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To grasp the significance of William Daley’s departure from the White House, one must turn back to the year 2009 and read the op-ed he contributed to The Washington Post on Christmas eve, a few hours after the U. S. Senate passed its version of Obamacare, and a few days before Scott Brown wrested from the Democratic Party Ted Kennedy’s Senate seat in Massachusetts. Entitled Keep the Tent Big, it delivered to Barack Obama, Nancy Pelosi, and Harry Reid a dire warning:
The announcement by Alabama Rep. Parker Griffith that he is switching to the Republican Party is just the latest warning sign that the Democratic Party — my lifelong political home — has a critical decision to make: Either we plot a more moderate, centrist course or risk electoral disaster not just in the upcoming midterms but in many elections to come.
Rep. Griffith’s decision makes him the fifth centrist Democrat to either switch parties or announce plans to retire rather than stand for reelection in 2010. These announcements are a sharp reversal from the progress the Democratic Party made starting in 2006 and continuing in 2008, when it reestablished itself as the nation’s majority party for the first time in more than a decade. That success happened for one major reason: Democrats made inroads in geographies and constituencies that had trended Republican since the 1960s. In these two elections, a majority of independents and a sizable number of moderate Republicans joined the traditional Democratic base to sweep Democrats to commanding majorities in Congress and to bring Barack Obama to the White House.
These independents and Republicans supported Democrats based on a message indicating that the party would be a true Big Tent — that we would welcome a diversity of views even on tough issues such as abortion, gun rights and the role of government in the economy.
This call was answered not just by voters but by a surge of smart, talented candidates who came forward to run and win under the Democratic banner in districts dominated by Republicans for a generation. These centrists swelled the party’s ranks in Congress and contributed to Obama’s victories in states such as Indiana, North Carolina, Virginia, Colorado and other Republican bastions.
But now they face a grim political fate. On the one hand, centrist Democrats are being vilified by left-wing bloggers, pundits and partisan news outlets for not being sufficiently liberal, “true” Democrats. On the other, Republicans are pounding them for their association with a party that seems to be advancing an agenda far to the left of most voters.
Bill Daley was an experienced political operator, and everyone knew it. In Chicago, he was regarded as the brains behind the Daley machine. Bill Clinton tapped him to be Secretary of Commerce; Al Gore made him chairman of his presidential campaign. When he wrote, “The political dangers of this situation could not be clearer,” Democrats had good reason to take notice – especially when he pointed to the party’s gubernatorial defeats in Virginia and New Jersey and cited polling data showing a thirty percent negative shift in public opinion regarding the party’s competence in economic management. “There is not a hint of silver lining in these numbers,” Daley wrote. “They are the quantitative expression of the swing bloc of American politics slipping away.” Of Parker Griffith and his colleagues, he observed, “They are perhaps the truest canaries in the coal mine.”
Daley was not, entirely, without hope. ”Despite this raft of bad news,” he continued, “Democrats are not doomed to return to the wilderness. The question is whether the party is prepared to listen carefully to what the American public is saying. Voters are not re-embracing conservative ideology, nor are they falling back in love with the Republican brand. If anything, the Democrats’ salvation may lie in the fact that Republicans seem even more hell-bent on allowing their radical wing to drag the party away from the center.”
For liberals to accept that inescapable reality is not to concede permanent defeat. Rather, let them take it as a sign that they must continue the hard work of slowly and steadily persuading their fellow citizens to embrace their perspective. In the meantime, liberals — and, indeed, all of us — should have the humility to recognize that there is no monopoly on good ideas, as well as the long-term perspective to know that intraparty warfare will only relegate the Democrats to minority status, which would be disastrous for the very constituents they seek to represent.
The party’s moment of choosing is drawing close. While it may be too late to avoid some losses in 2010, it is not too late to avoid the kind of rout that redraws the political map. The leaders of the Democratic Party need to move back toward the center — and in doing so, set the stage for the many years’ worth of leadership necessary to produce the sort of pragmatic change the American people actually want.
At the time, I found Daley’s op-ed cheering. I had been arguing for some months – here, for example, and here and here – that Barack Obama was a great gift to the Republicans and that a conservative realignment was in the offing. Daley’s “tactical advice” I thought sensible, but I described it as “too little and too late,” arguing that with the Senate’s passage of its version of Obamacare “the die is cast.”
“Realignments take place,” I added, “when the American people come to feel — I use that last word advisedly — that one of the two parties is a conspiracy to take away their liberties.”
This was the charge that Thomas Jefferson and the Jeffersonian Republicans of 1800 directed at the Federalists, and the conduct of the New England Federalists at the Hartford Convention a few years thereafter persuaded a majority of their compatriots that there was something to the charge.
It was the charge that Andrew Jackson directed at supporters of the second Bank of the United States, that Abraham Lincoln’s Republicans directed at the slave power, that Franklin Delano Roosevelt and the Democratic Party directed at the so-called “economic royalists” in and after 1932.
The argument that FDR lodged in 1936 –that “a small group” is intent on concentrating “into their own hands an almost complete control over other people’s property, other people’s money, other people’s labor – other people’s lives” — was then a lie. But it worked. Americans were suffering, and someone had to be blamed.
FDR’s charge is now quite obviously true. Barack Obama, Nancy Pelosi, and Harry Reid have unmasked the Democratic Party. We now know who and what they are. We know that the entire party supports what I once described as “Obama’s Tyrannical Ambition.”
All that it now takes to turn American politics upside down is for someone on the Republican side to rearticulate FDR’s charge and drive it home.
My conviction turned out to be right – at least in part. Less than a year later, in the midterm elections, the Republicans, who had united against the so-called “stimulus” bill and against Obamacare, won an historic victory. It was, as political scientist James W. Ceaser pointed out in the pages of The Claremont Review of Books, “the greatest midterm defeat” suffered by a political party “following a new president’s election since 1922,” and it utterly
changed the landscape of American politics. In viewing the national electoral map of House seats, it is as if someone came in overnight and redid the whole canvas, changing huge swaths of blue to red, especially in the vast area between the coasts and-adding to the impression of Republican dominance-in non-urban districts, which cover much larger geographic areas. Republicans have their largest majority in the House since 1948. And the political reality is even redder than it looks, since a number of the blue dogs who did survive, having observed their colleagues’ cruel fate, will now be less likely to sit and stay at the president’s command. In the Senate, one new Democrat, West Virginia’s Joe Manchin, was elected by firing a shot in a campaign commercial at President Obama’s cap-and-trade policy, and a large number of the 23 Democratic senators up for re-election in 2012, especially those who come from redder states, have taken note. Although the House Democrats come January will be a more progressive lot, with a small but helpless contingent of surviving blue dogs, the Senate is apt to be very different. Some Democrats may look to “do business” with Republicans, although there appear to be too few moderate Democrats to mount a sustained opposition against Obama from the center. If the president faces pressure from within his party, it is more likely to come from progressive intellectuals and bloggers outside of Congress. Given where the center of American politics now is located, such posturing will be of no real significance.
It was with this fact in mind that I responded a year ago to the rumors that Bill Daley was going to be asked to be White House Chief of Staff with the following observation:
If Obama asks Daley to serve and if he agrees to resign the well-remunerated position that he now occupies at JPMorgan Chase and come on board, he will serve as Obama’s Dave Gergen, and David Axelrod, who is leaving the White House to run the President’s re-election campaign, will turn into something hard to distinguish from Dick Morris. And this means that, at least for a time, the President will try to alter his image as a radical by doing considerable business with Mitch McConnell and John Boehner. If, however, Daley is not asked to serve or demurs when asked, that, too, will be a sign.
And shortly thereafter, when the rumors turned out to be true, I added, “One thing is now clear. Barack Obama very much wants to be re-elected, and he is willing to do whatever it takes.” As I put it at the time, the President could not take on Bill Daley “without eating a substantial helping of crow.” Before taking the job, I observed, “he must have heard the President whisper the familiar words that this son of one Chicago mayor and brother of another first learned as an altar boy: “Mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa.” I then predicted that Daley would wield “far more authority than was ever accorded to Rahm Emanuel,” and I argued that his arrival at the helm meant “that Obama has decided to pivot and reposition himself as a budget-cutter and a friend to big business.”
The left within the Democratic Party is now in an uproar, which will help the President far more than it will hurt him. If he is to present himself as the Comeback Kid, he will have to ditch his party in much the same manner as Slick Willie from Arkansas. John Boehner and Mitch McConnell will have to be ready to do business with one hand – while they are investigating malfeasance on the part of the administration with the other. Politically, we are in for a battle royal.
It did not cross my mind at the time that Barack Obama would dither and dither, drop the ball, then balk, and pivot left – with an eye to winning the Presidency as a proponent of class warfare. But this is, in the end, precisely what he did, and Bill Daley is now appropriately heading for the exits. If I am surprised, it is only because he stayed on as long as he did.
If the Republicans falter and confer on Barack Obama a great victory in November, 2012, Daley will be remembered as the last exemplar of a dying breed. If, however, the Republicans pull together and if their nominee for the Presidency shows more moxie in the general election than any of the aspirants to that role has thus far displayed, and if the Great Prevaricator goes down to an ignominious defeat, taking his party even further into the wilderness, then we may hear once again from the likes of Bill Daley, if not from the man himself, before too long.
Stay tuned. It won’t be over until the fat lady sings.