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From my perspective, the current Democratic Party's compromising nature-and President Obama's acquiescence-does not provide the kind of leadership necessary to restore the party's dominance. Beginning in the 20th century, the party represented clear, unwavering positions. Despite factions and disagreements, it coalesced from a liberal core that (at least) professed allegiance to Blacks, other minorities and the poor.
FDR, Truman, Adlai Stevenson, John Kennedy, LBJ, Hubert Humphrey, and McGovern and Mondale, all subscribed to liberal ideals without apology. As Kennedy biographer, Neal Gabler, points out, belief in the efficiency of government was a prerequisite to gaining the Democratic Party's nomination. None of these aspirants moved to the right or first sought common ground. They stood and fell on stated principles. However, the Democratic presidential nomination now hinges on the party's candidate's willingness to soft-pedal activist liberalism.
Gabler argues that in the 1970s, the Democratic Party became basically an "interest" party. It stopped pressing government action as a matter of principle and began instead to appeal to a host of individual interest groups: Latinos, women, gays, etc. Anyone hoping to win the nomination must appeal to many, if not all of these groups. Blacks were already (on paper) a part of the Democratic Party agenda. Prospective nominees must now appeal to elected Democrats, party officials, and the "realists" who believe only a centrist can win. This compels would-be presidential candidates to placate and waver.
By contrast, the Republican Party these days calls itself a "values" party and is far more homogeneous than its counterpart. Gabler contends its constituencies are bound largely by, "...the same (or similar) set of simplified bumper sticker values." (Increasingly, moderates espousing even variations on basic themes are not welcome.) Consequently, the Party is much more likely to nominate belligerents than appeasers, "...People who pass a litmus test and are not willing to give ground...they draw a line and defend it."
For the general election, democratic appeasement has become obligatory because the party apparently now assumes any sign of liberalism is unacceptable to most Americans. (Off camera, party leaders still insist that liberalism is really what the party is all about.) A case can be made that by the time a Democrat becomes president, he is effectively neutered. But what about President Obama?
By his own admission, Obama felt caught between cultures and identity and has always sought ways to bridge them. At Harvard Law School, he was admired for being able to pacify both right and left factions; as an Illinois State Senator, he was praised for working across the aisle. In other words, compromise didn't suddenly define him when he became president. (From my Afrocentric perch, Obama has always had trouble with a strong, discernible Black agenda.)
His drumbeat call for change was one on which people could project their own ideology, not necessarily Obama's. Arguably, this made him the ideal democratic candidate. Of course, many consider the politics of compromise a winning strategy for governing as well because it promises something for everybody. But compromise is the wrong leading narrative.
This assessment does not detract from Obama's considerable accomplishments in his first two years. I disagree, but some blame the process that got him to the presidency and feel he is only fulfilling the party's new destiny.
Obama's recent top appointments, William M. Daley as chief-of-staff and Gene Sperling as economics policy czar, reflect what many feel is a continuation of his move to the political center. (Hasn't he been there all along?) This is perhaps most evident in his decision to compromise with Senate Republicans over the extension of tax cuts for the richest. The recent appointments also signal a shift in the Administration's mission. Until the mid-term elections, Obama's presidency was shaped largely by the mass movement that carried him into office and the economic meltdown that demanded a massive federal response. The Administration used the president's popularity, and Democrats' big congressional majority to push through the economic stimulus package, healthcare reform and financial regulation.
Now, Obama is retooling for a different mission, i.e., finding a way to negotiate productively with Republicans. And instead of lifting the economy through government spending, he's trying to convince private sector business leaders that the Administration wants to help them invest, expand and create jobs. The move to a more overt centrism is clearly reinforced by Sperling's heading the National Economic Council.
The Democratic Party and Obama's endemic propensity for accommodation is evident in the Administration's new priorities, his considerable accomplishments, notwithstanding. The Democrats and Obama's further move to the center, coupled with the ascendency of a terrorist-fringed arch conservative movement, bodes ill for the nation, but especially for Blacks. America's current mood only heightens the need for effective Black leadership and collaborative, group-oriented strategies.
Larry Aubry can be contacted at e-mail