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Next year could well mark the beginning of the end of the Democratic Party as we have known it since 1972.

That was the year the George McGovernites took over the party. It has never been the same since.

McGovern was the presidential nominee that year – a man who called for an immediate end to the Vietnam War and a federally guaranteed minimum annual salary of $10,000.

It was a radical departure from what had previously been the party of Hubert Humphrey and John Kennedy, liberals in the traditional sense but hardly radicals.

In 1976, the party faithful attempted to return to the center with the nomination of Jimmy Carter, but they unwittingly elected an impostor in the mold of McGovern. Democrats have not had an opportunity to vote for a true moderate for president since.

In electing Barack Obama as president last year, Democrats got the radical party activists they have been seeking ever since 1972 – a man completely out of step with American ideals of free enterprise, strong defense and personal freedom.

With Democrats in control of the House of Representatives, the Senate and the Supreme Court, it might appear that the party is in the political driver’s seat. But it is actually on the precipice of a historic setback that could force Democrats to re-evaluate their most basic ideals or face a realignment that could shatter the party’s shaky coalition for years to come.

The polls tell the story.

Obama’s approval rating has fallen significantly below 50 percent in his first year and much lower among critical independent voters.

After one year in office, Obama is charging ahead with an agenda that scarcely even has the support of most Democrats. While he has three more years in office, his party is set to lose much if not all of its control in Congress in 2010, with even party leaders like Harry Reid facing certain judgment day at the polls.

Even Democratic leaders who supported Obama early on are sending out public smoke signals warning of the disaster the party faces because of the radical agenda of those in power.

First Alabama Rep. Parker Griffith announced he was switching to the Republican Party because, as Ronald Reagan once said, the party had left him.

William Daley of Chicago, secretary of commerce in the Clinton administration, chairman of Al Gore’s 2000 presidential campaign and an early supporter of Obama, took note of this development in a candid opinion piece in the Washington Post the day before Christmas.

“Either we plot a more moderate, centrist course or risk electoral disaster not just in the upcoming midterms but in many elections to come,” he wrote.

He pointed out Griffith’s decision made him the fifth centrist Democrat to either switch parties or announce plans to retire rather than stand for re-election in 2010.

“These announcements are a sharp reversal from the progress the Democratic Party made starting in 2006 and continuing in 2008, when it reestablished itself as the nation’s majority party for the first time in more than a decade,” he continued. “That success happened for one major reason: Democrats made inroads in geographies and constituencies that had trended Republican since the 1960s. In these two elections, a majority of independents and a sizable number of moderate Republicans joined the traditional Democratic base to sweep Democrats to commanding majorities in Congress and to bring Barack Obama to the White House.

“These independents and Republicans supported Democrats based on a message indicating that the party would be a true Big Tent – that we would welcome a diversity of views even on tough issues such as abortion, gun rights and the role of government in the economy.”

He also noted the stunning losses in New Jersey and Virginia in off-year elections in 2009.

“All that is required for the Democratic Party to recover its political footing is to acknowledge that the agenda of the party’s most liberal supporters has not won the support of a majority of Americans – and, based on that recognition, to steer a more moderate course on the key issues of the day, from health care to the economy to the environment to Afghanistan,” wrote Daley.

Of course, that is not going to happen. It’s too late for that in 2010. The actions of 2009 speak loudly. Just as I predicted last year, the election of Obama has awakened the American people from a political slumber.

They weren’t happy with George W. Bush. They didn’t embrace John McCain. But they recognize more clearly than ever the change they were promised in 2008 was not the change the country needed.

Daley and some other Democrats see the handwriting on the wall: “The party’s moment of choosing is drawing close. While it may be too late to avoid some losses in 2010, it is not too late to avoid the kind of rout that redraws the political map. The leaders of the Democratic Party need to move back toward the center – and in doing so, set the stage for the many years’ worth of leadership necessary to produce the sort of pragmatic change the American people actually want.”

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