Continental Divide

By

I used to hope the 2004 Democratic presidential nomination would
come down to a clash over national security. But you don't get
everything you hope for. In fact, as the campaign has progressed,
the foreign policy distinctions between the leading candidates have
actually diminished. John Kerry, Richard Gephardt, and John
Edwards--who supported the Iraq war--now denounce it nearly as
vehemently as Howard Dean, who did not. Dean, acting like the
front-runner he is, spends less time attacking his rivals for
trying to have it both ways. Wesley Clark, who was supposed to
sharpen the campaign's national security debate, has instead
embraced its mushy middle--first saying, la Kerry, that he would
have voted for the Iraq war resolution while opposing the war
itself, now saying he opposed the resolution, too.The campaign's real clash is over domestic policy. It closely
resembles the fights that defined Democratic primaries in the 1980s
and 1990s, and its main protagonists are Gephardt and Dean. The
media often depict the Democratic primary as a battle between
liberals and centrists. But those terms don't capture the real
divide within the party: between yuppie reformers and working-
class party regulars. The yuppies are culturally liberal and
fiscally conservative. They deride President Bush's tax cuts as
unaffordable but suspect we can't afford big new spending programs
either. And, reflecting a middle- class, progressive tradition that
dates back a century, they are skeptical of anything that smacks of
machine politics. They like anti-politicians who tell hard truths.
Alienated by quintessential party man Walter Mondale, they flocked
to aloof outsider Gary Hart. Alienated by all-things-to-all-people
Bill Clinton, they flocked to Paul Tsongas, who equated fiscal
belt-tightening with moral virtue. Alienated by packaged, scripted
Al Gore, they flocked to introspective, idealistic Bill Bradley.
And, this year, they have made a religion of Howard Dean.

The party's working-class regulars, while hostile to the Christian
Right, are more culturally traditional and a bit more hawkish
(though less so in pacifist Iowa). But, more important, as the
people who bear the brunt of cuts in entitlement spending, they
don't view fiscal belttightening as morally bracing. The term
"reform" is as likely to fill them with anxiety as enthusiasm. And,
while the yuppies want to shift power to disinterested individuals
(i.e., themselves), the regulars see latter-day political machines
(i.e., unions) as their protectors. It is no surprise that the
candidates who appeal to these regulars--Mondale, Gore--thrive in
blue-collar, union-heavy Iowa. The yuppie candidates--Hart,
Tsongas, Bradley-- do best in white-collar, individualistic New
Hampshire.

The central political story of the first nine months of 2003 was
Dean's eclipsing of Kerry as the yuppies' standard-bearer. The
cerebral, aloof Kerry had seemed poised to inherit the upscale
voters who had supported Hart, Tsongas, and Bradley. But Kerry's
waffling on the war convinced many would-be backers that he
represented politics as usual. Since Dean's rise, Kerry has begun
attacking him for wanting to balance the budget by repealing the
entire Bush tax cut and for opposing free trade. But denouncing
Dean as too hawkish on the deficit is a bad way to win back
white-collar Democrats, and bashing him as protectionist is a bad
way to win over blue-collar union members. Kerry has lost one half
of the Democratic base, and he is ill-equipped to win over the
other.

Gephardt, on the other hand, has emerged as Dean's perfect foil.
With his roots in ethnic, Catholic St. Louis, he has experience
appealing to culturally traditional blue-collar voters. And no
national politician since Mondale has such deep ties to the labor
movement. Moreover, Gephardt's central attack on Dean-- for
supporting Medicare cuts in the mid-'90s--reinforces his appeal
among exactly the voters he needs to win.

Dean, as the national media is discovering, is the most committed
fiscal conservative to contend for a Democratic presidential
nomination since Tsongas. In Vermont, which isn't constitutionally
obliged to balance its budget, Dean nonetheless made balancing the
budget his top priority, repeatedly spurning calls for greater
social spending and winning praise from the libertarian Cato
Institute. He has flirted with raising the Social Security
retirement age and, as Gephardt charges, supported far deeper cuts
in Medicare than most Democrats. On the stump, Dean delights in
tough-love statements like: "Tell the truth: We cannot afford all
of the tax cuts, the health insurance, special [education funding],
and balancing the budget."

If Dean embodies the fiscal conservatism of yuppie Democrats,
Gephardt embodies the regulars' passionate commitment to preserving
entitlement programs. He voted against Clinton's 1997 deal, which
cut Medicare to reduce the deficit, saying the budget need only be
in "rough balance." His health care plan is much bigger than Dean's
and tailored to win union support.

In appealing to unions and defending entitlements, Gephardt is
pursuing roughly the same strategy that Mondale, Clinton, and Gore
used to defeat outsider deficit-hawks. But that strategy is far
harder now than it once was, because, over the years, the balance
of power in the Democratic Party has been shifting: Dean supporters
have been moving in, and Gephardt supporters have been moving out.
Non-college-educated men have been drifting into the Republican
Party. (In his final years as majority leader, Gephardt had to
adjust the boundaries of his blue-collar St. Louis district because
it was becoming too Republican.) Conversely, a 1998 National
Journal study showed that the wealthiest 100 American communities,
alienated by the GOP's fiscal irresponsibility and evangelical
moralizing, were growing steadily more Democratic. This infusion of
wealth into the Democratic Party means candidates with yuppie
appeal can raise far more money than they could in the past. The
last such candidate, Bradley, stunned political observers by raising
almost as much money as Gore--a development that foreshadowed
Dean's extraordinary fund- raising success this year.

Dean, who learned fiscal conservatism from his investment-banker,
Republican father, embodies today's Democratic Party better than
Gephardt, the son of a Teamster from working-class St. Louis.
Perhaps nothing explains the fight for the 2004 Democratic
presidential nomination better than that.

By Peter Beinart

Loading Related Articles...
Article Tools
SHARE YOUR THOUGHTS

You must be a subscriber to post comments. Subscribe today.