One Party Is United, the Other, Divided

(Image: KAL; England / CartoonArts International / The New York Times Syndicate)(Image: KAL; England / CartoonArts International / The New York Times Syndicate)Matt Yglesias, a commentator at Vox, recently pushed back against claims made by the New York Times columnist Ross Douthat and others that the Democratic Party is a fragile coalition held together only by Hillary Clinton’s personal popularity. He’s right; I’d just like to add a few thoughts.

As Mr. Yglesias wrote, Democrats are remarkably unified on policy. They want to preserve health reform; they want to preserve financial reform (though some would want to push it further); they want action on climate change; and while they may be conflicted on immigration, that’s mostly internal soul-searching rather than a division between party factions.

This policy unity has been helped by President Obama’s moderate success in achieving these goals. If he had had an easy time, the party might be divided between those wanting more radical action and those not in a hurry; if he had failed utterly, the party might be divided (as it was for much of the past three decades) between a liberal faction and a Republican-lite faction. As it is, however, Mr. Obama has managed to achieve a lot of what Democrats have sought for generations, but only with great difficulty against scorched-earth opposition.

This means that the conflict between “the Democratic wing of the Democratic Party” and the more pro-big-business wing is relatively muted: the liberal wing knows that Mr. Obama has gotten most of what could be gotten, and the actual policies haven’t been the kind that would scare off the less liberal wing.

The Wall Street tantrum of recent years has also, in a peculiar way, helped party unity. Bankers who used to support Democrats have thrown their support to Republicans, while whining all the way that Mr. Obama is looking at them funny; this has reduced their influence on the Democrats, leaving a workable consensus about regulation and tax policy among those left.

How do personalities matter in all this? Not so much. In the end, Mr. Obama implemented Hillary Clinton’s health plan, and Mrs. Clinton, if elected, will continue Mr. Obama’s legacy. The party is willing to rally around an individual because it’s unified on policy, not the other way around.

In fact, it’s the Republicans who desperately need a hero. In retrospect, they needed President George W. Bush much more than they realized: he combined policy fealty to the plutocrats with a personal manner that appealed to the base, in a way no Republican now manages.

Stuff happens; a recession in 2016 could sweep a Republican, any Republican, into the White House. But the Democratic coalition isn’t fragile, while the Republican coalition is.