Moderate Democrats have been a dying breed in the modern Democratic party since 1994 and the GOP Revolution. That year dozens of moderate and conservative Democrats across the nation were wiped away in a tide of voter discontent with a Democratic Party that had dominated the House for 40 years. Moderate Democrats have never recovered from 94 and appear likely to never do so as the country becomes more polarized ideologically. Whereas Democratic moderates could win in conservative districts a confluence of factors are close to making this impossible in anything but a wave election year.
Democratic moderates have played a critical role in shaping the Democratic party”s history. They played crucial roles in the Civil Rights era, the Cold War as well as the Reagan Years. During the Civil Rights Era moderate Democrats in the NE pushed the CRA while Southern Democrats opposed it (leaving Republicans to help liberals pass it). During the Cold War moderate Democrats, along with Republicans, stood firm in their support of defense spending and opposing the USSR (leading to conflicts such as the Korean and Vietnam War). And during the Reagan years they were instrumental in helping pass a reform of the tax code and even after 94 helped President Clinton with the GOP balance the budget.
But today the number of moderate Democrats are increasingly shrinking. During the Bush years from 2000-2004 the number of moderate Democrats held steady (as measured by membership in the fiscally conservative, socially moderate Blue Dog Caucus). In the 2006 and 2008 elections Democrats gained over 50 House seats, many in traditionally conservative or GOP districts which resulted in a resurgence of Democratic moderates. The Blue Dog Caucus grew exponentially as a result (well over 50 members).
Many of these members came to DC to institute great changes from transparency to how the process was done to implementing pragmatic government programs. Instead, they were hamstrung by a powerful liberal wing of the party that dominated debate and discussion. These Democrats did not have the luxury of the pre-1994 election when Southern conservative Democrats sat on powerful committees. Instead, those committees were dominated by long-time liberal members. The result was disastrous for moderate Democrats. Massive programs from Healthcare to Financial Reform to Budget bills were pushed through, often against moderates wishes. And since many moderates (minus some in the South) had not had time to establish deep constituency ties with their constistuents they suffered greatly.
The 2010 election was the polar opposite of 2008. Voters turned against Democrats of all stripes and wiped 66 of them from the map. Many of these were conservative/moderate Democratic members in the House. Even worse, the 2010 election resulted in the GOP winning multiple governorships and gaining majorities in state chambers just as redistricting neared. This ensures some of them would be drawn out of office.
It appears that being shut out of the leadership posts in the House and the potential of GOP Governors and state legislatures drawing them out of office has driven quite a few of the remaining Blue Dogs to resign rather than face reelection. In the last few months prominent Blue Dogs Dennis Cardoza (D-CA),Dan Boren (D-OK) and Mike Ross (D-AR) have decided to retire then face voters. These centrists who survived the wave election of 2010 seem to have lost the heart to continue in the current system. As a former Democratic Congresswoman from Pennsylvania says “The Democratic Party is not really the ‘big tent’ it claims to be,” and it appears the system is unlikely to change in the near future to benefit Democratic centrists.
With redistricting and ideological polarization sure to drive even more of these moderate Democrats to extinction the question has to be asked whether they can even survive into the future? Republicans are gunning for their favorable seats, liberal members seem to not care about them and their most prominent members have been leaving. So what has led to this? Why is the Democratic moderate threatened?
Some of the factors have been mentioned above. Ideological partisanship, redistricting and a Democratic party that has become far more liberal. But perhaps the biggest factors are the transformation of what the Democratic Party is today compared to its roots and demographic change. These factors tend to be glossed over but they are immensely important to today and the Democratic moderate.
The original Democratic party was composed of unions, none-college educated white voters, Catholics and urban and rural voters. Today the Democratic Party has moved far away from this past. Today the Democratic party is composed of women, post-college educated whites, urban minorities, unions and Hispanics. Many of these groups goals go against the very interests of the kinds of voters centrist Democrats represent which tend to be fiscally and culturally conservative or moderate districts. The interests of an urban Detroit district are far different from those of a rural Ohio district.
Demographics has played a large part in this change. Whites have increasingly transitioned to the GOP over the decades just as Hispanics have become more Democratic and a more powerful voting bloc. As such, with liberals in charge of the party, the interests of post-college educated whites and minorities are being represented better in the modern Democratic party than rural and non-college educated white voters. Even more, Democrats are tailoring their national platforms and government programs to increasingly favor minorities over whites (which is why working class whites are moving to the GOP significantly).
All this has helped lead to the demise of the Democratic moderate. And as this trend continues it looks increasingly likely that Democratic moderates continue to be a rare breed. White voters continue to look to move to the GOP, in 2012 to express discontent with the economy and a liberal president. The irony is that to get a majority Democrats really need white voters and centrist Democrats to run in these districts. But the headwinds pushing against a growth of Democratic moderates are great, and the 2012 elections do not look kind to any kind of Democrat.