The popular spin on the new Democratic leadership on the Hill—especially popular on Fox News, I notice—is that Democratic power now depends on a rump of conservative Democrats from the plains and the South. This was how Fox correspondent Brian Wilson spun it on "Special Report with Brit Hume."
The House and Senate will be more Democratic next year, but that doesn't necessarily mean it will be more liberal. Democratic Pennsylvania Senator-elect Bob Casey says he is a social moderate. He opposes abortion and gun control. In Montana, Jon Tester says he's a fiscal conservative. In Virginia, Jim Webb made his opposition to the Iraq war a key issue, but he was once a Republican and will probably not always vote with the liberal wing of the Democratic Party.
Leaving aside these inaccurate pictures of Tester and Webb (Both are proudly pro-choice and anti-war), this spin completely forgets the reality of the Hill. Conservative Democrats used to be boxed in because the Republican leadership would schedule votes on conservative issues, peeling them away from their party. Even after Newt Gingrich left for the loftier terrain of Newt.org, the party stuck to his playbook of "70 percent issues"—issues like parental notification on abortion, traditional marriage, and anti-flag burning laws that are supported by more than 70 percent of the country. When they were in trouble, as they were this year, the GOP majority would schedule votes on odious measures like the Flag Protection Amendment and Marriage Definition Amendment and giggle as Democrats scattered.
The new Democratic majority is tired of feeling the pointy side of these wedge issues. It will not schedule votes on this stuff. Congressmen Heath Schuler and Chris Carney, for example, won't ever have to weigh in on a new Marriage Definition Amendment unless there's a legitimate surge of public anger and petitioning on the issue, which there wasn't in the last Congress. The Flag Protection Amendment, which failed by one vote this year, is probably dead forever. Instead, the Democrats will be scheduling votes on their wedge issues, like stem cell research and minimum wage hikes. As Tom Schaller has pointed out, for the first time in 54 years the party that represents the socially conservative South holds the minority of seats, and has no presence in the leadership (apart from black liberal Rep. Jim Clyburn, the new Majority Whip). Social conservatism is a spent force, for now.