The Confused Political History of the “Left 3.0” Essay
Samuel Goldman makes some good points in his criticism of Tod Linberg’s “Left 3.0” essay. Instead of repeating what he has already stated very well, I wanted to assess Lindberg’s treatment of some recent political history. At one point, Lindberg writes:
On the contrary, in 2003, former Vermont Governor Howard Dean emerged as the frontrunner for the Democratic presidential nomination promising to represent “the Democratic wing of the Democratic Party” — an explicit repudiation of Clinton’s “Third Way” centrism and triangulation between the gop-controlled Congress and old-school liberal Democrats. Running for president in 2007–08, Hillary Clinton was certainly not representing herself as “New Democrat” redux. When she lost to Barack Obama anyway, whatever remained of the “New Democrat” sensibility dissolved harmlessly into the mainstream of the party. Obama’s appointment of her as his secretary of state was (among other things) an insurance policy against a “New Democrat” resurgence around the figure of outsider Hillary Clinton.
This is not a total misreading of the last ten years of Democratic politics, but it is mostly wrong. Lindberg first goes awry with his understanding of what Dean’s candidacy represented. Dean’s emphasis on representing “the Democratic wing” was a statement about the need for strong partisan opposition to Bush (as opposed to the overly-accommodating Congressional Democrats of 2001-03). It was not really an ideological claim against DLC-type Democrats. Dean was a DLC-type, “centrist” Democrat, and except for his vocal opposition to the Iraq war one would have been hard-pressed to see his campaign as a leftist one if the term has any meaning at all. His campaign wasn’t an ideological departure from “Third Way” politics, but this was obscured by the fact that many of Dean’s most enthusiastic supporters were progressives. It was Dean who argued for trying to make his party more competitive nationally, which became a priority for Democrats after the disappointment of 2004, and it was originally his “fifty-state strategy” that laid the foundations for national Democratic victories in 2006 and 2008. Interpreting Dean as some sort of ideological crusader or anti-Clinton is quite wrong. At the same time that progressives were becoming more influential inside the party, the party was also recruiting more relatively moderate and even somewhat conservative candidates to gain their majorities in Congress. Of course, the public was becoming more receptive to economic populist and anti-Iraq war arguments at the same time, as many of the 2006 and 2008 results around the country showed.
Turning to 2007-08, there was no need for Clinton to emphasize her credentials as a New Democrat. For his part, Obama offered his party an opportunity to break symbolically with Clintonism without actually rejecting the substance of it. Indeed, Obama’s 2008 primary campaign put him slightly to “the right” of Clinton and Edwards. He consistently campaigned and then governed as a mostly conventional center-left Democrat, as Krugman kept reminding everyone then and later. Including Clinton in the Cabinet certainly was a move to keep her inside the tent, but Obama’s first term was in many respects a continuation or endorsement of New Democratic politics. This can be seen in everything from foreign policy to financial regulation to fiscal policy. So I’m not sure that there really is a “Left 3.0” as Lindberg describes it, or if there is one the Obama administration isn’t really representative of it. Goldman is absolutely correct that Lindberg ignores the right’s implosion in the Bush years. The bigger problem with the essay is that Lindberg also doesn’t seem to have a very good grasp on what the Democratic Party (as opposed to “the left”) did in the last ten years to make itself the winner of the last three of four national elections.