The Democratic Party still clings to a lot of power in Washington — they control the US Senate and the White House, after all — but there’s a growing sense that top leaders have no idea what to do next.
Republicans are stalling every Democratic maneuver, blocking votes on widely popular initiatives (ending Don’t Ask-Don’t tell, raising taxes on the wealthy), preventing the confirmation of Federal judges, and dead-ending debate on common-sense treaties such as the new START deal negotiated with Russia.
The reason for the Democrats’ impotence is that the Big Tent coalition that they cobbled together in 2006 and 2008 is in complete disarray.
There is, quite simply, no consensus about a reasonable platform or program for their party or the nation.
You have a still-sizable coalition of Blue Dog conservatives, many from rural states and congressional districts, who have little cultural or political loyalty to the Democrats’ big urban voting base.
Then you have a big cadre of gay and lesbian activists, who view their issues — ending Don’t Ask Don’t Tell, legalizing same-sex marriage, boosting funding for AIDs care and research — as paramount.
Then there are the greenies, who see climate change as a real and present danger, a cause which trumps all other concerns and issues.
Next you have a growing Hispanic caucus, who want very liberal immigration laws, but are generally disinterested in environmental concerns and often hostile to liberal social causes.
Also in the big tent is a big faction of women voters and politicians, who see abortion rights and gender equality in the work place as fundamental issues.
And don’t forget the crucial African American voting bloc. Black voters generally support a large social safety net and poverty reduction programs — key Democratic policies — but are increasingly hostile to liberal social policies.
There is the unpredictable and fickle youth vote. Polls show that young people prefer Democrats by large margins, but except in rare instances can’t be bothered to actually go to the polls.
Finally, you have the liberal blogosphere, a media culture that lacks the message discipline and coordination of conservative media.
In a sense, of course, none of this is new. Democrats have always been a herd of cats. But Democratic leaders knew this and failed to establish clear rallying points.
They were unable to craft any sort of central message — any sort of unified vision — that would keep the wheels on the rails.
In 2008, the Big Vision was a shared loathing of George W. Bush and Dick Cheney. I’m guessing that Mr. Obama thought that revulsion would linger for a while longer.
He was wrong.
Until Mr. Obama and his team come up with a broadly appealing program that gets the big tent cheering again, their movement will continue to unravel.