Lyndon Johnson once said of his administration and the Democratic Party: "[w]e're in favor of a lot of things and we're against mighty few."
As the Democratic National Convention closes in Charlotte, N.C., one might say that the party is against many things and in favor of mighty few. Democrats today know what they are against -- entitlement reform, spending cuts and Paul Ryan -- but they aren't too sure what they are for.
However, there is one faction in the Democratic Party that has a concrete agenda: the public-sector unions, which are the heart and soul of the labor movement. They'd like to see President Obama and other party leaders pledge to spend billions of federal dollars to hire thousands more teachers and "invest" in the nation's infrastructure.
The unions imagine all of this can be easily paid for with tax increases on the wealthy and by raising or eliminating the cap on earning subject to the Social Security tax. As AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka has said, "We don't have an entitlement problem. We have a revenue problem."
The unions would also like to see the Democrats take up measures to facilitate unionization and prevent outsourcing. This would obviously benefit both public-sector unions and their private-sector brethren. Whether it would be good for economic growth and the long-term fiscal health of the nation is another question.
The unions have the money and manpower to make their agenda the party's agenda. They are among the largest contributors to the Democratic Party and have a formidable get-out-the-vote operation. The Service Employees International Union is planning what it calls "the largest and most-targeted political field campaign" in its history. Union activists will spend more hours working on President Obama's re-election than will his full-time campaign staff.
With dues checkoff mechanisms that guarantee a steady stream of revenue, organized labor has been able to increase its political spending even in the face of declining membership -- only 12 percent of workers today belong to unions, and most of them work for the government. According to the Wall Street Journal, labor spent $1.1 billion on political activity between 2005 and 2011. And more than 90 percent of that spending supported Democrats. Unions act as a much stronger counterweight to conservative super-PACs than is commonly thought.
Despite this influence, organized labor is far from thrilled with the president. It was irked that he didn't push harder for the Employee Free Choice Act (aka "card check"). It bridled at the pressure that his Race to the Top program put on teachers. It resents that the state where the national convention is being held prohibits public-sector collective bargaining.
Consequently, the AFL-CIO has refused to donate any money to pay for the convention itself. Yet, given its intense opposition to Republicans, labor's only option is to support the Democrats in the general election.
This gives the president and his party some room to maneuver, which is important because they cannot adopt the union agenda in full without alienating independents. And they also need to satisfy other core constituencies in the party. These include liberals concerned about the environment and quality-of-life issues, and centrists who wish the party would address deficits and debt by adopting the proposals of the Simpson-Bowles Commission.
Walking the fine line between satisfying union interests and those of other party factions is no easy task. It will make developing a Democratic agenda to address the nation's problems difficult because it will require Obama to declare what he is against, not just what he is for.
No wonder the president has spent most of his time attacking his opponent.
Daniel DiSalvo is an assistant professor of political science at the City College of New York-CUNY, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute and the author of "Engines of Change: Party Factions in American Politics" (Oxford, 2012).