Published May 23, 2012
“The most significant factor is the perception/reality that the Obama administration has leaned toward the ultra-left viewpoint on almost all issues.”
-- Former Rep. Charlie Stenholm, D-Texas, talking to the Washington Post about a string of poor primary showings by President Obama in Appalachian and border states.
During the Republican primaries, Democrats often claimed that the Republican Party has moved so far to the right that not even the GOP’s most revered president of the 20th Century, Ronald Reagan, could capture the party’s nomination today.
But what about Bubba and the Democrats?
President Obama is currently highlighting his admiration for his predecessor Bill Clinton as part of another dinner raffle to boost his campaign coffers. Last time it was George Clooney, now it is the 42nd president.
As Obama fights a public perception that he is too liberal, the president has increasingly held up moderate Clinton to remind swing voters of happier times. As the Obama campaign maintains its attacks on Republican Mitt Romney’s business record, expect to see Obama embracing Clinton more.
But Democrats in Clinton Country don’t seem to be getting the message. In Clinton’s home state of Arkansas, Obama lost more than 40 percent of the primary vote to an unknown candidate. In Kentucky, carried twice by Clinton in the 1990s, Obama lost a similar share to “undeclared.”
A similar story has played out in West Virginia, Oklahoma and North Carolina, where protest votes piled up against Obama. Some Democrats have attributed this to racism, but that’s taking the easy way out. Some of these states have unhappy histories on the subject, but others, like West Virginia, do not.
While there are surely some racist voters in the Democratic Party given its historical connections to slavery and Jim Crow, the vast majority is not bigoted.
The larger problem for Obama in these states – call them border states, the Hillbilly Firewall or, as Michael Barone does, “the Jacksonian Belt” -- is that Democrats here tend to be very moderate, especially on social issues.
When Clinton shocked the nation in 1992 by capturing the Democratic nomination as the little-known governor of a small state it was as an emissary of these voters. He even picked then-moderate Tennessean Al Gore as his running mate to reconfirm his identity as a southerner and a centrist.
The party had been losing ground to Republicans for decades in this region, which had once been a bright-blue bedrock for Democrats. The problem was that the rising power of big city liberals had pushed Democrats left.
The Deep South had flipped blue to red almost 30 years prior over civil rights, but the Border States and their electoral votes had remained in play. But Clinton knew firsthand how an agenda set in the Northeast was killing the party in the territory between Interstate 70 and Interstate 40.
Not only did Clinton help moderate the Democratic Party, but he also helped bring these voters, mostly working-class whites, back into the discussion. The result was the makings of a center-left coalition that might have come to dominate American politics for a generation.
But Gore, a far less skilled politician who was already more liberal than Clinton and moving left, couldn’t hold on in 2000. Then came 9/11 and a period of Republican dominance, which put moderate Democrats south of I-70 at risk. When Democrats took the House in 2006 on anti-war energy and elected Nancy Pelosi as speaker, the problem accelerated.
It’s easy to imagine, though, that if the Clintons had returned to power in 2008, the Blue Dog movement might have been restored and that the “third way” might be back in fashion. Instead, Obama energized the Democratic base, defeated Hillary Clinton and set up the wipeout for moderate Democrats in 2010.
Democrats are quite right to say that the GOP has moved to the right over the past 20 years, increasingly embracing a libertarian view on the role of government while simultaneously sharpening its opposition to abortion. The new Republican base is dominated by small-government, evangelical Christians.
But, the party still nominated a moderate from Massachusetts this year. In fact, the party has nominated a more moderate option in almost every primary process since Reagan, George W. Bush being the exception, and he was no conservative firebrand.
The Obama Democrats are also right to say there’s little immediate significance to Obama struggling with the Democratic voters in states he is unlikely to win like North Carolina, Tennessee, Kentucky, West Virginia, Arkansas and Oklahoma. Democratic strategists expect to lose among blue-collar white voters, but can plot a path to victory with a coalition of minorities, urban dwellers and just enough moderate suburbanites.
But they ought to be wary of the trend.
It’s sheer historical relativism to say that neither Reagan nor Clinton circa 1980 or 1992 could win their parties elections today. Circumstances and attitudes have changed so much on so many subjects that specific stances aren’t very relevant.
It is easy to say, though, that a conservative insurgent, governor of a large state with massive political gifts would have been a heavy favorite in the 2012 Republican process. If Rick Perry had been as good a politician as Ronald Reagan he surely would have prevailed.
But is the same true for Clinton and the Democrats? Arkansas currently has a popular, moderate Democratic governor, Mike Beebe. Can you imagine him winning the Democratic nomination? Or Sen. Joe Manchin from West Virginia? Or Sen. Mark Warner from Virginia?
These politicians, all gifted, wouldn’t stand a chance in the current Democratic climate. When Newark Mayor Cory Booker expressed his nausea at Obama’s campaign ads attacking Romney’s work at Bain Capital, the same “net roots” that delivered the nomination to Obama in 2008 rose up in outrage against anyone who would tolerate Wall Street plunder.
Team Obama responded and swiftly punished Booker, who should be a valuable emissary to moderate voters in suburban Philadelphia and elsewhere. Instead, he had to go into the penalty box. Same with Obama’s partial reversion to support of same-sex marriage. The party base was not going to let him maintain his years-long straddle on the subject, and Obama was forced to take a political risk in an election year on a wedge social issue.
Obama may not win the states where primary voters are thumbing their noses at him, but there are plenty of like-minded voters in Ohio, Florida, Virginia and Pennsylvania.
You will read many stories in the next 24 weeks about Romney being captive to the “radical” Republican base. It’s an interesting story, but perhaps not as significant as how the leftward drive of the national Democratic Party under Obama may affect his chances for re-election.
The Day in Quotes
“…the Obama camp looks ominously like a cult of personality that tolerates no dissent; and the reelection campaign just doubled down on the European leftist notion that business is fair only when it operates in a sanitized, risk free manner.”
-- Artur Davis, a four-term Democratic congressman from Alabama and now a fellow at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government, writing in Politico. Davis was given the honor of formally placing Barack Obama’s name into nomination at the 2008 Democratic National Convention.
“There's something about raping companies and leaving them in debt and setting up Swiss bank accounts and corporate businesses in the Grand Caymans. I have a serious problem with that."
-- Rep. Jim Clyburn, D-S.C., the third-ranking House Democrat, in an interview with MSNBC about Mitt Romney’s time as CEO of Bain Capital. The Obama campaign issued a statement lamenting Clyburn’s “choice of words.”
“The issue is -- those folks aren't running for president. They do not believe that their experience in their line of work wholly qualifies them to sit in the Oval Office and be commander-in-chief and make the kinds of decisions on the economy that a president must make.”
-- White House Press Secretary Jay Carney when asked about President Obama’s attacks on private equity firms even as he raises money from the private equity sector.
“Of course, we will highlight the president’s failed agenda. That goes without saying. But you know what? Americans deserve to choose an alternative. One that aligns with our needs. One we can rally behind.”
-- Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wisc., in a speech at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in California predicting a “mandate” for the GOP in November.
"Your job as president is to promote the common good. That doesn't mean the private equity guys are bad guys. They are not. But that no more qualifies you to be president than being a plumber… And, by the way, there are a lot of awful smart plumbers."
-- Vice President Joe Biden campaigning in Keene, N.H.
The Big Numbers
-- Republican Mitt Romney’s advantage over President Obama in the latest Quinnipiac University survey of Florida voters. Romney led by a single point two weeks ago and trailed by 7 points in late March.
-- The portion of American adults who identify themselves as “pro-choice” in the latest Gallup survey, a new all-time low. The portion identifying as “pro-life” remained steady at 50 percent.
-- The portion of American adults who think same-sex marriage should be legal in the latest Washington Post/ABC News survey. Those who thought the practice should be illegal moved to a new low of 39 percent.
Must See Segment: Rove and Trippi Break Down Romney’s Path
It pays to have the best pair of campaign professionals in political punditry, Karl Rove and Joe Trippi. If you missed them breaking down the electoral map on “Special Report with Bret Baier” on Tuesday, you can catch up here.
Chris Stirewalt is digital politics editor for Fox News, and his POWER PLAY column appears Monday-Friday on FoxNews.com.