The Democrats' performance in the midterm election may give President Obama reason to pause, but centrists in the party say he now has an opportunity to reclaim the post-partisan identity that got lost in his first two years of governing.
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Just as Democrats were absorbing their election defeats, they heard of a plan by the leaders of a presidential commission on the deficit. Their proposal involves cuts to many government services — and it has reopened the perennial Democratic debate.
"The question is whether — for the future of the Democratic Party, to win back Congress, to make sure that the president gets elected — do you appeal to the left of the party ... and say, 'Hell, no! We're not going to touch Social Security,' or 'We're not going to try to cut spending at all'? Or do you try to reach for the center and win an election that way?" says Jim Kessler, the founder of Third Way, a centrist Democratic think tank.
The deficit commission's proposals to cut spending, trim Social Security benefits and raise some taxes came just as Democrats on either end of their ideological spectrum were arguing over who was to blame for last week's shellacking. But liberals and moderates sounded as if they were talking about two different elections.
Here's the analysis of liberal Democrat Adam Green, the founder of the Progressive Change Campaign Committee:
"Democrats lost because they did not fight hard enough for popular progressive reform — like the public option, like breaking up the big banks. And as a result, polling showed that many Obama voters, including many independents who voted for President Obama in 2008, simply stayed home on Election Day."
And here's the very different take of centrist Democrat Will Marshall, the president of the Progressive Policy Institute:
"The independent voters felt that what the Obama administration had done to try to get the economy out of the ditch wasn't working. And they felt that the administration overreached, made government too big and expensive, and piled up deficit spending."
Going forward, one of the flash points for Democrats is how far to go to accommodate the new Republican majority in the House and the expanded Republican minority in the Senate.
Green thinks reaching out won't help. "Democrats could take a lesson from what Republicans are doing right now, which is being dogged in what they believe," he says. "They're not talking about compromise. They're saying, 'We're going to fight for what we just campaigned on.' What we've seen the last week or so is a president consistently talking about compromise, consistently talking about consensus, and never laying out any blueprint by which he would actually be willing to fight the Republicans."
A More Defined Obama To Emerge?
In the next Congress, Democrats in the House will be, on the whole, more liberal after the defeat of so many Blue Dogs — and they might end up doing just what Green suggests.
But the calculus is different for the president. In his first two years, he decided to defer to his party's congressional wing to pass his legislative agenda — that's no longer necessary. So he now has an opportunity to reclaim the post-partisan identity he lost.
Marshall says that doesn't mean just floating above the fray, but pushing back against the orthodoxy of both parties. Marshall thinks deficit reduction is a good place to start.
"I think he's going to have to challenge his own party in a way that he hasn't been really willing to do on fiscal discipline, on entitlement reform," he says. "Just as the Republicans are coming to Washington with a kind of fantasy which says that we can restore fiscal discipline in America only by cutting spending, there are too many Democrats who think that it can all be done by simply raising taxes."
The left has been unhappy about the few signals Obama has sent so far: They point to his unwillingness to criticize the proposals from the deficit commission and his willingness to consider compromise with the Republicans on a temporary extension of all the Bush tax cuts — including cuts for the wealthy.
Moderate Democrats, on the other hand, are still waiting to see what direction the president will chart.
Kessler says Obama, even after two years in office, is still poorly defined.
"He's still a Rorschach test for a lot of the American people," he says. "On the Democratic side — you know, myself, I do see him as a post-partisan moderate Democrat. I'm sure there are others of my progressive brethren who would say, 'He's a very liberal Democrat.' You know, each of us would be able to make a very plausible case about who he is."
The president seems eager to draw a sharper picture himself. He says he wants to make a midcourse correction. On 60 Minutes he hinted at some things he wants to change — starting with the image he acquired of being the architect of a massive and unpopular government expansion.
"Republicans were able to paint my governing philosophy as a classic, traditional, big-government liberal. And that's not something that the American people want. I mean, you know, particularly independents in this country," he said.
Over the next two years, the president says, he will give people a more accurate picture of where he wants to take the country. He won't have to wait long for some specific opportunities to flesh that out: He'll have to make decisions soon on the deficit, trade, spending and taxes.
Those policy choices will help him communicate what kind of Democrat he is.