Last weekend, Ross Douthat penned a provocative column arguing that Democrats should be thankful for the super-star power of Hillary Clinton because without her the party could be in severe trouble. Much of the subsequent debate has involved speculation about likely possible outcomes of the 2016 general election, about which I think the best one can say is that it will probably depend on the objective state of the world over the next 18 months.
His more intriguing idea was a vision of a deeply divided Democratic Party that, absent the presence of a star candidate, would likely fall apart: "the post-Obama Democratic Party could well be the Austro-Hungarian empire of presidential majorities: a sprawling, ramshackle and heterogeneous arrangement, one major crisis away from dissolution."
This, I think, is completely wrong. The Democratic Party could easily lose the next election, but the coalition as a whole is more durable and robust than it's ever been for reasons that go much deeper than Hillary's popularity.
1) Hillary seems inevitable because Democrats are united
Hillary Clinton's celebrity status and stature in the party combined with the lack of appropriately credentialed and charismatic alternatives put her head and shoulders ahead of the competition. But if the party faced a major policy divide, someone or other would emerge to champion it. Perhaps someone who would lose! But someone.
Today we have the opposite situation. It is impossible to mount a coherent anti-Clinton campaign because there is no issue that divides the mass of Democrats. If she were to unexpectedly decline to run, some other figure (perhaps Joe Biden, perhaps Martin O'Malley) would step into the void and lead the party on a similar policy agenda.
2) 2008 was about Iraq
Subsequent events have tended to obscure this, but the 2008 Democratic Primary was, among other things, a major argument about foreign policy. Hillary Clinton had supported George W. Bush's invasion of Iraq, and Barack Obama had not. Obama's appeal, obviously, stretched beyond this fact. But his core substantive argument against Clinton dealt with Iraq in particular and foreign policy doctrine more broadly.
Crucially, both sides of the argument agreed that an argument was taking place. Clinton hit Obama as weak and naive for his willingness to undertake direct negotiations with leaders of rogue states and charged him with being unready to keep the nation safe in an emergency.
The 2008 campaign directly echoed the 2004 primary between the less-compelling figures of Howard Dean and John Kerry. Many of Obama's key primary-era foreign policy aides — people such as Susan Rice and Ivo Daalder — had been Dean supporters, and the arguments and recriminations between Obama-supporting and Clinton-supporting foreign policy hands were vicious.
That Clinton ended up serving as Obama's Secretary of State makes this look a bit ridiculous in retrospect. But it seemed very important at the time.
3) The banking picture is muddled
Many intellectuals who care passionately about regulation of the financial services industry would like to believe the Democratic Party is deeply divided between a bankster-friendly establishment and its populist critics.
There is something to this, but really much less than the proponents of schism-ism think.
Crucially, the allegedly bank-friendly faction of the party doesn't accept this account of where they stand. They see themselves as having shepherded a massive bank regulation bill through congress, and as constantly fighting on multiple fronts — inside bipartisan regulatory agencies, in the courts, at international meetings, in congressional negotiations — to get tougher on the banks.
And the financial services industry agrees! Ever since the Dodd-Frank debate began, the financial services industry has poured enormous sums of money into GOP congressional campaigns and the effort to beat Barack Obama.
People who follow the issue closely will know that there are some very real disagreements about the details of bank regulation. And there are some even realer disagreements about atmospherics, rhetoric, and overall feelings about the financial sector. And even Obama has, selectively, engaged in populist anti-finance rhetoric when it suits his purposes.
Broadly speaking a non-specialist voter is going to see that any plausible 2016 nominee is going to push for tighter bank regulation, will be opposed by the bank lobby, and probably won't accomplish everything she tries for due to GOP opposition.
4) Everyone agrees on inequality
Twenty years ago, Democrats were divided on the question of inequality with moderates largely accepting the Reaganite precept that some loss of equity was a reasonable price to pay for faster economic growth. Today, all Democrats think that inequality is out of control (heck, the CEO of Goldman Sachs thinks inequality is out of control) and that it should be addressed through tax hikes on high-income Americans.
Clearly, different people are going to differ on the details. But congressional Republicans have also made it clear that securing any tax hikes is going to be a very difficult political battle. Any Democratic nominee will try to raise taxes on the rich if she wins, and any Democratic President will end up in a huge fight with the GOP about it.
5) K-12 education doesn't matter enough
For an example of the kind of issue that does divide the Democratic Party, look no further than K-12 education. The Obama administration has pursued an "education reform" agenda that features calls for more charter schools, and for more linkage of teacher compensation and job security to test results. Many Democrats around the country agree with Obama about this. But many other Democrats around the country agree with teachers unions that this is entirely backwards, and there should be fewer charter schools and less reliance on test-based assessments of teacher quality.
This is the kind of tug-o-war with one faction pulling one way and another faction pulling the other way that really does tear a party apart.
Except it's not an important federal issue. Not because education isn't important, but because the federal government plays a relatively modest role in America's K-12 education policy. The education divide can be quite explosive and state and local politics (witness the disputes between Bill de Blasio and Andre Cuomo in New York) but it just isn't important enough on the federal stage to lead to a major schism.
6) Demographics aren't destiny
The much greater demographic diversity of the Democratic Party coalition may give it an illusion of fragility. Talk during recent primary campaigns of "wine track" versus "beer track" Democrats further amplifies that sense. But a look at the congressional caucus' behavior reveals a party that is dramatically more united than at any time in the past hundred years. Defections come overwhelmingly from outlier legislators representing very conservative states like Arkansas or Louisiana.
What you would expect to see from a party torn apart by demographics is elected officials who put together very different voting records. But even though Jerry Nadler (Greenwich Village and the Upper West Side), Peter Welch (in Vermont), and Maxine Waters (South LA) represent very different people they vote in very similar ways. And you see that on most big issues Democratic Senators representing the contested terrain in the Midwest, Southwest, and Virginia vote together with those from the Northeast and the Pacific Coast.
Rustbelt legislators back Obama's EPA regulations, and comprehensive immigration reform was unanimously endorsed by Democratic Party Senators. American politics is becoming more ideological, and the Democratic coalition is increasingly an ideological coalition that happens to be diverse (and, indeed, that upholds the value of diversity as an ideological precent) rather than a patchwork of ethnic interests or local machines.
7) American politics is getting nastier
As a recent Pew report on polarization showed, completely apart from substantive policy issues both Democrats and Republicans are increasingly alarmed by the other party's agenda. This alarmism in fact stronger on the GOP side, but it's quite strong — and growing — on the Democratic side as well.
This seems like an unhealthy trend for the country, but it's excellent news for party cohesion. Splits require not just internal disagreement, but a relatively blasé attitude toward the opposition.
None of this means that victory is somehow assured for Democrats in 2016 — far from it. But it does mean that the coalition is at no risk of collapse. The kind of electoral mega-landslides that happened in 1964 or 1980 where one party's candidate gets utterly blown away simply can't happen under modern conditions.