The last three posts, Presence and Absence, Fear and Loathing, and 1968 or 1976?, are part of my attempt to think through what this current campaign can tell us about the state of the Democratic Party as we enter a period of great political opportunity. The last Democratic period of dominance was with LBJ and ended because of the Democratic embrace of Civil Rights. As Paul Krugman elaborates in The Conscience of a Liberal, (and if you have not read that book, hie thee to a library or bookstore at once), a large enough block of middle and higher class Southern whites, especially former Democratic party bosses, defected to the Republicans to cause an electoral shift. Mark Schmitt has also documented this.
While we had two Democratic presidents during the sea-change, overall it was a time of loss and retrenchment for Democrats as the pre-New Deal Southern wing of the party abandoned it over race, and significant portions of the pre- and post-New Deal Northern working class wing have wavered in their support due to a mix of school integration, perceived weakness in national defense and thoroughly deserved disgust at Congressional corruption. One of the reasons that Bill Clinton was not able to consolidate a restructured party was because his term in office coincided with the final exit of the Dixiecrats and a wholesale house cleaning of a lot of old machine Democrats. Anybody here remember Dan Rostenkowski? Big Dog was also being rejected by his own party because he represented (as Hillary does now) a challenge to existing power structures. One of the reasons Kennedy & Co. so strongly support Obama is because he has not yet developed a full political entourage and thus another faction's network can be substituted, allowing that faction to retain control even as the leaders age and retire. We're talking politics here, not tiddlywinks.
I have written extensively about the fear of the reemergence of the South as a power center in the Democratic Party and the various strategies being deployed to try to alloy the "West" (note - there is no "West" just as there is no "South") with the Northern tier to neutralize the Democratic Southeast. (Dumb move, in my anything but humble opinion. I myself am left very uneasy by the "F*ck the South" attitude of certain party thinkers, but that is a post for another day.) One of the reasons given for celebrating Obama's ostensible strength in "the West", as demonstrated by some caucus votes (Oh, and when did California, Arizona, New Mexico and Nevada stop being part of the West? Just askin'...), is that he will bring the western states into the Democratic fold and thus we can safely abandon the South. In the wilder flights of fancy, you see the liberal elite hoping that the unreliable northern working class can be done away with as well, leaving just us arugula eaters. You're right, it is as incoherent as you think, but that's what we're reading.
That the clothes have no emperor is a realization that people are coming to as they understand the claim to be recruiting new kinds of voters is not holding up when tested through actual elections. The Unity Pony is not quite the fine steed we’ve been told to Hope™ for.
But the other animal in this contest is the Cash Cow, and this is something that The Precious appears to have on a leash. The money issue is fascinating, and may have as much salience as the obsession with driving the Clintons from the party. While I don’t think Obama has managed to create a substantially new voting base, he is clearly trying to control all the money. Whether or not he can do that is another question. It will depend on the outcome of the general election.
The candidate whose appeal is to the big bucks donors (and not always Democratic donors, if the attendees of his Bittergate San Francisco fundraiser is any sign) is now trying to monopolize Democratic cash flow to create the simplest and crudest of political machines, a straightforward cash-exchange patronage system. He’s done some time-honored practices like giving to large sums of money to other politicians’ campaign chests, and handing over donor lists in exchange for endorsements. The new twist (and I have to admit a certain admiration for the sheer chutzpah of it all) is to demand that his donors not provide money to any other outlet than himself so that he can be the Godfather of campaign funds, dispensing it to reward loyalty and punish defections and opposition. You do business with us and only us or else (sound of knuckles cracking). Got it? It does fit well with the bully-boy tactics we’ve seen in everything else this guy has done.
The demand that other modes of political communication and action be denied operating funds is savvy in several ways. It makes Obama the arbiter of political viability. It boosts the power of his message by reducing the number and efficacy of competing voices and alternate views. It enforces loyalty to his agenda, preventing an internal opposition from forming. In its structure, it is the same as the Republican’s K-Street project, a shake-down racket.
Hmm, maybe The Precious should have been a little more specific about exactly which Republican ideas he thought were so good.
The DNC has struck a Faustian bargain with Obama over this money. They have cast their lot fully with the Obamacans to root out the Clintons and to gain access to the cash cow. Here’s the problem with that bargain, which I’m sure is really kicking in about now. The drive to destroy a wildly popular candidate is drying up the donations that would otherwise have been coming from Clinton supporters, which will make the DNC and similar party organs increasingly reliant on the Obama ATM, which demands greater loyalty in exchange for the operating capital. The more aggressively Hillary is demonized, the fewer independent sources of funding and the more dependent the party is upon The One.
Dean has bet everything on this one horse, not just an election but the future of the party and the cohesion of the constituencies under the Democratic umbrella. As all of the contests since early March have demonstrated, money can only buy you so many votes. The rest you have to earn. If Obama gets the nomination and is defeated in the general, it is unlikely he will be able to maintain his hold on the donors, who want access to power, after all. It is unclear what condition the party would be in after such a defeat having tied its fortunes so closely to this single candidate.