Democrats have moved to the left in the Obama era. And if the party's base, President Obama, and Senator Elizabeth Warren have their way, they will move even further to the left in the next two years. Liberals will rejoice, but there's a downside. The Democratic nominee will have a considerably harder time winning the presidency in 2016.
The budget that Obama released last week reflects the shift. It is dominated by liberal policies that Democrats are eager to impose on the country: increased spending, higher taxes, government bigger in scope if not size, refusal to deal with the soaring cost of entitlements, minimal concern about the national debt.
These policies were rejected by voters in November's midterm electionsa nationwide disaster for Democrats. And as John Judis of National Journal argues persuasively in an article entitled "The Emerging Republican Advantage," liberal policies have increasingly lost favor with working-class and middle-income Americans and with college graduates who don't have a postgraduate degree.
There's also a paradoxical problem for Democrats. The issues they stress in campaigns poll well, yet aren't of overriding importance to voters. In January, Pew Research asked respondents to choose the issues that should be a "top priority for the president and Congress." Of 23 issues cited, Democratic favorites lagged. Global warming was 22nd, money in politics 20th, and improving roads and bridges 19th.
Among issues favored by Republicans, defending against terrorism was 1st, strengthening the economy 2nd, job creation 3rd, trimming the deficit 6th, and reducing crime 9th. Bolstering the military came in 11th. Seventy-one percent of Republicans said the military should be a top priority, but just 41 percent of Democrats.
Raising the minimum wage offers a telling contrast between issues Democrats hold dear and those that work politically. In a CNN poll in 2014, 71 percent endorsed an increase. But the issue doesn't "drive" the vote. Instead, the economy and jobs matter more. Forty percent of Americans know someone who has lost a job, and 25 percent have taken a second job to make ends meet, according to pollster Neil Newhouse of Public Opinion Strategies. If increasing the minimum wage were seen as the way to improve the economy and spur job creation, "then Democrats would have done a lot better in 2014," Newhouse says.
The Obama budget also puts Democrats on the wrong side of public opinion. It calls for a 7 percent hike in spending in 2016 and nearly $1.5 trillion in higher taxes over the next decade. A Rasmussen poll, however, found only 16 percent want more spending. Fifty-four percent want a cut. And while a tax increase for the rich is backed 49 percent to 41 percent, two-thirds believe that if the wealthy pay more, taxes on the middle class will go up too.
The Fox News exit poll in the midterm elections wasn't encouraging for Democrats either. After six years of a Democrat in the White House, 78 percent of voters said they trust the government in Washington never or only some of the time. And only 22 percent said they expect the next generation to have a better life than we have today.
The Democratic move to the left creates a dilemma for Hillary Clinton's presidential candidacy. She needs to create some ideological distance from Obama. "Voters are done with Obama," Newhouse says. But since there's little room on the president's left, she must drift to his right. If she doesn't have a strong challenger for the 2016 Democratic nomination, she'll have the luxury of doing so. She could, in effect, run a general election campaign in the primaries.
But if the Democratic base rebels, a strong liberal opponent is likely to emergeeither Warren, the Massachusetts senator who has a national following, or a Warren proxy. That would limit how far to the right Clinton could go. Or she could lose.
The Democratic nominee in 2016, whether it's Clinton or someone else, will face a less favorable environment than Obama did. Democrats "are being severely undermined by two trends that have emerged in the past few elections," according to Judis. They "have continued to hemorrhage support among white working-class voters," he wrote. And Republicans are "gaining dramatically" among middle-class voters who strongly backed Democrats in 2006 and 2008.
Judis's analysis is striking because he had predicted, in a book he co-authored in 2002 entitled The Emerging Democratic Majority, a new era of Democratic dominance. "After the 2008 election, I thought Obama could create an enduring Democratic majority by responding aggressively to the Great Recession in the same way that Franklin Roosevelt had responded in 1933 to the Great Depression," he wrote. "Obama, I believed, would finally bury the Reagan Republican majority of 1980."
In retrospect, "that analogy was clearly flawed," Judis concluded. "It now appears that, in some form, the Republican era which began in 1980 is still with us. Reagan Republicanismrooted in the long-standing American distrust of government, but perhaps with its roughest theocratic and insurrectionary edges sanded off for a national audienceis still the default position of many of those Americans who regularly go to the polls."
There's another way of explaining the Republican recovery. Voters twice elected Obama, then watched what he and his liberal policies produced. Many didn't like what they saw and did what voters often do. They changed their minds.