WASHINGTON — Democrats are starting to shed their old guard, leaving behind a party perceived as liberal and strong largely on the two coasts _ images that cause the party big problems in more moderate and conservative areas.
As the Democratic leadership begins to change, the challenge for the up-and-comers is to change that perception so that it doesn’t hurt them in areas where liberalism is highly unpopular. The party has had trouble winning House of Representatives seats recently in more conservative states _ its centrist Blue Dog caucus has shrunk to about 15 members from 54 three years ago. In the Senate, the Democrats’ most vulnerable incumbents this year are in Arkansas, Louisiana, Alaska and other states where it doesn’t pay politically to be liberal.
Democrats argue that the liberal tag is unfair and its meaning distorted. Does being liberal mean supporting a bigger safety net for the poor? For taking bold steps to help the unemployed? What, party officials argue, is wrong with that?
Trouble is, the liberal moniker has become a code word for big, expensive government, government that taxes the middle and upper classes excessively and over-regulates business and, most recently, health care.
Democrats have been trying for years to dispel the image that they’re overly beholden to a liberal agenda. But overcoming that image in the future could be tough, because most of the party’s leaders now and in the future are regarded as East or West Coast liberals.
The vice chairman of the Democratic caucus in the House of Representatives, New York Rep. Joseph Crowley, 51, had a 90 percent liberal score on key Americans for Democratic Action votes in 2012. Rep. Chris Van Hollen of Maryland, 55, the top Democratic budget spokesman, rated 90 percent. Democratic National Committee Chairwoman Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz of Florida, 47, rated 95 percent.
In the Senate, among those in line after current Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada, 74, and Whip Richard Durbin of Illinois, 69, are Sen. Charles Schumer of New York, who voted with liberals on 95 percent of key votes, and Patty Murray of Washington, who had a perfect score. The Democratic Governors’ Association is led by Northeasterners: Chairman Peter Shumlin of Vermont and Vice Chairman Maggie Hassan of New Hampshire.
The House Democrats’ more liberal wing likes liberalism’s prospects in the party.
“There’s a real opening for the progressives and younger people to move ahead,” said Rep. Raul Grijalva of Arizona, co-chairman of the Congressional Progressive Caucus.
But those seeking more moderate ground are concerned.
“It’s so frustrating, the extreme partisanship on both sides,” said Rep. Jim Costa, D-Calif. “It’s hard to be a problem solver.”
Party leaders say they look more liberal largely because of the contrast with Republicans, who have been so stubbornly conservative and resistant to compromise. Without reasonable middle ground, this argument goes, Democrats have little choice but to vote in lockstep with like-minded colleagues.
The leaders also dispute the idea that they care more about one part of the nation than another, or that they prefer ideological purity _ and they say people across the country understand.
Party spokesman Mo Elleithee cited a Jan. 15-19 Pew Research Center poll showing 52 percent of Americans citing Democrats as more willing to work with Republicans. Twenty-seven percent thought Republicans were more likely to reach across the aisle.
Elleithee contended the poll shows Democratic leaders present and future are not hurt by any liberal perception.
Still, it’s hard to be a Democrat from more conservative states. “American politics has sorted itself out so that the Democratic Party is more liberal and the base is fine with that,” said Kyle Kondik, managing editor of Sabato’s Crystal Ball, independent analysts at the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics.
While philosophical change may not be in the offing, the names and faces are on the brink of big change. President Barack Obama’s term is up in three years. Though former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, 66, leads polls of Democrats to succeed him, Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley, 51, and New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, 56, could also be in the mix.
At the Capitol, veteran lawmakers Henry Waxman and George Miller of California, Jim Moran of Virginia and Rob Andrews of New Jersey have announced in recent weeks that they are leaving. The top three House leaders are 73 (California’s Nancy Pelosi), 74 (Whip Steny Hoyer of Maryland) and 73 (Assistant Leader Jim Clyburn of South Carolina). All are expected back next year.
Their generation had political advantages their successors may not. The 70-somethings came to the Capitol in the 1970s and 1980s, when conservative Southern Democrats were still not only numerous but often headed key bill-writing committees. Liberals had to get along and build consensus.
The veterans also came of age when elections were often won by hanging out at union and VFW halls, sharing beer and barbecue with ordinary folk or touring shopping centers.
Pelosi learned politics in Baltimore’s working-class Little Italy; her father and brother served as the city’s mayor at different times. Reid, the son of a miner, is a one-time boxer, Capitol police officer and overseer of Nevada’s gambling industry.
Today’s new Democrats often have different kinds of histories. “They tend to be entrepreneurs and problem-solvers,” said Rep. Steve Israel of New York, chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.
The new breed Democrat’s tendency to vote liberal is also a byproduct of modern politics, where congressional lines tend to be carefully drawn to protect districts for the parties’ incumbents, producing more conservative Republicans and more liberal Democrats.
In 2012, the last year it compiled such data, the liberal ADA found House Democrats voted its way 80 percent of the time. Senate Democrats had a 90 percent score.
The Democrats’ biggest challenge will be to soften the liberal image in more moderate and conservative areas of the country, where their fortunes have lapsed in recent years. Their voting with Obama on key issues like health care and federal spending won’t help.
“Democrats in the South are very careful to stay away from and be independent of Obama,” said Bernie Pinsonat, analyst at Southern Media and Opinion Research, a Baton Rouge, La.-based polling firm.
Israel countered that unlike Republicans, Democrats welcome candidates whose views don’t match the leaders. And, he maintained, Democrats benefit from the Republican Party’s warfare between hardcore tea party loyalists and more establishment figures. When tea party candidates win Republican primaries in swing states, their candidates have a history of often losing general elections because they’re seen as too extreme.
Disaffected Republicans aren’t necessarily heading to the Democratic Party.
In Arkansas, where Democratic Sen. Mark Pryor has one of the nation’s toughest re-election races, about 30 percent of voters called themselves Democrats in a recent Arkansas Poll. That’s down from 36 percent in 2000. But Republicans, at 23 percent that year, have slipped _ from 29 percent in 2012 to 24 percent last year. Independents now number 37 percent, up from 33 percent in a year.
Republicans still remain strong favorites this year to maintain control of the House, where they now have a 232-200 majority. Independent analysts also rate the party a decent bet to have a net gain of the six seats they need to win the Senate.
The liberal image hurts the Democrats, and so far, the new generation of leaders isn’t helping, said Kondik. “Democrats winning House seats in districts Republicans won last time would defy political logic.”
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