Democrats a One Issue Party?

Despite longstanding claims that the Democratic and Republican parties are virtually indistinguishable centrist machines, there are a number of explosive issues that divide their base constitutencies. These range from their views on taxation and redistribution of income, social issues like abortion and school prayer, and how to balance guns versus butter. Increasingly, though, it appears that one issue, the war in Iraq, is the only issue that matters to the Democrats.

Several issues in the news today illustrate this. First, Republican Jim Webb won the Democratic nomination for a highly targeted Senate seat. Aside from his vehement opposition to the Iraq War, there is no sense in which he is a Democrat, even by Southern standards.

Next, although it gets only page 10 coverage in today’s WaPo, Dan Balz’ report that Hillary Clinton was booed yesterday at the Take Back America conference is quite noteworthy.

Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) drew boos and hisses from an audience of liberal activists yesterday as she defended her opposition to a timetable for withdrawing U.S. forces from Iraq, and later she received an implicit rebuke from Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.) for failing to acknowledge that her support for the war was a mistake.

Clinton’s and Kerry’s appearances at the Take Back America conference at the Washington Hilton put on vivid display the Democratic Party’s divisions over the foreign policy issue that dominates this year’s midterm elections, and the two possible 2008 presidential candidates offered a preview of the debate that could dominate the battle for the party’s nomination.
Clinton and Kerry supported the 2002 congressional resolution authorizing the Iraq war. Kerry recently renounced that vote, but Clinton has never done so. She finds herself in opposition to a majority of Democratic activists and is the target of passionate criticism from some of them.

Clinton won repeated applause through most of her speech, which dealt at length with domestic issues but also sharply criticized President Bush’s handling of the war. But the audience turned against her when, in what she called a difficult conversation, she restated her long-standing position about timetables for withdrawing U.S forces. “I have to just say it,” she began. “I do not think it is a smart strategy either for the president to continue with his open-ended commitment, which I think does not put enough pressure on the new Iraqi government, nor do I think it is smart strategy to set a date certain. I do not agree that that is in the best interest of our troops or our country.”

Clinton finished on a more positive note, with an exhortation about winning the November elections that brought audience members to their feet cheering. But within minutes, as she worked the rope line on her way out of the hotel ballroom, she was the target of protesters, who chanted “Bring the troops home” and “Stop the war.”

Let me emphasize again that “Clinton won repeated applause through most of her speech.” Still, the fact that the presumptive overwhelming frontrunner for the 2008 presidential nomination is getting such disrespectful treatment from her own partisans over a rather nuanced position on the war is striking.

Finally, we have the longstanding efforts to drive Joe Lieberman, who was the darling of the party as recently as 2000–when he was the vice presidential nominee–almost exclusively over his support for the war. The latest development is a former state party chair telling Lieberman he’d be better off running as an independent.

A prominent ally of U.S. Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman urged Monday that Lieberman run for re-election as an independent and not trust his career to left-leaning Democratic primary voters in August. John F. Droney Jr., a former Democratic state chairman who helped Lieberman unseat Republican Sen. Lowell P. Weicker Jr. in 1988, said Lieberman should make his case for re-election to all voters in November. “I think to be terrorized through the summer by an extremely small group of the Democratic Party, much less the voting population, is total insanity for a person who is a three-term senator,” Droney said.

Droney’s suggestion was not welcomed by the Lieberman campaign. The senator’s staff has been trying to discourage speculation that Lieberman, who is more popular with Republicans and unaffiliated voters than Democrats, might run as an independent. Lieberman’s campaign manager, Sean Smith, and Nancy DiNardo, the Democratic state chairwoman, immediately distanced themselves from the suggestion by Droney, who has played no major role in Lieberman’s 2006 campaign. “I believe that Joe Lieberman will win this primary. He has been a good Democrat, and I believe he will remain a Democrat,” DiNardo said.

While Lieberman should easily win re-nomination, it’s by no means a certainty. He might indeed be better off running as an independent–and surely winning re-election–than risking losing the nomination and then having to decide whether to become a Sore Loser Independent.

Parties have split over wars before, with the Whigs destroyed over the issues that led to the Civil War and many Southern Democrats leaving the party in the late 1960s and early 1970s at least partly over the position on Vietnam taken by the party leadership. Yet, by any standard, the war in Iraq is minor in scale compared to those conflicts. That it might fracture a political party is remarkable.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. McGehee says:

    Parties have split over wars before, with the Whigs destroyed over the issues that led to the Civil War…

    It’s worth pointing out that the Whigs had already hurt themselves with vehement opposition to the Mexican War — even Lincoln spoke very strongly against it at the time. Their position might have been right or wrong, but politically it was a major blunder.

    The subsequent inability of the party to agree on the issues regarding slavery and the territories exposed the Whig Party as having not deepened much since its origin as essentially the anti-Jackson party (hence its name, a reference to Jackson’s alleged “royal” ambitions).

  2. The real irony is that if Lieberman ran as an independent (and won), he would likely organize with the democrats. Outside of believing that the US can and should win in Iraq, Lieberman really doesn’t have a lot in common with the GOP.

    But lets postulate a potential scenario. In a campaign season that started with serious talk of regaining majorities in the senate and house, lets consider what would happen if events like the Kossack’s Tester win in Montana resulted in the numbers in congress remaining the same or even improving for the GOP. Not the most likely scenario, but at least as credible as thing stand as the dems winning control of congress.

    Now where would Hillary be when she looks at a presidential bid? If the left’s wet dream of a reverse 1994 didn’t come about in 2006 (and actually backfired giving the majorities larger than the current 75 year maximum), is there any possibility that they might reconsider their political jihad on this single issue? From the liberals I’ve talked to, the facts don’t seem to matter as much as the position. So I see them just wanting to play their single note more shrilly and louder rather than question their position. This of course would likely cause an even worse debacle in 2008. On the other hand, the rest of the party may actually start to marginalize them. This is likely to still cause a defeat in 2008, but it will at least sow the seeds for an eventual comeback.

    So enter Hillary. Already tagged as a calculating politician who takes positions for the political expediency, not political principles. Her being declared anathema by the left may actually help her. If the dems make big gains, the far left will be so embolden that her vote on the war will doom her permanently. No change she could make now would save her. But if the far left’s tactics stumble in November, she actually gets to take credit for a centrist stand (still to the left, but certainly more rational and centrist than say Kerry) against strong opposition. So the political calculus says she is dead politically if she jumps positions anyway but may be in a better position if she stays the course. So being the calculating politician, I suspect she will stay the course.

  3. James, I think this is definitely true. I blogged about the Tomasky/Bienert discussion at Salon, and cited this quote from Tomasky:

    It’s the fault of the warriors. It’s because of Iraq. The war in Iraq is why we “missed” Darfur, a moral error that your magazine (under new editorship) recently lamented. And the war in Iraq looms over our national future.

    and this one from Mark Schmitt’s comments about Bienert:

    The big moral question for our time, the one we have to get right just as the postwar liberals had to get totalitarian communism right, is the Iraq War and the ideology that underlies it.

    A one-trick pony, to be sure…


  4. legion says:

    You see the forest, but still run into a tree…

    Let me emphasize again that â??Clinton won repeated applause through most of her speech.â?? Still, the fact that the presumptive overwhelming frontrunner for the 2008 presidential nomination is getting such disrespectful treatment from her own partisans over a rather nuanced position on the war is striking.

    No, what’s striking is the emphasis in the story on the booing of one specific issue over the enthusiastic support on many other fronts. It’s not that the Dems are one-issue, it’s that the media are already trying to cast the Dems as one-issue.

  5. James Joyner says:


    I am always open to the possibility that the media coverage of an event is flawed. Indeed, it’s usually the case.

    But we have this, too, not the single instance:

    Clinton finished on a more positive note, with an exhortation about winning the November elections that brought audience members to their feet cheering. But within minutes, as she worked the rope line on her way out of the hotel ballroom, she was the target of protesters, who chanted “Bring the troops home” and “Stop the war.”

    Now, how many protestors there were and what other people are doing is unclear. But it certainly seems like a big deal.

  6. Dave says:

    The premise that the only thing the Democrats care about is the war in Iraq is flawed. The Dems want universal health care, abortion rights, and ecological harmony. National security matters simply do not concern them.

    Democrats raise the issue of Iraq for cynical reasons. They see that most centrists have shifted to anti-war and they seek to exploit that shift to make political gains.

    The erosion of support for the War in Republican circles is a much more interesting (and disappointing) phenomenon.

  7. jwb says:

    Democrats oppose the war because it is a sham, a work of fakery with an incalculable opportunity cost. It’s true that you can’t be a credible Democratic candidate if you support the war, just as flat-Earthers and Scientologists are scorned.

    But it’s false that this is the only issue Democrats care about. Most polls show that registered Democrats are concerned about health care, the economy, and education, just like registered Republicans. The war issue is used as a test, but it’s not the only issue of concern.

  8. I think you can make a pretty good argument that the Democrats are a one issue party, and that issue is taking back power. All other principles certainly seem to be secondary.

  9. legion says:

    Indeed. The ability to put anything into context is something the media – left, right, and center – has absolutely ceased doing, except in the context of personal bias. Sigh.

  10. lily says:

    It is not that the Democrats are one issue–it’s that we have general agreement on everything except one issue, therefore that’s what we fight about.
    By the way what issues do the Republicans have to offer? (this isn’t meant as snark to you). The Republicans would be better off if they were engaged in an acrimonious disagreement over the defecit, the abuse of governmental power, corruption, failure to address global warming, nutty regious beliefs driving policy…..etc.
    Webb’s ideas are closer to the Democrat than Republicans because the Republicans have become the extremists and Democrats are right where we’ve always been, mostly middle with a little left.
    Also the war isn’t a left/right issue in the way that health care ideas sometimes split along left/right lines.. There is nothing inherently left about wanting to get out or opposing the initial invasion. The opposition is pragmatic, reality based, non-ideological. It’s the support for the invasion that is ideological (or cowardly, as in the case of Ms Clinton).

  11. DaveD says:

    I used to buy into the headline of this post, but I am not so sure anymore. I tend to feel like jwb on this. The war in Iraq is the one issue that seems to draw the most contrast between the two parties. I think that on domestic issues, there has been when you really get down to it a significant lack of passionate differences. And with those issues that seemed to show some promise in highlighting significant differences (Social Security Reform for example)Republican efforts quickly and obligingly faded. I don’t know who to blame. Maybe a distracted President supported by an impotent majority in Congress, I don’t know. I kind of thought that with a health care crisis looming Social Security Reform would be the dress rehearsal for reforming the larger problem of health care funding/Medicare, etc. But it was not to be.

  12. Lily,

    Do you really see the Republicans as monolithic. There are a lot of very serious debate within the party. Immigration, government spending, effectiveness of homeland security, etc. The problem is that the democrats don’t seem to be offering very much in the way of alternatives (other than gridlock and ‘no’). I think a big part of the “unity” you see in the democratic party is that they are out of power. Rather than cut the best deal they can, they keep looking for a miracle at the next election. Being out of power, they don’t have to get into the messy details, even though responsibly they should.

    Imagine if the democrats 1) acknowledged that social security and medicare are not on solid financial footing, 2) proposed solutions. Now I may not like the solution (e.g. lets raise taxes and ignore the unintended consequences of that), but the example would be a serious proposed solution for a serious problem. But by not facing up to reality, not proposing solutions, the problem gets worse, not better. And with the democrats favorite solution of not voting for cloture as the one button of government they like to push, the republicans can’t get a proposed solution through either (which I assume you would dislike as much as I would dislike the raising taxes idea). But at least I see the GOP trying (even if they fail more than I would like).

    But it is also a catch-22 situation. If the democrats start proposing real solutions, including the messy details, then they will start having the internal debates also. Further, the question is will they turn off more people by the solution (e.g. raising taxes) than they attract for being honest players in the role of government. Possibly, it isn’t clear. But minority status is clear if they don’t start acting responsibly.

    The war is what the left/democrats have rallied behind, but it wasn’t a winner in 2004, doesn’t look like a winner in 2006 and given the current trends, is likely to be an albatross around the democrats neck as the reality on the ground gets contrasted with their public statements.

  13. Roger says:

    JWB is correct, of course. Iraq isn’t the Dems only issue, but it is the Dem’s and the nation’s #1 issue right now, and rightly so. It would be truly unique if the probable greatest foreign policy error in modern history weren’t a big issue.

    The reason the Dem’s care as much as they do about Iraq is because of all of their other issue areas Iraq touches on: they believe American arrogance in general as represented by our unnecessary attack on Iraq in the face of world opposition harms our nation by weakening our alliances and fanning anti-Americanism, thus endangering our security (again, unnecessarily); they are abhorred by the lies our govt. fed us leading into the war and as it has progressed and oppose the false democracy that results when the people are misled by their leaders; they are concerned at the total failure to remain focused on the war against Al Qaeda that our Iraq adventure represents and that it has allowed Al Qaeda to survive and recruit more fanatics than it could have done otherwise; and on and on.

    There are many others issues of concern for Dems including global warming, protecting our constitutional freedoms, checking the current executive’s push for despotism, health care, living wages, an equitable system of taxation, ensuring a quality public education for all citizens regardless of class, ensuring equal opportunity regardless of class, and so on. All are very important. But none have the surface immediacy of seeing our young soldiers dying in a cause that was foolish, unnecessary, and that has harmed our country.