Progressives on the Verge of Total Party Takeover

by: Matt Stoller

Wed Aug 08, 2007 at 22:17


There's a tremendous amount of despair about how badly the Democratic leadership screwed up on the FISA vote, which parallels a lot of the anger around the supplemental and other poor choices Democratic representatives have made.  As an anecdotal example, I went out to dinner with a Congressional candidate at Yearlykos, and our cool punk waiter overheard our conversation and randomly told us that he's a hardcore anti-Republican.  He then followed on that he doesn't think that 2006 made any difference. 

After hearing this from a variety of quarters, I decided to go over the numbers and candidates and see whether that election really mattered, and how much our involvement specifically mattered.  First I began poking around, to see how the freshmen we elected in 2006 voted.  Most of them did pretty well, but 11 new members voted poorly in the House, and 4 freshmen voted poorly in the Senate.  Of those, only Tim Walz and Chris Carney in the House and Jim Webb in the Senate drew support from the internet, which I'm using as a proxy for the progressive movement's newest and freshest piece.  Mostly, our newly elected people voted correctly, and those that didn't were DCCC, DSCC, and single issue group creations (like those three reactionaries in Indiana).  But in looking at these numbers, I discovered something quite stunning.  To my surprise, the power of progressives in the House and Senate has risen dramatically since 2002, and the reason is not because of the change in partisan balance in 2006 but because of a gradual conversion of conservative Democrats to progressive Democrats.

The shift that Chris noted - the Democratic base mattering more than independents and Republicans in 2006 - has had HUGE effects within the party that equal or exceed those effects in the partisan balance at large.

To understand where we were as a party prior to 2006, I started my examination by trying to find an equivalent vote to the FISA vote that happened last week from a previous Congress.  I wanted a vote where national security was key, where pressure was high, and where Democrats would have a strong incentive to crumple.  I went back to the nadir of the Democratic Party's history, the October 2002 war vote.  While the vote was a black mark on our party's history, the majority of Democrats actually voted against authorizing the use of force.  In the Senate, the vote was 77-23, in the House, the vote was 296-133.  29 Democratic Senators voted yes, 22 voted no, while House 81 Democrats voted yes and 126 voted no.  In all honestly, back then it was a pretty awful party, with almost no progressive power base whatsoever.

So where are we today?  Well, Kos has a list of all the members who voted to grant Bush expanded wiretapping powers, which is roughly equivalent in both political optics and ideological meaning to the war vote.  The passage in the House was 227-183, and 60-28 in the Senate.  While it was a horrible vote and leadership was playing procedural games, as a vote-counter, that's a significant shift from earlier Congressional caucuses.

In 2002, we had 133 reliable liberal votes in the Democratic caucus.  Today, we have 183 reliable liberal votes, an increase of 50 votes.  So where did these votes come from?  We picked up 30 seats in 2006 from a straight party line shift, but 11 of these Democrats voted wrongly on FISA.  That means that 19 votes came from a shift from Republicans to Democrats, and 31 votes came from shifting conservative Democratic votes to progressive Democratic votes.  Partially that was replacing open seat conservatives like Harold Ford with people like Steve Cohen, and partially that was primary pressures on members like Ellen Tauscher and Al Wynn.  Perhaps some of this change came from members changing their mind.  I don't know, but this is a question to explore further.

While we've made arguments about how we're just about winning and about getting more Democrats elected, the evidence suggests that in the House, we're more about progressive power building and party reformation than changing the partisan balance.  Partisanship represents less than 40% of the voting behavioral changes in the House, at least when you compare the recent FISA capitulation versus the war vote.  That only 19 vote shifts out of 50 came from a partisan shift, and 31 came from an internal party shift, is simply an amazing statistic. 

This tendency is true in the Senate as well.  In that body, we've moved from 22 reliable liberal votes in 2002 to between 30-34 reliable liberal votes today.  The partisan balance hasn't shifted at all in that time; in October 2002, we had 51 Democratic caucus members, and today we have 51 Democratic caucus members.  The caucus has become markedly more liberal, despite making no overall partisan gains against Republicans in the last five years.  Once again, changed voting behavior is more due to a changed Democratic Party representation rather than a shift in the number of Democrats in office.  Sure, we have defeated people like George Allen, but the real change is replacing people like Bob Torricelli with people like Bob Menendez, or John Breaux with Jon Tester.

Strangely enough, this has not been matched by increased membership or clout in the progressive caucus.  The Progressive Caucus today has 72 members, while in 2002, it had 60 members.  That means that the 50 seat upwards swing in progressive power is almost entirely outside the Progressive Caucus itself.  Whatever the caucus might be doing, it is probably not effectively representing effectively how much progressive power exists within the House or the political system at large.  Conversely, the Blue Dogs and (to a much less extent) New Democrats are preening around, proud of their clout and ability to move Congress to a working majority for Bush and the Republicans.  While this clout is real, it masks the underlying slow death of their political base.

In going over this data, I've been reminded of just how far we've come over the last four years within the party itself.  In 2002, the Naderite argument made some sense.  The Democratic Party was genuinely awful, as the majority of Senators voted for an immoral and stupid war and House electoral leaders urged candidates to take the war off the table in 2002 and focus on snowmobiles.  Today, not only has the party's base grown, intensified and increased its participation, but the party elites have moved much further to the left to go along with that shift than I had realized, rebuffing and embarrassing Democratic leaders on trade, telecom, energy, and the war in Iraq.  In fact, most of the progress we've made has to do with changing internal party dynamics, even though reactionary Democrats still control our candidate recruitment, media consulting industry, and electoral machinery.  It is not an exaggeration to say that progressives and conservatives within the Democratic Party were nearly evenly matched in 2002, but that progressives have simply overwhelmed the establishment since then.  FISA certainly was a defeat, and a bad one.  But the progress we've made in the last four years is simply stunning, and will soon lead us to a place where Nancy Pelosi can truly lead the House.

This is very promising, and I'll have a follow-up post on this phenomenon soon.

Matt Stoller :: Progressives on the Verge of Total Party Takeover

Tags: , , , , , (All Tags)
Print Friendly View Send As Email

Wow (0.00 / 0)
Very interesting post Matt. This is why OpenLeft is now my first stop on the web.

I think this is kind of what the netroots, the Internet and the new progressive movement has been doing well. Putting pressure on people and holding them accountable. Before you could cave into a lobbyist and know one would know, much less care. Now with the Netroots the Democrats again work for us. We the people. And hopefully Working for Us will provide a base for making Democrats real Democrats. And hopefully we can turn this Democratic majority into a progressive majority.

I'm not sure if you're FISA and Iraq res votes are a good indicator of who is progressive and who isn't. It would be interesting to look at some other votes too. Add in MCA, McGovern Amendment and the Feingold-Reid amendment and the number goes down but this is GWOT related votes. If we are looking at all votes or all big votes the number goes down more. So I think while on some subjects we are getting a more progressive Democratic Party we still have more work to do to get a totally progressive Democratic party. The number of totally progressive in the party is hard to tell. Looking at Progressive Punch we've got 22 people in the Senate with a progressive score of 90% or more but there are some with lower scores that I would say are progressive on most issues and some with that score that are not too progressive.

On the Republican side we've got 32 with a Progressive Score of less then 10. The most progressive Republican (Arlen Specter) has a 36.01 Progressive Score (Or a conservative score of about 65) and the most conservative Democrat (Ben Nelson) has a Progressive Score of 49.68. After Snowe and Collins all the rest of the Republicans have a Conservative score of 80%+ but the Democrats have 10 Senetors who have a Progressive Score in the 70's.

Basicly the Republicans have a much more conservative party then the Democrats. And we need to have a lot more work to really see this transformation. There is progress inside the party but a lot more needs to be done. Another thing from Progressive Punch: Out of the issues that progressives "won"  the highest was Housing with 59% and the next highest win rating was Education, Humanities, & the Arts with 26%. The lowest was Family Planing with 11% (followed closely by Corporate Subsidy's at 12%)

So I think that last thing is the most telling. The progressives are winning 10-25% of the battles. Thats about where we are. We need to be on the other side of the equation. This is a very interesting subject that should be discussed heavily. I'll have more in the morning. But I have to get some sleep, teaching children isn't easy.

John McCain: Beacuse lobbyists should have more power

Then keep up the pressure (0.00 / 0)
This analysis is right on, and it means we are at the beginning of the movement, not the end. If people feel like 2006 was nothing, or wasn't enough, that's a great thing. As long as people understand that 2006 wasn't a failure, an experiment not worth trying again, then we're set to keep things moving in a leftward direction. It also means that our presidential candidate needs to be on or out in front of this wave, not behind it.

The Seminal :: Independent Media & Politics

I hope you are right (0.00 / 0)
I think we need to remember that it took the right-wing decades to take over the GOP. It will be a long process for us.

I do worry about young voters who will be disillusioned by the failures of this Congress and will tune out from politics. I think the GOP has hopelessly alienated the majority of the 18-30 crowd, but that's not good enough--we need those people participating in politics and voting for our progressives.

A month or so ago I met a 20-something woman who described herself as liberal. She is single and she does early intervention therapy with kids who have developmental disabilities. This should be a Democratic voter. I asked her if she had a candidate yet (I was expecting to hear Obama or Edwards).

She had watched one of the early presidential debates and said she was just disgusted by the whole Democratic field.

I was stunned. When I talk to longtime active Democrats, I frequently hear people talk about the strength of our field and how they'd be happy to support any of them.

She was repelled by all of them. I don't know why, because we didn't have a long conversation. But she is not a Republicans and wouldn't support any of their candidates either.

I don't know a lot of 20-somethings, and I hope that she is atypical. We need people like her to be in the habit of getting involved in the process as Democrats.

Join the Iowa progressive community at Bleeding Heartland.

Dont think it is typical (0.00 / 0)
From my experience (being late 20s something) most young people havent started paying attention yet.

They are more predisposed to obama and dont trust hillary but they arent like your friend.

[ Parent ]
turnout (0.00 / 0)
Do you guys really think turnout is going to be very high in the 2008 election?

I think it has the potential for turnout to hit an all-time low.  Not much of a mandate awaits for the new president.

[ Parent ]
Turn out in 2008 (0.00 / 0)
With a change in the presidency and the fight for the nominations in both party's you will see an up-tick in turnout in the primary's

I believe their will be a big turnout in the GE. tHERE WILL BE A 3RD party candidate that will poll close to double digits. This will contribute to increase turn out for the GE.


I don't know as the winner of the GE will probably poll less than 50% OF THE VOTE.

[ Parent ]
I disagree, turnout will be there (0.00 / 0)
Turnout tends to be higher in contested elections. This is the first one in years where there is no incumbent or vice president (or real party leadership) running. That, coupled with a strong independent, will bring out the people.

The Seminal :: Independent Media & Politics

[ Parent ]
A reliable progressive majority please (0.00 / 0)
Better to replace the likes of Ellen Tuacher and Al Wynn via primary challenges. We need progressives whose votes proceed from their values rather than from what their finger in the wind tells them.

Not *more* homework! (0.00 / 0)
Seriously - include this in the Open Left showreel, because it really shows its USP.

I don't believe it - natch - but it'll be fun proving you wrong.

Or not, even.

What is the USP? (0.00 / 0)
What is USP?

Also, the simple counter is to compare the supplemental loss versus the initial war vote.  In the House, we lost that one with only 140 reliable votes, and in the Democratic Senate caucus we actually lost ground with only 14 no votes versus 22 in 2002.

[ Parent ]
Had to look it up (0.00 / 0)
USP = Unique Selling Point or Proposition

I had to ask Wikipedia - I didn't immediately know either.

Karl in Drexel Hill, PA

[ Parent ]
Apples and oranges (0.00 / 0)
The vote on the IWR H J Res 114 is a good marker, but only with adjustments.

Then, we were a year after 9/11 and kow-towing, Red Scare-style, was in style all over DC.

By the FY07 Iraq supplemental vote, even the most abtuse Dem MCs  should surely have known better. Arguably, those that moved did so not because they'd become more progressive, but because the sheer fuckitude of the Bush WH policy has been displayed in living (or, for many, dead) color for long enough to penetrate their DC-addled brains.

That's my hypothesis, at least.

[ Parent ]
21 (0.00 / 0)
Matt, the figure on the AUMF vote in the Senate for the Democrats in 2002 was actually only 21. One of the nay votes came from Lincoln Chaffee. The makeup of the Senate at the time was 50 Dems, 49 Republicans, and 1 Jim Jeffords. You can't add 29 and 22 and get 50.  :)

I did a little analysis just before the 2006 election on how Dems who had voted for the war did in seat retention vs. Dems who voted against it.

None of the people in either house who voted against the AUMF lost their seats in a general election. Two of the people who lost their seats in primaries were Cynthia McKinney and Gary Condit.

On the other hand, 13% of the yea voters in the House lost general elections in 2002 or 2004. And 3 of the 29 senators lost their seats (Carnahan, Cleland, and Daschle).

Not a good record. I wonder if the FISA vote will fall out similarly.

Those who have had a chance for four years and could not produce peace should not be given another chance. --Richard Nixon, 9 October 1968

[ Parent ]
Ineffectual (0.00 / 0)
The NY Times had this piece today:
The Blogs Are Alive With the Sound of Angry Democrats

"At the end of the day, how many choices do they have?" asked Stuart Rothenberg, a nonpartisan political analyst, about liberal voters. "How many Democratic primaries are going to be determined by this? Base voters have a way of complaining, being angry, of holding their breath until they turn blue. But I don't see it as having any real consequence."

We have the ability to make noise, but not to influence policy. Face it many of the blue dogs agree with the GOP, and they aren't going anywhere. A primary challenge in their conservative districts seems unlikely to succeed, and if it did a more liberal candidate would probably lose in the general election.

Policies not Politics

Wow (4.00 / 1)
You're citing Rothenberg as proof of what's possible?

John McCain opposes the GI Bill.

[ Parent ]
Possible (0.00 / 0)
OK, I'll bite, what is possible?

I'll support anyone who wants to push the party to the left, but history has shown that it's a tough row to hoe.

The Dem alliance with the Dixiecrats lasted a long time and I'm sure their accommodation with the blue dogs isn't in any danger of being challenged.

Is Cindy Sheehan going to unseat Pelosi? Do you think Webb is suddenly going to stop being an ex-military man who supports a strong military budget? Do you think Murtha is suddenly going to stop being the top pork generator and military supporter in the house?

Let's have your plan to overcome the vested interests in control of things.

Policies not Politics

[ Parent ]
Let's run primaries (0.00 / 0)
against pro-war, pro-wiretapping Bush Democrats.

[ Parent ]
It's possible that Rothenberg is right. (0.00 / 0)
If you ask him what his favorite color is.

Other than that, not so much.

"You know what they say -- those of us who fail history... doomed to repeat it in summer school." -- Buffy The Vampire Slayer, Season 6, Episode 3

[ Parent ]
Rothenberg (0.00 / 0)
Is, among other things, notable for how preposterous he declared it to be to compete in every district.  Gotta target you see.  It's a waste of time to try something hard, just skip straight to the compromise.  Except the other side isn't interested in skipping the negotiating process, so you've started out by giving up your core.

So do I think Sheehan will unseat Pelosi? No. Does that make it pointless? No.  Do I think Webb is going to turn into Ted Kennedy? No. Do I think he's moving the discussion? Yes.  Do I think Murtha is going to give up the pork? No. Do I think that, in an era where the Republican party has completely abandoned the entire middle and lower class, it makes sense for Democrats to think about organizing a party that wants to improve the lives of workers instead of owners? Yes.

John McCain opposes the GI Bill.

[ Parent ]
Progressives taking over the party? (0.00 / 0)

Hillary's the front runner and Dennis gets virtually no play from national 'leaders.'

I'll believe the Dems are about to be taken over by progressives when the opposite is true.

Trust no organization bigger than two, and even those are suspect.

This Vote Comparison Is Bogus (0.00 / 0)
I think you're right, for what it's worth.

But I just don't see any more rigor in pulling these two votes out of your hat than I see in most political comparisons in the M$M.  We should be better than them.  We have to be.

"You know what they say -- those of us who fail history... doomed to repeat it in summer school." -- Buffy The Vampire Slayer, Season 6, Episode 3


Open Left Campaigns



Advanced Search

Powered by: SoapBlox