Democrats' Clash Of World Views

Italian team Azzurra competes in Nice southeastern France, Monday, Nov. 16, 2009, during the sailing match racing competition "The Louis Vuitton Trophy."
AP Photo/Lionel Cironneau
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This commentary from The New Republic was written by Peter Beinart..

I used to hope the 2004 Democratic presidential nomination would come down to a clash over national security. But you don't get everything you hope for. In fact, as the campaign has progressed, the foreign policy distinctions between the leading candidates have actually diminished.

John Kerry, Richard Gephardt, and John Edwards -- who supported the Iraq war -- now denounce it nearly as vehemently as Howard Dean, who did not. Dean, acting like the front-runner he is, spends less time attacking his rivals for trying to have it both ways. Wesley Clark, who was supposed to sharpen the campaign's national security debate, has instead embraced its mushy middle -- first saying, à la Kerry, that he would have voted for the Iraq war resolution while opposing the war itself, now saying he opposed the resolution, too.

The campaign's real clash is over domestic policy. It closely resembles the fights that defined Democratic primaries in the 1980s and 1990s, and its main protagonists are Gephardt and Dean. The media often depict the Democratic primary as a battle between liberals and centrists. But those terms don't capture the real divide within the party: between yuppie reformers and working-class party regulars. The yuppies are culturally liberal and fiscally conservative. They deride President Bush's tax cuts as unaffordable but suspect we can't afford big new spending programs either. And, reflecting a middle-class, progressive tradition that dates back a century, they are skeptical of anything that smacks of machine politics. They like anti-politicians who tell hard truths. Alienated by quintessential party man Walter Mondale, they flocked to aloof outsider Gary Hart. Alienated by all-things-to-all-people Bill Clinton, they flocked to Paul Tsongas, who equated fiscal belt-tightening with moral virtue. Alienated by packaged, scripted Al Gore, they flocked to introspective, idealistic Bill Bradley. And, this year, they have made a religion of Howard Dean.

The party's working-class regulars, while hostile to the Christian Right, are more culturally traditional and a bit more hawkish (though less so in pacifist Iowa). But, more important, as the people who bear the brunt of cuts in entitlement spending, they don't view fiscal belt-tightening as morally bracing. The term "reform" is as likely to fill them with anxiety as enthusiasm. And, while the yuppies want to shift power to disinterested individuals (i.e., themselves), the regulars see latter-day political machines (i.e., unions) as their protectors. It is no surprise that the candidates who appeal to these regulars -- Mondale, Gore -- thrive in blue-collar, union-heavy Iowa. The yuppie candidates -- Hart, Tsongas, Bradley -- do best in white-collar, individualistic New Hampshire.

The central political story of the first nine months of 2003 was Dean's eclipsing of Kerry as the yuppies' standard-bearer. The cerebral, aloof Kerry had seemed poised to inherit the upscale voters who had supported Hart, Tsongas, and Bradley. But Kerry's waffling on the war convinced many would-be backers that he represented politics as usual. Since Dean's rise, Kerry has begun attacking him for wanting to balance the budget by repealing the entire Bush tax cut and for opposing free trade. But denouncing Dean as too hawkish on the deficit is a bad way to win back white-collar Democrats, and bashing him as protectionist is a bad way to win over blue-collar union members. Kerry has lost one half of the Democratic base, and he is ill-equipped to win over the other.

Gephardt, on the other hand, has emerged as Dean's perfect foil. With his roots in ethnic, Catholic St. Louis, he has experience appealing to culturally traditional blue-collar voters. And no national politician since Mondale has such deep ties to the labor movement. Moreover, Gephardt's central attack on Dean -- for supporting Medicare cuts in the mid-'90s -- reinforces his appeal among exactly the voters he needs to win.

Dean, as the national media is discovering, is the most committed fiscal conservative to contend for a Democratic presidential nomination since Tsongas. In Vermont, which isn't constitutionally obliged to balance its budget, Dean nonetheless made balancing the budget his top priority, repeatedly spurning calls for greater social spending and winning praise from the libertarian Cato Institute. He has flirted with raising the Social Security retirement age and, as Gephardt charges, supported far deeper cuts in Medicare than most Democrats. On the stump, Dean delights in tough-love statements like: "Tell the truth: We cannot afford all of the tax cuts, the health insurance, special [education funding], and balancing the budget."

If Dean embodies the fiscal conservatism of yuppie Democrats, Gephardt embodies the regulars' passionate commitment to preserving entitlement programs. He voted against Clinton's 1997 deal, which cut Medicare to reduce the deficit, saying the budget need only be in "rough balance." His health care plan is much bigger than Dean's and tailored to win union support.

In appealing to unions and defending entitlements, Gephardt is pursuing roughly the same strategy that Mondale, Clinton, and Gore used to defeat outsider deficit-hawks. But that strategy is far harder now than it once was, because, over the years, the balance of power in the Democratic Party has been shifting: Dean supporters have been moving in, and Gephardt supporters have been moving out. Non-college-educated men have been drifting into the Republican Party. (In his final years as majority leader, Gephardt had to adjust the boundaries of his blue-collar St. Louis district because it was becoming too Republican.) Conversely, a 1998 "National Journal" study showed that the wealthiest 100 American communities, alienated by the GOP's fiscal irresponsibility and evangelical moralizing, were growing steadily more Democratic. This infusion of wealth into the Democratic Party means candidates with yuppie appeal can raise far more money than they could in the past. The last such candidate, Bradley, stunned political observers by raising almost as much money as Gore -- a development that foreshadowed Dean's extraordinary fund-raising success this year.

Dean, who learned fiscal conservatism from his investment-banker, Republican father, embodies today's Democratic Party better than Gephardt, the son of a Teamster from working-class St. Louis. Perhaps nothing explains the fight for the 2004 Democratic presidential nomination better than that.

Peter Beinart is the editor of The New Republic.

By Peter Beinart