Sometimes a party has to be proud of its traditions. One of the most powerful moments for Senator Bernie Sanders in the last Democratic debate came when he was asked to name leaders whom he admired. “What [FDR] did is redefine the role of government,” Sanders said, “We are a nation which, if we come together, there is nothing that we cannot accomplish. And kind of, that’s what I see our campaign is about right now.”
For decades, Democrats have spent much of their time running away from their own shadow. They agreed with Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton, thinking that the only way for liberalism to survive in the Age of Reagan was to concede on key principles and to shift sharply to the center. “The Era of Big Government is over,” Clinton announced in his 1996 State of the Union address. “No presidential utterance has come to me as a more unpleasant surprise,” Barney Frank recalled. Even Barack Obama, one of the most progressive presidents we have had since Lyndon Johnson, has often been extraordinarily timid in embracing his party’s traditions in an elusive quest to court the center.
The tension over the party’s identify has been behind much of heat between Sanders and Hillary Clinton. Sanders is running as an unabashed liberal, an unrepentant fan of the New Deal and its legacy. Clinton remains more of an enigma. Her opponents have painted her as being in agreement with her husband’s famous centrism. Clinton’s allies contend that the charges are unfair, insisting that she, too, is rooted in progressive politics.
This debate is not new. The civil war for the heart of the Democratic Party started in the 1970s when a number of Democrats believed the only response to the rising strength of the conservative movement was to distance themselves from the “L word.”
President Jimmy Carter, elected in 1976, was one of the prime movers in the centrist strategy. Since running, Carter had spent much of his time moving away from party orthodoxies. He rejected many of the party’s central policies, pushing for deregulation and keeping at arm’s length from the union movement.
Massachusetts Senator Ted Kennedy strongly disagreed. Kennedy, who had become a top advocate of single-payer health insurance, never liked the president. After one tense meeting about national health insurance, Kennedy held a press conference to say Carter had shown a “failure of leadership.”
During the Democratic “mid-term” convention in Kansas City in 1978, Kennedy warned, “Sometimes a party must sail against the wind.” It was wrong, Kennedy said, “that millions of our fellow citizens are out of work. It is wrong that cities are struggling against decay. It is wrong that women and minorities are denied their equal rights. And it is wrong that millions who are sick cannot afford the care they need.”
Kennedy campaigned as the voice of the New Deal coalition: organized labor, African Americans, Latinos, Jewish Americans, women, and young Americans. On March 25, Kennedy enjoyed his first big victory in the New York primary. Writing in The Washington Post, David Broder said: “The longer [Kennedy] campaigns, the more he sounds like the authentic voice of 1960s liberalism, a passion for what he called ‘economic democracy and social justice’ that found expression in ambitious, interventionist, activist government programs.”