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How the Democratic Party lost its way

Why is the country debating gay marriage right now?

The deficit is out of control. The economy is stuck in neutral. Incomes are flat. Unemployment is stubbornly high. Europe is on the brink of collapse. The Middle East is on the brink of war. So why are we talking about gay marriage?

The reason is simple: President Obama was facing a backlash from a core Democratic constituency, namely the gay rights community, and he had to respond because he desperately needs its campaign contributions. 

There is no great national emergency with the issue of gay marriage; in fact, President Obama is not even going to introduce legislation in Congress to repeal the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA). Instead, there is only a partisan emergency: a Democratic interest group was reading President Obama the riot act, so he had to flip-flop.

That says a lot about the modern Democratic party. In fact, it says it all.

You, me, and almost everybody else in this country want to talk about jobs, the deficit, national security, but the Democratic party simply does not listen to us. 

It is not responsive to what we want, but rather only to the special interests that now dominate it. Organized labor, the environmentalist left, the feminists, big city machine politicos, and all the rest – they hum the tune to which the party dances. 

If you are lucky enough to be in one of those groups, then the Democrats will be happy to hear what you have to say. If you aren’t, then you’ll be lucky if they don’t hang up on you!

We saw this above all else with ObamaCare. For well over a year, most of the country was shouting “no, no, no!” Poll after poll – including some by liberal interests groups – showed a wide and deep public backlash, culminating with Republican Scott Brown’s upset victory in Massachusetts. But organized labor, the feminists, and the big businesses were whispering, “yes, yes, yes!”

And to whom did Obama, Pelosi, Reid and the rest of the party listen? You know the answer.

This is all a very sad commentary on the modern Democratic party. Remember that it was founded by General Andrew Jackson – “Old Hickory” as they used to call him – back in the 1820s to fight political privilege, on behalf of the “humble members of society,” as Jackson called them. Old Hickory was a straight shooter if there ever was one, and he hated the idea of the government playing favorites.

But all that began to change about 80 years ago, when President Franklin Roosevelt transformed the Democratic party from a largely Southern and rural coalition into a mostly Northern and urban one. To do that, he started using the power of big government to buy off special interest groups, like the big city machines and organized labor. 

Over the ensuing decades, later Democratic presidents followed in his footsteps, adding African Americans, government workers, environmentalists, feminists, corporations, gay rights groups, trial lawyers and more into the party as loyal interest groups.

But starting in the late 1960s, there were just too many mouths to feed – no longer, it seemed, could the Democratic party take care of its client groups and tend to the public interest at the same time. The party machinery started to break down, which explains the trouble the Democrats had in the late 1960s, why Jimmy Carter’s presidency was a wreck, and why Bill Clinton was not a success until after the Republican Revolution of 1994.

And today, almost 200 years after it was founded, the party has become the opposite of what it once was. Now it is a party of special interests payouts that do not benefit the whole country, but rather privileged groups of citizens.

And the kabuki dance of Team Obama on the gay marriage issue is exactly what we should expect from the modern party. For years, the liberals of the party has demanded that it move leftward in front on this issue, but national Democratic politicians have been reluctant, knowing that the issue regularly performs terribly at the ballot box. And while gay marriage activists do not have all that many votes, they sure do have the cash, which the Obama campaign is in desperate need of. So finally, the pressure just became too much for the president to bear. He had to change his position.

This should serve as a cautionary tale any time you hear the Democrats claim to be the “party of the people.” Ask yourself: which people? Is it the “humble members of society” for whom Old Hickory fought, or is it the people with the right political connections in this country?

Jay Cost is a political analyst. He writes the twice-weekly MORNING JAY column for The Weekly Standard. He is the author of the new book "SPOILED ROTTEN: How the Politics of Patronage Corrupted the Once Noble Democratic Party and Now Threatens the American Republic" (Broadside 2012).