Firing From the Rear: Democrats’ Infighting Follows Historical Pattern

BY Elizabeth Summers  August 12, 2010 at 3:59 PM EDT

President Obama talks with Press Secretary Robert Gibbs; White House Photo by Pete Souza

White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs drew fire from the liberal Democratic base this week after his comments denouncing the “professional left” in an interview with The Hill newspaper. In an interview with The Rundown, presidential historian Richard Norton Smith, scholar-in-residence at George Mason University and a regular guest on the PBS NewsHour, helped us put this scuffle in perspective.

Historically, is this a familiar theme, this tension between the Democratic left and Democratic administrations trying to govern?

RICHARD NORTON SMITH: I was struck when I heard Mr. Gibbs’ language, because it was almost virtually identical to what President Harry Truman used to say about people to his left. And yes, it reflects on the fact this is a very long-standing tension within the Democratic party, and by the way, has a counterpart in the Republican Party as well, which we can get to later. President Truman would talk about the “professional liberals,” by which he meant the Roosevelt brain trust, the ideological left, some of the people who had never accepted him. He was from Missouri and he was a centrist Democrat in many ways. Here’s a great example of professional liberalism. Mr. Truman replaced Henry Wallace as vice president in 1944, hired him as his Secretary of Commerce, and then fired him from the position after Mr. Wallace gave a speech that was deemed to be overly friendly to the Soviets. This was in the early days of the Cold War.

Truman was struggling with the country’s memories of Franklin D. Roosevelt?

RICHARD NORTON SMITH: Yes, and the irony was that even FDR had a significant struggle in his first term with people like Huey Long, people on the left who believed the New Deal was too conservative, too friendly to business. These were people who thought he was missing an opportunity to transform the nation’s economy, the opportunity that had been presented by the Great Depression. They thought that President Roosevelt had a mandate not just to preserve the system, but to transform it. That tension drove Roosevelt to the left in the second part of his first term. He imposed higher taxes, for instance, there was pro-labor legislation, there was Social Security, and all of this was part of Mr. Roosevelt’s effort to prevent anyone from getting to his left.

Can you give some more examples of how we’ve seen this conflict play out in other administrations?

RICHARD NORTON SMITH: In more recent times, Lyndon Johnson famously enacted the Great Society. President Johnson was the most activist president, arguably, in history. He passed Medicare and civil rights legislation, it was one landmark piece of legislation after another that liberals had dreamed of and that Johnson had delivered. And yet, it was on his left flank that he was challenged in 1968, over Vietnam. And he might have been challenged even without Vietnam, because just as Truman had to deal with the Roosevelt crowd, Johnson found his legitimacy challenged by some of the original Kennedy supporters.

Then, Jimmy Carter was elected as a different kind of Democrat, a centrist Democrat from Georgia, someone whose politics were closer to Truman than to Johnson.

And what happens to him?

RICHARD NORTON SMITH: Almost from the beginning of his presidency, there is a sharp and widening divide between the president and his supporters, who basically believed Americans had moved on from the New Deal. This was not the 1930s, this was the 1970s, they would say. But then there were the “true believers,” the organized leaders, the Kennedy supporters, who of course rallied in 1980 around Ted Kennedy, who was in many ways the standard-bearer for the liberal traditionalists, if you will. By that I mean people who believed in the New Deal impulse, if not all the New Deal programs, who thought that government had a significant role to play in bettering people’s lives.

And then we come to Bill Clinton.

RICHARD NORTON SMITH: Yes. He lost his Democratic House in 1994 and then turned it brilliantly to his advantage by in many ways co-opting the issues of welfare reform and balancing the budget. In doing so, Clinton assured his re-election, but he also alienated the left of his party. That was a source of real friction within the party.

You mentioned a counterpart in the Republican Party. Do we see this tension among conservatives as well?

RICHARD NORTON SMITH: On the Republican side, it also exists, though it is somewhat less dramatic. I’ll go back to Ronald Reagan, Mr. Conservative. He frankly came in for harsh criticism from the right of his own party for his arms policy. Some people thought hed gone soft on the Soviet Union. Gerald Ford was considered the most conservative president since Calvin Coolidge, but not conservative enough for those who rallied around Reagan. There was the Panama Canal treaty, there was Henry Kissinger. The party was changing. President Ford had to worry about his right flank.

What role does the 24-hour news cycle play in all of this?

RICHARD NORTON SMITH: It’s another factor that has made this more relevant, the rise in recent years of the blogosphere. Clearly, activists on either side of the political spectrum now have a vehicle to express themselves, to communicate with one another, and — in the process — try to influence news coverage, public opinion, even the White House itself in ways that were not available a generation ago. When people talk about what President Obama will do if he finds himself facing a Republican Congress, one argument is that he’ll do what President Clinton did, use it to his advantage, move to the center, co-opt the middle. The problem with that is first of all, there is no evidence that philosophically Mr. Obama would be comfortable with that, and second, there is no evidence of any willingness on the Republican side to be co-opted. This is a different Republican Congress than it used to be. But the main difference here is that Bill Clinton could, in effect, get away with saying things like, “The era of big government is over,” because sure, the left wing on Capitol Hill would grumble and mutter their discontent, but they would not openly challenge the president. Today, its a very different climate. There is an articulate, organized and very vocal opposition on the left, much of which is led by the bloggers, and I think the best evidence of that, to come full circle, is the people Gibbs is referring to.

So this kind of tension is a long-standing tradition.

RICHARD NORTON SMITH: Yes, as you can see. A president sits in the White House and says, “You know, I have to govern.” Perfection is not an option. Its not surprising people around you develop some feeling of resentment toward those you see as your nominal allies, but who, when the chips are down, are firing at you from your rear. Part of this is the natural result of the fact that in a country as large and diverse as this, any governing party is going to necessarily be a coalition. And a coalition is not a cult. People hold differing interpretations and values of what it means to be a Democrat or a Republican in 2010, and that’s what you’re seeing played out.