THE OFFICIALLY ACCEPTED VERSION of the Democrats’ victory last week, touted on television Tuesday night and repeated here and there in the following days, was that the party won by deftly running moderates in red states. This argument implied that the presumed incoming speaker of the House, Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco), had rather tackily seized power on the backs of candidates who actually held her liberalism in high contempt and were just itching to inaugurate a showdown over gay marriage roughly 17 minutes after taking the oath of office.
But that’s not quite true. In fact, of the 27 Democratic candidates for the House who won outright Tuesday, only five can truly be called social conservatives. Far more are pro-choice, against the Iraq war and quite liberal. Why, there’s even a woman who was tossed out of a presidential event for wearing an anti-Bush T-shirt (New Hampshire’s Carol Shea-Porter), and a fellow who ran an alternative newspaper and who proudly supports affirmative action -- in Kentucky, no less (John Yarmuth).
So the experts got it wrong again, which is really not so surprising given that what happened last week was quite nuanced. The Democrats moved to the center and to the left at the same time. In doing so, they became more like the hegemonic Democratic Party of old. And if, in 2008, it turns out that last week did in fact usher in an era of Democratic resurgence, it will be precisely because the party managed to sustain this left-center coalition and render the distinctions between the two groups less important.
The move to the center rested not so much on what is termed “social issues” as on the demographic profiles of a handful of candidates who may never even have set foot (gasp!) in Cambridge, Mass. There’s the aforementioned House quintet of social conservatives, which includes a former quarterback (Heath Shuler of North Carolina), a former sheriff (Brad Ellsworth of Indiana) and a former Navy vice admiral (Pennsylvania’s Joe Sestak).
In the Senate, there’s Jon Tester, a bear of a man from Montana, and Virginia’s James Webb, a Reagan Cabinet secretary whose existence pre-campaign had been devoted to serving as a Marine and defending the honor of his Scottish-Irish heritage (he wrote a 2004 book on the subject, called “Born Fighting”).
Think back to the mid-1990s. These are the kind of men who fled the Democratic Party in waves after the Newt Gingrich revolution. Now they’re coming back, and it isn’t an accident that exit polls showed Democrats performing eight points better among white males this year than in 2004.
Simultaneously, there was a pirouette to the left. This was not symbolic but substantive. Many Democratic winners last week, including some of the above, are strong economic populists. The day after the election, Shuler appeared with Ohio’s Democratic senator-elect, Sherrod Brown -- a man whose liberalism is offered so unapologetically as to seem from a bygone age -- to tout their shared opposition to NAFTA. Brown and Tester, along with Vermont’s Bernie Sanders, Minnesota’s Amy Klobuchar and (more or less) Pennsylvania’s Bob Casey Jr., make up a freshman class more economically liberal than perhaps any since 1958.
I mention that year for a reason. The Senate class of 1958 included some of the most important liberal Democrats of recent history: Eugene McCarthy, Edmund Muskie, Philip Hart, Ernest Gruening and Thomas Dodd.
Yet the Senate Democratic caucus that convened the January after that election also included several moderates, a small number of conservatives -- and, of course, quite a few out-and-out segregationists (Richard Russell Jr., Strom Thurmond, James Eastland).
In other words, the Democrats have a long, long history of disagreeing on social issues while agreeing for the most part on economic matters. And while I’m certainly not advocating a tent so big as to accommodate today’s reactionaries -- who in any event are Republicans now -- it is clearly the case that the Democratic Party has endured far more severe disagreements on social issues than those that face it now.
Racial politics, of course, eventually tore the old Democratic coalition apart. But there’s little evidence that abortion or gay marriage will do that today. Among other reasons, there will be no votes in the next two years on any divisive social issues. Why would Democrats, having finally regained control of the legislative calendar, schedule a vote that highlights their divisions?
They won’t. They will schedule votes that highlight their unity and Republican divisions. Those will be mostly on bread-and-butter economic issues and carefully chosen foreign policy matters, such as implementing the 9/11 commission’s recommendations, on which liberals and moderates agree.
They are labeled “liberal” or “moderate” in the first place, of course, chiefly because of social issues. But if the Democrats play the next two years the right way, focusing on middle-class economics and building credibility on national security, those labels may come to mean far less than they did Tuesday night. The television commentators might not notice, but the voters will.