The Class of ’06
There are some good things to be said about absorbing periodic electoral “shellackings.” For one thing, it gives the shellacked party an opportunity to reflect a bit, to let internal battles sort themselves out, to bring new leadership to the forefront. The Democrats won’t officially have new leadership; Nancy Pelosi won her bid for Minority Leader quite handily, and the rest of the leadership team will remain intact even with a couple of title changes. But even the self-described “quixotic” challenge of Pelosi by Heath Shuler represents, at the very least, a new dimension in those internal party battles and maybe a glimpse of what a future leadership coalition could look like.
Just to be clear, Heath Shuler is more conservative than I am. I supported the health care bill, and I generally fall in line with the mainstream of the Democratic Party – in policy, if not outlook. That said, all comparisons of Shuler’s challenge to the Harold Ford – Pelosi battle in 2002 (when Gephardt was stepping down) are made under the assumption that a) the major factions of the Party haven’t changed since 2002; and b) that the best summary of both races is Pelosi vs. [insert conservative southern democrat here].
But Heath Shuler is no Harold Ford. On The Issues categorizes Ford as a “moderate liberal,” and Shuler as a “liberal-leaning Populist.” The two are on opposite sides of key issues like trade and immigration policy. Last year, Harold Ford flirted with challenging Kirsten Gillibrand in the New York Senate Democratic Primary, and openly courted Wall Street in the process. Shuler, on the other hand, voted against TARP and for Wall Street reform. Yes, they’re both conservative Democrats, but the similarities end there.
Honestly, I find Shuler very interesting. Even though he never had a chance of winning, I’m glad to see that he is positioning himself to become a force within the Party. While I’m happy having Shuler representing conservative Democrats, I’d love to see Bruce Braley step up and play a leading role in the future of the more Left-leaning Democrats. Braley – who, like Shuler, just survived a legitimate challenge and won a 3rd term – is the Chair of the House Populist Caucus, a caucus he established in 2009. At the time, the caucus listed fair trade, health care, and middle-class tax policy as the top items on their agenda.
Braley is squarely on the Left side of American politics, but he does it with special attention to working and middle-class (and in his case, heartland) issues. Both Shuler and Braley were part of the ’06 Congressional freshman class, a group that includes on the other side of the capitol Senators Sherrod Brown (kind of the Senate version of Braley, ideologically) Bob Casey, Jim Webb, Claire McCaskill, Jon Tester, and Bernie Sanders. Some of these could be considered progressive, some conservative, but, as Harold Meyerson noted four years ago, all are “economic populists:”
The new-model Democrats who emerged from the 2006 elections may differ on cultural questions, how to get out of Iraq, and hiking taxes on the rich. Some of their differences — such as those over warrantless wiretapping — may lead to real internal conflict… What unites the party is a populist perspective that follows as the night the day the current era of Republican-sponsored plutocracy.
That Senate class will be up in 2012, and many of them will face tough challenges (Sanders should have an easy go of it). From my own political perspective, holding onto those Senate seats will, in many ways, be a higher priority than holding the White House.
This November has been tough on my Party – both Shuler’s Blue Dogs, Braley’s Populists and every other variety of Democrat. But things aren’t as bad as they were in 2002. At least now there are some exciting prospects of future leaders and new kinds of coalitions that can be built, even if they will have to wait out the current leadership team.