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Ross Douthat has rightly argued that the Democratic political coalition is vulnerable, but he’s wrong to suggest Hillary Clinton is the only one who can hold it together. The success of the Democratic coalition will be determined by events that are out of the easy control of any elected official, namely the ability of center-left political elites to work together effectively, and the ability of the center-right to adjust to the realities of present-day America (to say nothing of the course of the economy and developments in foreign countries).

The tensions within the center-left political coalition certainly exist. One preview of potential division was the debate within the California Democratic party over the reintroduction of racial preferences in the state’s colleges. The debate divided Latino and Asian-American state legislators. The issue was put aside, but it was a reminder of the kinds of internal divisions that center-left elites can stir up just by choosing to emphasize the wrong issue. The center-left also faces the potential problem that parts of its voting coalition are to the right of the Democratic party’s left-wing. According to opinion polls, a larger fraction of African-Americans and Latinos voted support for incremental abortion restrictions and relatively smaller government than for Mitt Romney in 2012. That doesn’t mean that those voters can easily be won over to a center-right politics, but it is a fissure within the center-left political coalition that conservatives might be able to exploit given time, effort, skill, and favorable circumstances. The problem being that only the last can be given. The rest have to be earned.

A further complication is that, as the center-left is starting to take future political victory for granted, it gives left-wing activists and intellectuals the excuse to try to push the party ever farther to the left. This can be seen in how liberal intellectuals who have been treating the retirement of pro-abortion, pro-gay marriage, Obama-endorsing Michael Bloomberg as liberation from Jesse Helms. It can be seen in the move to roll back work requirements for welfare, and it can be seen in the American Prospect’s celebrating that “the Blue Dog [moderate Democrat] Coalition in Congress has now been put down.” Left-wing activists are confident that the country is going their way, but they might find that they are walking themselves out on a limb as they embrace ever-greater spending and the a tax bill that will come into public view.

But while these (and other) divisions exist on the center-left, it is not obvious that Hillary Clinton is the only—or even the key—figure in holding this coalition together. The idea of Hillary Clinton as a presidential candidate didn’t live up to the reality in 2008 and her sometimes tin ear is not a thing of the past. It isn’t that she is a bad candidate. It is just that the reality of Hillary Clinton on the stump is less-than-greatness. She is closer in talent to a Mitt Romney than a Barack Obama (or a Bill Clinton). It also means that holding the Democratic coalition together will be at least as much the collective work of the center-left’s political elites as that of any presidential candidate. The California Democratic establishment was able to put aside the racial preferences issue in the interest of domestic peace. The Democrats need a candidate who won’t blunder into divisive internal battles. If center-left elites are able to temporarily subsume their maximal demands during the campaign and pursue their disparate interests between elections, a competent campaign by Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley (or whoever) should be able to keep the center-left together even if Hillary Clinton chose not to run. And if center-left elites want a civil war, they will get it and Hillary Clinton won’t be able to stop them.

Finally, the political success of the center-left will partly be determined by the quality of the center-right (and vice versa of course). In the 1990s David Frum wrote that Republicans in the mid-1900s knew that they could not politically defeat the Democrats in a fair electoral fight. There were just too many Democrat-identifying voters. The result was that Republicans felt like they had to hug the political center and hope that favorable circumstances would deliver them a win.

Since the Reagan era, Republicans have had almost the opposite feeling. Given a competent candidate and absent all but the most adverse circumstances, Republicans felt like they were likely to win. It was this sense that there was a latent Republican majority that formed the basis of much of the “America is a center-right country” commentary of recent decades.

That feeling was based in something real. Republicans were able to win even when circumstances were unfavorable. Even with the Lewinsky scandal, the circumstances of the 2000 presidential election pointed to a decisive Democratic win. It likely would have been just that in the mid-1900s. Even though George W. Bush and Karl Rove did not run a flawless campaign, Bush was a very good candidate and it is a testament to the strength of the center-right coalition that Bush was able to make the popular vote so very close.

Bush ran even better in 2004 but the demographic erosion of the center-right voting base was already visible. Bush’s opponent was a Massachusetts liberal—exactly the kind of candidate a chastened Democratic party did not nominate in the 1990s. The Republicans attacked Kerry over votes to raise taxes and cut defense programs that stretched back to the 1980s. Bush was the last Republican presidential candidate to win using the Reagan playbook. But even then, the election came down to Ohio and Bush decisively lost young voters. The erosion has continued. According to Alan I. Abramowitz, John McCain would have won if the electorate of 2008 had been demographically the same as that of 1992.

This leaves conservatives living in a country where ever-fewer people have a personal or familial tie to the Reagan era. Conservatives also face a media environment where the political consultants associated with the center-right often seem out of touch after having been far ahead of their center-left rivals in the 1970s and 1980s.

The country is more nonwhite, less likely to be married and less likely to attend religious services. For all that, a surprising number of younger voters have conservative-leaning policy instincts, but the political context is very different for ideologically right-leaning (if sometimes Obama-supporting) young voters. These younger voters see the world differently from older conservative tea partiers. Invocations of Reagan mean nothing to these younger voters. They never lived through inflation or bracket creep. For young voters, economic disaster means the Great Recession and the sluggish recovery. Younger voters don’t associate foreign policy disaster with the Iranian hostage crisis and the Soviet Union on the march. Foreign policy disaster means the George W. Bush administration’s conduct of the occupation of Iraq from 2003-2006. None of that means that we are destined to live in a center-left country, but it does mean that the next center-right America will have to be created anew rather than just reassembled.

The medium and long-term ascendency of the center-left is not at all assured. As Ramesh Ponnuru pointed out, Obama is no Ronald Reagan when it comes to the breadth of either his electoral support or his public approval. Whether the center-left can avoid damaging internal splits that limit the liberalism’s public support will depend on the prudence of center-left intellectuals and activists. Whether the center-right will expand its coalition will depend on whether conservatives can create an agenda and message that is relevant to the America of today.   

Pete Spiliakos writes for First Thoughts. His previous columns can be found here.

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