's not even clear to me that there are, at this juncture, 45 solid progressives in the Senate today). (Remember, too, that even during times when great progressive pieces of legislation were enacted into law -- Social Security during the New Deal, Medicare during the Great Society -- there were conservatives within the Democratic caucus who were opposed to large parts of the party's agenda.)
To take one more step back, coalitions are not just about the top-level actors -- they're about the voters. As I've noted before, moderate voters already play a large and important role in the Democratic coalition. To take just a couple of examples, self-identifying moderate voters backed Democratic congressional candidates in 2006 by a 60 percent to 38 percent margin, which made a big difference in helping the Democrats secure the majority in the House and the Senate last fall. Even in the Iowa Democratic caucuses, which are home to the most core party members and are assumed to be made up of activists who are well to the left of the party mean, 43 percent of participants in 2004 self-identified as moderate or conservative.
Moreover, part and parcel of having a truly 50-state party is having members who have different bents, particularly as relates to their regional needs and political environments. Certainly there are cases in which there are members from traditionally conservative regions of the country who are able to deviate from this trend (i.e. red state members who vote like they are from blue states). Compare and contrast Birch and Evan Bayh, for example. Both represent or represented Indiana in the United States Senate, but the father (Birch) was significantly more progressive than the son (Evan). But generally, in order to run a truly 50-state party you are going to need to have a Ben Nelson in Nebraska, who is the most conservative Democrat in the Senate, or a Mary Landrieu of Louisiana. We could write off these states as unwinnable for Democrats. However, it's not clear to me that such a move would strengthen the party.
Assuming that a Democrat wins the presidency in 2008, I'd rather see a large Democratic majority that can move on truly progressive judicial nominees rather than a smaller Democratic majority that has trouble moving on even relatively left of center jurists -- let alone a Democratic minority, however unified, that did not have sufficient votes to even move on judicial nominations. I'd rather have a Democratic President be able to work with a Democratic majority that can actually move on his or her priorities rather than a Democratic President banging his or her head against the wall because a narrow Democratic majority or a Democratic minority cannot move that agenda through the Senate.
Finally, even as I believe in the importance of striving for a 60-seat majority in the Senate, I also believe in the importance of holding candidates' and elected officials' feet to the fire. If they do not hear from us when we are unhappy with them (or when we are happy with them, for that matter) then we will have little power to influence them. But holding our representatives' feet to the fire is not the same thing as knee-jerkedly labeling them as "bad Senators" even before they are elected (as Stoller does with Warner). And if we want to have credibility, we will need to make better arguments than that.