Flush with victory, the Democratic Party is celebrating its return to power by loudly and publicly tearing itself to pieces. Anyone who wondered if House Democrats would be as reliable as the Republicans in supporting their leaders had only to watch the leadership fight between Reps. Steny Hoyer (D.-Md.) and John Murtha (D.-Pa.): Democrats still form their firing squads in a circle.
Back in 1994, the House Republicans advanced with the discipline of the Prussian Army. But Democrats always live in a state of crisis and feuding. As Bill Clinton discovered when he reached D.C. in 1993, House Democrats are splintered into micro-caucuses, each of which must be courted separately for their votes. When their demands conflict, no one can rally anything close to a working majority on the House floor. Each caucus is a body unto itself: blue dogs (moderate and largely southern), Blacks, Hispanics, women, Democratic Leadership Council, environmentalists and gays.
Then there was James Carville’s attack on Democratic National Committee Chairman Howard Dean. In a contract hit postmarked Chappaqua, Carville unloaded on Dean for spending money on all 50 states rather than concentrating on swing House races. Carville claimed that Dean’s strategy had cost potential Democratic seats.
Dean had been savvy in solidifying his power. He knew that the Clinton people would come after him—and he was ready. Sending money to the state organizations that elected him chairman, he built a store of gratitude. Maybe he didn’t get as much campaign advertising in key districts—but he also let the state parties spend the national-committee money on overhead and local jobs rather than on Washington consultants.
The larger Democratic war pits the New Left against the New Democrats. Brought to power in Clinton’s administration, the centrist New Democrats are determined to keep the party in the middle on national issues. The New Left wants to drag it way over to the liberal side. The battle will not abate, much less end, until the party has a presidential candidate.
So the early primaries will be in the nature of a quarter-final for the Democrats to narrow the field down to one candidate for the New Left and another for the New Democrats. Then the two will face each other in the semi-final, which will be held in the second wave of primary states. The left will choose ex-Veep Al Gore or Sen. John Kerry or Sen. Joe Biden (D.-Del.). The New Democrats will pick either Hillary, former veep candidate John Edwards or Sen. Evan Bayh (D.-Ind.).
Illinois Sen. Barack Obama is a wild card. Where will he position himself? His rhetoric is conciliatory but Hillary has the center covered.
Until the 2008 primaries settle things, this Democratic soap opera of left vs. center will dominate our political dialogue.