Emboldened by the victory of Ned Lamont in the Connecticut primary, some relatively mainstream Democrat leaders have begun to talk a lot more 'progressive' than they had been up until this point in the campaign. Seeing the growing strength of the more radical wing of the socialist 'New Left' as spearheaded by groups like MoveOn.org which drove the Lamont victory, previously moderate figures like Nancy Pelosi, Joe Biden, and Harry Reid have become more outspoken on the issues which are most important to the far left.
In moving to the left these prominent Democrats are gambling that this is the position the party and the nation want to go in. The problem is that while those on the far left have great enthusiasm and will turn out to vote in large numbers in a party primary, their views are demonstrably not shared by moderates and independents whose support is essential if you want to win in a general election.
The moderates and the independents are generally issues voters, and despite the President's weak popularity ratings, the issues which continue to overwhelmingly dominate the minds of voters from both parties and independents are the war on terror and the economy, both issues where the Republicans score better than the Democrats, especially when the GOP leadership is compared the more left wing elements of the Democrat party.
People don't like the war and they don't like terrorism. This gives both parties something to work with, because the Democrats can complain about the wastefulness and needlessness of the war and the Republicans can offer people security through strength. How this issue plays depends on the audience, and it will play well for the Democrats in the northeast and well for the Republicans in the south and west. The problem is that the Republicans offer a positive message and promise to keep us safer, while the Democrats offer nothing but negatives, criticism, and giving in to fear. Like anyone, voters would rather appear strong than weak and defy fear than give in to it.
In search of a message that can counter the GOP strength on the issues, many Democrats are looking to the left for answers, because even if their left wing is a bit extreme, they do have a coherent philosophy (socialism) and a whole set of alternative issues to promote. The problem with this strategy is that as they move to the left they move away from the majority of voters who seem to be moving towards the middle and even away from the political parties altogether.
In the last decade the number of people who consider themselves members of a third party rather than Republican or Democrat has more than doubled, and the number who consider themselves neither Democrat or Republican has risen to 37%, 6% more than the number of adherents claimed by either mainstream party nationwide. These voters are a force which neither major party can afford to alienate. In certain key states the gap is even larger. Independents dominate many of the western states where no party registration is required, and even some of the old northeastern states which require registration by party have more than 50% who register as independents. Even the number of people who vote 'straight ticket' in elections where it is allowed is declining as loyalist blue hairs become too old to vote. People like choice, but they don't like the choices the major parties are offering them, especially the Democrats. Over a 20 year period polls on poilitical identity have shown a 15% decline in those who identify themselves as Democrats with Republican numbers staying roughly even.
With membership declining and out of power in all of the branches of government, you would think that it would be time for unity among Democrats, but instead they've gone into a frenzy of divisiveness and recriminations. The moderate Democratic Leadership Council which brought them their successes of the Clinton era has become a target for attacks as "right-wing collaborationists" by those who feel that it betrayed the leftist traditions of the party and cooperated too much with the Republicans. The problem is that the DLC achieved its successes by appealing to moderates, and their far-left counterparts within the party like the Progressive Democrats of America have nothing to offer the voters who left the party or any of the other independent voters who are uncomfortable with the politics of either extreme. The success of this attack is demonstrated in the Lamont victory and the increasingly hostile rhetoric directed at other prominent DLC members like Hillary Clinton.
The far left feels that moderates have betrayed their party and that it's time for them to take over and reform the party on more of a socialist model. They have a good point. The voters who've slipped away over the years got tired of a party which seemed to have no convictions and no direction. They New Left has been extraordinarily effective in imitating the techniques of the religious right, revitalizing and subverting the party at the same time. They pursue their agenda remorselessly, targeting candidates within their own party for destruction and organizing grassroots movements through the Internet. They are determined to dominate the party, even if their destructive purges leave them with a much smaller, politically marginalized party to control. They may be winning the war for ideological purity at the expense of ever being a meaningful national party again.
After years of voters driven away by frustration, this move to the left with a deliberate effort to intimidate or expel the ideologically impure – even moderate office holders like Senator Joe Lieberman – is a high risk strategy. It risks splitting the party, driving away even more voters, and losing a lot of elections that faltering Republican incumbents are almost handing to the Democrats and ought to lose. They're gambling that those lost voters will come back if they see the party with a purpose again, but what if the new direction they've chosen for the party isn't the one these dissafected, mostly moderate voters want?
With the latest polls showing Lieberman's independent run crushing Lamont by 10 to 12 points in Connecticut, the writing may be on the wall already. While the far left celebrates and declares the party to be theirs, what power the Democrats have left may be slipping away altogether.
When faced with the demands of extremists in a fractured party, Henry Clay declared "I'd rather be right than be president," and that's the same choice Democrat leaders may be making when they rush to accept this new vision for their party. They may get a better, more righteous party, but like Henry Clay they may never get their hands on real power again.