The polls in the presidential election have been kind to President Obama lately, with him widening his lead over Republican challenger Mitt Romney in some key battleground states. But the undercurrent a little less rosy for the president, and with five defining events still left in the campaign—both conventions and all three presidential debates—it’s undercurrent that’s most important. The Democratic coalition is starting to fire shots at each other as we build to the fall campaign.
Missouri senator Claire McCaskill is the latest Democrat to announce she won’t attend the party convention in Charlotte. McCaskill, an early supporter of Obama in 2008 is almost surely motivated by sheer political calculation, as she desperately tries to distance herself from the president. No doubt political calculation is also involved in the decision of West Virginia senator Joe Mancin and some of that state’s congressional delegation to also forgo the convention, but in the case of Mancin, he is a genuinely conservative Democrat whose distaste for the left-wing agenda is likely sincere.
Whether the reasoning is based on politics or principle, it’s apparent the city of Charlotte is having a tougher time attracting red-state Democrats than its local basketball franchise is having in attracting legitimate NBA talent.
Pundits focus on tactical and PR solutions to the problem of getting the Democratic coalition all on the same page in time for November—even if Obama manages to hold off Romney and win a second term, the red-state problem has dimmed Democratic chances of taking the House and emboldened Republican prospects for taking the Senate, meaning that unless conservative Democrats come home, a re-elected Obama would face increased congressional opposition and likely look forward to a second term similar to the one “enjoyed by former President George W. Bush.
But what is there for conservative Democrats to come home to? Wherever you look, this president has consistently chosen the agenda of the Left over that of real Democrats who look to the party’s ethnic roots for inspiration. The most obvious example, and the one emphasized here at CV, is the decision to require middle-class Catholic families to subsidize the contraceptive lifestyles of upper-class suburban liberals and calling it “health care reform.” I think it’s safe to say that isn’t what Harry Truman had in mind when he first pushed for universal medical coverage in 1948.
You don’t need to be motivated by the right to life though, to have a problem with the president’s agenda if you’re a conservative Democrat. In not going ahead with the Keystone Pipeline, Obama has put the ideology of well-off liberal environmentalists ahead of the economic fortunes of middle and working class families. Obama postponed a decision on the pipeline until 2013.
The president came from working and middle-class roots, as did his wife. But the policy decisions emanating from the White House shout that they find it more important—or at least politically more convenient—to kowtow to the wealthy liberal establishment over and above the real Democratic Party buried beneath an avalanche of secularism.
President Obama does not have the will or even the inclination to create a real home for conservative Democrats, so the strategy is likely to be hope that a few well-placed pieces of rhetoric will persuade this voting bloc to continue to be the abused children of the party, repeatedly returning home and repeatedly taking a beating once they get there. The fact that the Republican Party is not a viable long-term home for anyone with real populist instincts only adds to the temptation.
But to return home only enables the Democrats to avoid making real policy changes to get back to their roots. They have become a party of the rich and corporate-dominated, as surely as their counterparts are, and when one of the prime corporations is Planned Parenthood, that dominance takes on a more sinister look.
The right response to take is the one that Senator Mancin took in simply refusing to go to Charlotte. The right response is the one grass-roots voters in Missouri took, in creating a political climate that even Claire McCaskill thinks that almost anything would be finer than being in Carolina. If you’re a conservative Democrat at heart, uncomfortable with Republican politics, but unwilling to return to an abusive home, there is a third choice—stay in exile, retain your Democratic identity and demand that the party change before you offer your support again. It’s the politicians’ job to win our support, not our job to win theirs. And exile is much better than a constant beatdown.
Dan Flaherty is the author of Fulcrum, an Irish Catholic novel set in the late 1940s with a traditional Democratic political campaign at its heart.