I am confused by Ross Douthat, which is strange because he is an especially clear thinker and writer. In a post at the New York Times, he takes issue with liberal responses to a series on political demographics by Sean Trende, in which Trende argues that Republicans could survive the next few elections without additional support from minorities -- by padding their vote total with whites. (Trende wasn't necessarily recommending that Republicans do that -- only that they could.)
The Democrats haven’t just been passive players in the recent racial polarization of the parties: Rather, they’ve embraced and furthered the trend, as a necessary part of making their new presidential-level “coalition of the ascendant” work. Where the Clinton-era Democrats still tried to win working class whites outright, the Obama-era Democrats mostly just used scorched-earth campaigning to try to minimize the G.O.P.’s margin and/or keep these voters on the sidelines. Where the pre-Obama party still made room for immigration skeptics and coal-country populists, the Obama-era Democrats have pushed in policy directions calculated to alienate many of the swing voters who cast ballots for Byron Dorgan in the past, or Joe Manchin or Mark Pryor in the present. Where the pre-Obama party spoke the language of “safe, legal and rare” on abortion and basically set gun control aside as a losing issue, the Obama Democrats have mostly dropped the “rare” part and, post-Newtown, taken up the gun-control cause anew. And so on.
Jonathan Chait, operating on the theory that campaigns like to get as many votes as they can, has taken issue with the notion that the Obama campaign wasn't much interested in working-class whites.
But campaigns often sacrifice some votes in search of others. The Republican Southern Strategy factored in the deliberate alienation of black voters in an effort to run up the score among resentful whites. Richard Nixon-hand Pat Buchanan even hoped Democrats would be maneuvered into selecting a black vice-presidential nominee, enabling Republicans to “cut the Democratic Party and country in half.” The object, he wrote in a memo, was for Republicans to seize the larger -- whiter -- share of the electorate.
That isn't what's going on in Obama's Democratic Party. The racial composition of Obama's 2012 victory was almost identical to that of Michael Dukakis's 1988 defeat. (Remember Willie Horton?) Obama got 39 percent of the white vote; Dukakis got 40 percent. Obama also received about the same share of the Hispanic vote as Dukakis. Obama did better among blacks, both in vote percentage and in turnout. But even Dukakis received 89 percent of the black vote. Dukakis wasn't blowing off working-class whites, and neither was Obama. Obama simply benefited from the change in demographics. In 1988, whites were 85 percent of the presidential vote. In 2012, they were 72 percent.
I understand why Douthat focused on guns and abortion: They're the perennial social-wedge issues. But Obama's efforts at regulating guns were not only in the same ballpark as those of Clinton, who Douthat posits as solicitous of working-class whites, they were actually less extensive. Unlike Clinton, Obama put virtually no effort behind an assault-weapons ban, and his background-check proposal was merely a logical extension of the one signed by Clinton.
On abortion, Douthat has an equally odd interpretation of events. In Texas, North Carolina and elsewhere, Republican legislatures are nullifying the constitutional right to an abortion, by regulating abortion clinics out of existence while placing additional restrictions on abortion rights. The Obama administration's moves on abortion, most of which concern insurance coverage, are incremental compared with the dramatic leaps being taken -- in the opposite direction -- by red-state legislatures. If abortion is especially contentious right now, it's not because of the Obama administration.
So we have a Democratic president who has pursued a less ambitious agenda on guns than Clinton, and a far less ambitious agenda on abortion than contemporary Republicans. In addition, his signature policy achievement, the Affordable Care Act, is designed to help precisely the sort of non-college whites (and blacks and browns) that Douthat says Obama has written off.
Obama has indeed written off "immigration skeptics and coal-country populists." There is no denying that. He can't please the first group while trying to make citizens of 11 million undocumented immigrants. He can't please the second while creating a better life for the rest of the planet. So, yes, Obama has alienated whites who are opposed to legalizing immigrants and who are devoted to dirty energy.
But working-class whites in general? As Larry Bartels and others have shown, Obama's "white working class" problem is largely a regional phenomenon. White southerners and residents of Appalachia don't like the president. They didn't like him in 2008. They probably won't like him when he leaves office in 2017.
If a white Democrat gets the Democratic nomination in 2016 and runs on a platform very similar to Obama's, I have a feeling she'll do better.
(Francis Wilkinson is a member of the Bloomberg View editorial board. Follow him on Twitter.)