The left is in an uproar. In the wake of the president’s capitulation on the public option, tough financial regulations and Bush tax cuts for the rich, a wailing chorus sees President Obama as unprincipled and spineless, a serial compromiser who never drew a line in the sand he wouldn’t later erase. In the president’s defense, however, his unwillingness to join a fight may be unavoidable. It may actually be congenital — perhaps in Obama himself but more importantly in the processes of the Democratic Party that nominated him. Appeasement is endemic in Democratic candidates and presidents because it is endemic in Democratic presidential politics.
It wasn’t always so. In the days of FDR, the Democratic Party, despite its factions and disagreements, coalesced around one overriding tenet: muscular government action, especially in behalf of the powerless. After FDR, Democratic presidential nominees Harry Truman, Adlai Stevenson, John Kennedy, LBJ, Hubert Humphrey and even the much-maligned George McGovern and Walter Mondale subscribed to this liberal ideal without apology. Belief in the efficacy of government was a prerequisite to gaining the nomination. Democratic aspirants didn’t lurch rightward or pray for common ground. They stood and fell on principle. But that was then. The fact is that nowadays you don’t get the Democratic presidential nomination unless you are willing to soft-pedal activist liberalism. Except for Al Gore, who emerged as a fire-breathing liberal only after he had secured the nomination (and come to think of it, even more so after the campaign was over), Democrats have thrown a string of moderates, non-ideologues and compromisers onto the ballot: Jimmy Carter, Michael Dukakis, Bill Clinton and John Kerry.
That’s because sometime in the 1970s, the Democratic Party became basically an “interests” party. It stopped pressing government action as an overriding binding principle and began instead to appeal to individual interest groups: African Americans, Hispanics, women, labor, gays, youth and even Blue Dogs. Anyone who hopes to make headway in the nominating process has to find a way to appeal to many if not all of them. Still, most of these are situated at the left of the political spectrum. Prospective nominees must also appeal to elected Democrats, party officials and, perhaps most of all, those realists who, remembering McGovern’s quixotic anti-Vietnam debacle, want desperately to win and believe that only a centrist can do so. This compels aspirants both to placate and temporize.
By contrast, the Republican Party these days is a “values” party. It is far more homogeneous than the Democrats, and its constituencies are bound largely by the same set of simplified, bumper sticker values. Moderates who dare espouse variations on the themes need not apply. As a result, the party is more likely to nominate belligerents than appeasers — people who can pass a litmus test and are not willing to give ground. They draw a line in the sand and defend it.
When it comes to the general election, Democratic appeasement has become obligatory because it is assumed that any sign of liberalism is anathema to most Americans and a candidate must hastily move even further to the center, which he invariably does. So by the time a Democrat makes it to the Oval Office, he is effectively neutered.
Of course, that’s assuming that he wasn’t already neutered to begin with. While the Democratic nominating process rewards compromisers, it also seems to attract them, which means that candidates don’t really run away from who they are; they run away from what Democrats have traditionally been. Carter was a conservative Democrat who gave lip service to liberalism to calm the leftist interest groups but was interested more in deficit reduction than government intervention. Dukakis stressed competence rather than strenuous government. Clinton, endlessly psychoanalyzed as the child of an alcoholic, has been called a man who wanted only to placate and naturally gravitated to politics as the arena that would give him the best opportunity to do so. Each came to politics with an appeasement gene.
Then there is Barack Obama, who, by his own admission, felt caught between two cultures and identities and has always sought a way to bridge them. This led to other compromises. At Harvard Law School, Obama was widely admired for being the guy who could pacify both right and left factions, and as an Illinois state senator, he was praised for working across the aisle. Compromise didn’t suddenly dawn on him when he entered the White House. Appeasement was in his bones. If many Democrats mistook him for a fighting liberal, it was largely because he kept calling for change, a nebulous slogan on which one could project one’s own ideology, not necessarily Obama’s. In short, he only sounded liberal.
In many ways, this made Obama the ideal Democratic candidate. It should come as no surprise that he seems to think ideological intransigence is the real sign of weakness. Though almost everyone overlooked it, in his inaugural address Obama called for a politics that, in the biblical injunction, put away “childish things” — a politics of adult responsibility. Now we know what he really meant: a politics that was about making concessions rather than holding out for them. Indeed, he is most impassioned when he is being uncompromising about compromising.
One might think that a politics of compromise would be a winning strategy not only for a nomination or an election but also for governing. It promises something for everyone. The problem is that compromise is a terrible narrative — far less simple and appealing than belligerence. Wishy-washy just doesn’t cut it. Americans like the idea of strong convictions, even when they are wrong convictions, which puts Democratic candidates and presidents at a major disadvantage against their truculent Republican opponents.
But Democrats are stuck with their posture of compromise. While belligerence dictates that there is not likely to be another Republican Eisenhower or even another Bush I, appeasement dictates that there also is not likely to be another Democratic FDR, Truman or LBJ, whose idea of negotiation was arm-twisting. Appeasers seek the nomination. Appeasers get the nomination.
But don’t blame Obama. Blame the process that got him to the presidency. He is only fulfilling the party’s new destiny.
Neal Gabler is at work on a biography of Edward M. Kennedy.