West Wing

by Thomas B. Edsall | November 20, 2006

Earlier this year, Republican Conrad Burns, locked in a tough struggle to defend his Montana Senate seat, cut anot-terribly-original ad attacking his Democratic challenger. "JonTester joins liberal judges opposing proven anti-terror programs,is against the Patriot Act, and his position on Iraq is constantlychanging," the script read. But, if Burns's line of attack—theDemocrat as flip-flopping friend of activist judges with no appetitefor fighting terrorism—was decidedly familiar, the response fromhis opponent was anything but. "Nearly all of Montana'slegislators, including 51 Republicans, want to replace the PatriotAct because it lets federal government agents search our bankaccounts, medical records, even our gun sales—for whateverreason," Tester's campaign countered. A Democrat outflanking aRepublican on gun rights? It sounds odd. But that was exactlyTester's strategy—and it worked. On Tuesday, Tester narrowlydefeated Burns, meaning that Democrats now control both Senate seats in Montana, a staunchly conservative state.

Tester's victory, combined with Democratic advances across the Mountain West this week, signals a major shift in Americanpolitics. Support for Democratic candidates in the region hassurged in the past four years. Prior to the 2002 election, Democrats controlled no governorships in the band of states that stretch along the spine of the Rockies from Mexico to Canada. But, by this year, they controlled four; and, on Tuesday, they added onemore. In addition, over the past four years, Democrats have taken over legislatures in Colorado and Montana.

This shift can be partly explained by demographics: An influx ofLatino immigrants, high-tech professionals, and upscale refugees from both coasts certainly has boosted Democratic prospects in the region. But the more important explanation is ideological. The "leave us alone" agenda that once worked so well for Republicans in the Mountain West is now benefiting Democrats like Tester. Western voters—always wary of government intrusion—have grown increasingly distrustful of a GOP identified with deficit spending, the religious right, and humanitarian intervention abroad. Democrats have responded by fielding candidates like Tester who support gun rights, oppose gay marriage, and attack the Bush administration for expanding the reach of government.

In short, the rough outline of a new Democratic ideology—pragmatic,culturally conservative, libertarian—has begun to emerge in the Mountain West. This week, that ideology proved useful for winning elections, but its real benefit could go well beyond the addition of a few House or Senate seats to the Democratic column. More significantly, Western Democrats like Tester have the potential to intellectually reinvigorate the Democratic Party as a whole. Indeed, they may be the only thing that can save a party flush with victory from heading down a road that will lead to future defeats.

For the past generation, Democrats have essentially been locked in a two-front battle with Republicans. The first battle was to secure the gains of the civil rights and sexual revolutions of the 1960s and 1970s, which sought equality for women, blacks, Latinos, and gays. The second battle was for government action to protect workers and the poor from the untrammeled economic competition brought on by deregulated markets.

Democrats have, in effect, won the first battle; the only question now is how quickly and cooperatively the country will come to terms with the changes this victory has set in motion. No one is going to force women out of the work place. Civil rights for blacks are firmly entrenched. Even if Roe v. Wade were overturned, most states would elect to keep abortion legal. (Indeed, voters in conservative South Dakota overturned that state's heavily restrictive abortion law on Tuesday.) Many companies now provide benefits to same-sex couples, and tolerance of homosexuality is steadily increasing. And so on.

But, if Democrats have triumphed on the social front, Republicans have, so far, won the economic fight. The government's ability to protect Americans from the vicissitudes of capitalism has been badly undermined by globalization. Intensified domestic and foreign competition is now a fact of life. The beneficent corporation, muscular trade unionism, and high-paying manufacturing jobs for the working class are quickly becoming relics of the past.

The problem for Democrats is that the lingering effects of the first battle are undermining their ability to wage the second. Democrats have lost white working-class voters-their natural allies on economic issues—because those voters are turned off by the party's cultural liberalism. And that is exactly where the new breed ofWestern Democrat could help. These politicians come from stateswhere the social left's interest groups are relatively weak and where defiance of Democratic cultural orthodoxies is therefore a virtue, not a liability. As a result, they are untainted by the polarizing debate over cultural issues that has engulfed the country for decades. And they represent a brand of pragmatic libertarianism that cuts a strategic path between the values of social liberals and white working-class voters—and may just proveacceptable to both.

The Democratic winners this week in the Mountain West include adamant partisans of Second Amendment rights as well as supportersof abortion rights—stances that fit well with the region's libertarian ethos. "In the United States, we have a culture and atradition of choice, freedom, and personal responsibility," arguedpro-choice candidate Patricia Madrid of New Mexico, who narrowly lost to Republican incumbent Heather Wilson in what was previously a safe GOP district. About one-third of the credible Western Democratic candidates for major office this election cycle received "A" ratings from the National Rifle Association. Many spoke outagainst the Patriot Act on privacy grounds. Few are proponents of gay marriage, but many opposed state constitutional amendments banning the practice. They are free to take these pragmatic positions because the districts and states they represent containno liberal-interest-group infrastructure comparable to, say, the California district represented by Nancy Pelosi or the New York district represented by Charles Rangel.

Indeed, in the Mountain West, it is Republicans who are most hobbled by excessive deference to interest groups. One of the issues that allowed Democrats to retake both branches of the Colorado legislature in 2004 was the uncompromising demand of Republican lawmakers that no exemptions be allowed in a conceal-and-carry law—effectively allowing people to bring weapons to churches, schools, or even Denver Broncos games. In Idaho, conservative state Representative Bill Sali won the Republican nomination for a House seat—despite the fact that, a month before the primary election, he had suggested on the statehouse floor that abortion may cause breast cancer. The incident led Idaho's house speaker, a Republican, to denounce Sali to reporters, saying, "That idiot is just an absolute idiot. He doesn't have one ounce of empathy in his whole fricking body. And you can put that in the paper." On Tuesday, Sali won, but only by five points in a strongly conservative district. His struggles were part of a broader pattern: As Western Republicans have moved right, Western Democrats have made headwayby capturing the center.

Yet, while most Western Democrats are moderates, few have spent their careers doing battle with the left like, for instance, Joe Lieberman. And that points to the second way in which Western Democrats could help the party: Because their political philosophy transcends the party's major split—between the Democratic Leadership Council (DLC) and the left-wing netroots—they may beuniquely well-positioned to help break the Democrats' ideological logjam.

That could prove particularly useful in the coming months. The competition to claim credit for this year's Democratic victories was in full swing well before the results came in. On October 27, the DLC declared that "the ability of Democrats to seize the political center that Republicans have abandoned will largely determine whether progressive gains in this election continue through the 2008 elections." Four days later, Robert Borosage, of the liberal group Campaign for America's Future, fired back: "The leisure-class Democrats are gearing up for a fight about the direction of the Democratic Party. ... But one thing is clear: Democratic gains will come from their opposition to the war in Iraqand their populist indictment of Republican economic policies and corruption. That will supply the mandate for the party—not a return to the pro-war, corporate-driven policies of the DLC Democrats."Tensions between the party's two factions, liberal blogger David Sirota recently warned, are "ready to explode."

If the only upshot of Democratic gains this week is to revive the internecine warfare that has plagued the party since 1968, then it will be a Pyrrhic victory indeed. To avoid this, someone is going to have to persuade the party's activists to spend less energy fighting one another and more energy fighting Republicans. Thatwon't be an easy task. But the Western Democrats probably have the best shot.

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