WASHINGTON -- President Bill Clinton may have said the era of big government was over in the 1990s. But as their party meets this week for their national convention, Democrats around the country define themselves differently on the role of the government, the key issue in the coming election.
Democrats today are solidly in favor of a bigger federal government that provides more services. They want it to spend more money to stimulate the economy. They want to raise taxes on the wealthy, and they say that would help the economy. They think the government should do more to help the needy even if it means more debt.
They differ as well on some social issues. They support gay marriage, for example. Clinton signed a law to stop states from being forced to recognize gay marriage, and President Barack Obama dropped his personal opposition to it only this year.
Whatever differences Democrats have with their past, however, pale compared with their differences from Republicans.
Democrats support abortion rights without exception. They want stricter gun controls. They overwhelmingly approve of the 2010 health care law. They want the government to spend more to develop alternative sources of energy, such as wind. They believe that humans cause global warming. They are much more open to citizenship for illegal immigrants than Republicans are.
Looking overseas, Democrats think it’s important to stop Iran from developing nuclear weapons even if it means war, but a third of them think it’s better to avoid conflict. They want to get U.S. troops out of Afghanistan as fast as possible, not to wait for Obama’s scheduled withdrawal by the end of 2014, according to surveys by the nonpartisan Pew Research Center.
Demographically, Democrats are diverse.
Democrats are more likely to be women, to be single and to make less money than Republicans.
They’re likely to be white, though not as likely as Republicans are: Fifty-eight percent of Democrats are non-Hispanic whites, versus 89 percent of Republicans, according to Pew. They’re much more likely to be African-American, Hispanic or of some other race than Republicans or the country at large: 40 percent of Democrats versus 26 percent of the country and 9 percent of Republicans.
They’re no more likely to be young than any other group is. There are more of them in the cities, fewer in the suburbs and small towns.
Ask them what’s behind their views of government and taxes, and they offer a fairly common theme.
“The Democratic Party is for the majority of the people,” said Maryann Gannon, a retired nurse in New Port Richey, Fla. “We’re for the rich people, too, but we want the rich people to help and do their share.”
“Democrats stand for little people, regular people, common people like myself,” said Robert Haynes, a 57-year-old African-American salesman in Calera, Ala. “My daddy was a Republican because Abraham Lincoln was a Republican, but the Republican Party changed and started being for people who had money. He was a common worker. The Democrats are more down to earth. They look out more for people in his economic category.”
“We’re for working people, people who are trying to pick themselves up by their bootstraps, providing an opportunity via education, employment that pays you a decent wage, a safety net for people who can’t get ahead,” said Rudy Garcia, a 50-year-old Hispanic securities trader in Albuquerque, N.M.
In line with their desire for wealthy Americans to carry a heavier load, Democrats want to raise taxes on individual incomes above $200,000 a year and family incomes above $250,000 as Obama proposes.
“Romney and his vice presidential pick say if we cut taxes for the wealthy, the money will trickle down,” said Bill Bailey, a 57-year-old disabled forester in Redding, Calif. “We tried that before. I think that’s one of the reasons we’re in the mess we’re in.”
Where Republicans hope to repeal the 2010 health care law – it was a dependable applause line at last week’s Republican National Convention – Democrats take great pride in the law their party had sought for decades.
“The health care law has been one of the greatest things since FDR and his programs,” said Ann McMichael, a 69-year-old head teller at a credit union in State College, Pa. “Anyone who thinks we don’t have a health care crisis in this country has never had a serious illness. It should have happened years ago.”
There are still Democrats who have mixed feelings about the growth of government, and the debt amassed to pay for it.
Almost six in 10 Democrats view the federal debt of about $16 trillion as a top priority, according to a recent Marist-McClatchy poll. They don’t blame Obama for its growth, and they oppose steep spending cuts to bring it down. But they don’t dismiss it, either.