Like many, I’ve taken somewhat of a hiatus from politics in recent weeks but have recently become interested in returning to old habits. Iï¿½ll get my feet wet again by returning to a familiar theme and concluding several thoughts from a Part I that I so irresponsibly introduced only to leave uncompleted until now.
Watching the Democratic Party as it begins to mount its full-scale defense of social security in its present incarnation, Iï¿½m reminded of a recent David Brooks column comparing the partyï¿½s ï¿½Clintonitesï¿½ to its ï¿½Gingrichiansï¿½. Brooks contends that the Clintonites are interested in proposing ï¿½third-wayï¿½ solutions to prevalent issues in hope that they can win bipartisan support, while the Gingrichians are recycling the Republican Partyï¿½s 1995 playbook for healthcare and stonewalling all reform ideas as attempts to destroy an essential American entitlement. It seems clear, according to Howard Kurtz among others, that the Gingrichian strategy has been chosen. And while Josh Marshall may not have been in the room for the decision, his frequent updates on the ï¿½fainthearted factionï¿½ indicate that he and others are playing along.
Granted, Iï¿½m far more interested in a winning idea than winning party, but Iï¿½ve never been a big fan of the yield-no-ground strategy. Moreover, in this case it just seems like more of the same to me. After the election, some Democrats practically exploded from the woodwork with calls for a strategy to explain party values in a more inclusive manner. Take James Carvilleï¿½s Christian Science Monitor breakfast remarks, for example:
“We have to treat the disease, not the symptom,” Carville said. “The purpose of a political party is to win elections, and we’re not doing that.” Carville said that the party’s concern about interest groups had resulted in “litanies, not a narrative.”
Even hard-liner Kos highlighted the importance of populism with liberalism by echoing this theme:
We need to develop a comprehensive philosophy — as a party, not a series of left-leaning groups — that naturally addresses whatever the issue of the day is as a function of Democratic values. I’m glad to see that Carville understands it — it’s up to us to ensure that his epiphany is shared by the rest of the Party’s leadership.
They werenï¿½t the only ones trying to figure out how to inject a bit of realism into what in hindsight seemed to many an overconfident party idealism, but unfortunately (in my view) the message pushers were almost immediately shouted down by the muscle pundits. I agree with Kevin Drum that Democrats need to broaden their appeal ï¿½with a stronger vision and a stronger message, not by blindly nominating someone with the right accent.ï¿½ (I might even further argue that to that extent John Edwards was somewhat exploited.) I can even express a rare show of support for Rep. Charles Rangel (D-NY) who rebuts the notion that Republicans can outmatch Democrats as the party of moral values ï¿½ indeed I think the Democratic Party has an ample opportunity to paint itself as representing the practical interests of the people and to contend that doing so is essentially a moral mission.
I wonder, thoughï¿½ we know the public prefers a narrative to a litany, but does this imply that they prefer to hear ideology over practicality? Andrei Cherny thinks so, with respect to the Kerry campaign: ï¿½[I]t turned out that Americans weren’t very interested in Mr. Kerry’s campaign promises - perhaps because they no longer believe politicians will follow through on their commitments. They wanted to know instead how he saw the world. And we never told them.ï¿½ But Barack Obama feels otherwise, as expressed on his post-election Meet the Press appearance:
The American people are a non-ideological people. They very much are looking for common-sense, practical solutions to the problems that they face. Oftentimes they’ve got contradictory senses of various issues and policy positions and I don’t think that either the Republican Party or the Democratic Party necessarily capture their deepest dreams when those parties are described in caricature or in policy terms.
Though I disagree with them, I should pay some lip service to the views of the defiant strategists who paint the election entirely as a function of poll responses to dominant issues. Kos, after two months to reflect, changed his tune to the broken record that national security and gay marriage drove too many persuadable voters to Bush and that the Democrats could combat this by ï¿½improving our national security brand and we must sharpen the differences on ï¿½valuesï¿½ to extract a price among social moderates from the GOP for their necessary courting of their ï¿½valuesï¿½ voters, lowering their pool of persuadables.ï¿½ So, who else believes in making some minor repairs to the national security image, then darting leftward with a fistful of whatever ï¿½valuesï¿½ things nobodyï¿½s called dibs on yet? Paul Krugman, the accomplished economist who refuses to stick to his strength, as usual volunteers to be the most egregious offender. His column ï¿½No Surrenderï¿½ appeared immediately after the election and struck a tone so unapologetic and beyond reality that it could almost be written off as entirely irrelevant were it not for the breadth of his readership:
One faction of the party is already calling for the Democrats to blur the differences between themselves and the Republicans. Or at least that’s what I think Al From of the Democratic Leadership Council means when he says, “We’ve got to close the cultural gap.” But that’s a losing propositionï¿½. Democrats are not going to get the support of people whose votes are motivated, above all, by their opposition to abortion and gay rights (and, in the background, opposition to minority rights). All they will do if they try to cater to intolerance is alienate their own baseï¿½.
Rather than catering to voters who will never support them, the Democrats - who are doing pretty well at getting the votes of moderates and independents - need to become equally effective at mobilizing their own base. In fact, they have made good strides, showing much more unity and intensity than anyone thought possible a year ago. But for the lingering aura of 9/11, they would have won. What they need to do now is develop a political program aimed at maintaining and increasing the intensity. That means setting some realistic but critical goals for the next year.
Well, donï¿½t let this surprise you, but Iï¿½m going to break ranks with these gentlemen and side with Thomas Frank of Whatï¿½s the Matter with Kansas? fame as he completely laughs this notion off:
In nearly every election since , liberalism has been vilified as a flag-burning, treason-coddling, upper-class affectation…. And yet, Democrats still have no coherent framework for confronting this chronic complaint, much less understanding it. Instead, they “triangulate,” they accommodate, they declare themselves converts to the Republican religion of the market, they sign off on Nafta and welfare reform, they try to be more hawkish than the Republican militarists. And they lose. And they lose again.
So what do we know about the Democratic Partyï¿½s potential to develop a winning strategy? In my opinion, we know first and foremost that a passionate coalition party didnï¿½t beat a determined and well-oiled machine with a death-by-a-thousand-cuts strategy. Overall, its opponent was a reasonably effective wartime president presiding over an economy that wasnï¿½t doing poorly enough to sufficiently legitimize the criticism levied against it and managing the power and organizational capacity of incumbency.
We also know that the party doesnï¿½t have to write off its entire set of core beliefs to make winning changes. After all, the popular vote difference in the presidential election was only 3%, the Electoral College would have swung on a 75,000 vote shift, and House and Senate majorities are not insurmountably beyond reach.
But we know that something has to change. Consider what happened to Tim Roemer, who unsuccessfully rivaled Howard Dean for the DNC chairmanship. He astutely recognizes that Democrats lost 97 of the 100 fastest-growing counties in the U.S. and lost ground in demographic voting groups across the board. I donï¿½t know whether he would have made a better chairman than Dean, but I do know that lessons arenï¿½t being learned if groups like the National Organization of Women are willing to destroy his candidacy with an abortion litmus test, qualifications be damned. Believing oneself to be the ï¿½big tentï¿½ party is completely irrelevant if things are so raucous inside the tent that people prefer life outside.
We further know that defiance is destructive. A Democrat can believe she is right and have it mean absolutely nothing if she canï¿½t win the debate ï¿½ or worse, if she doesnï¿½t believe she has to win it. James Carville is right on the money in asserting this point. ï¿½We lost because we didnï¿½t say anythingï¿½. Weï¿½ve got to come to grips with the fact that we are an opposition party, and not a particularly effective one.ï¿½ And the Democrats arenï¿½t the opposition party because they donï¿½t care about values, despite what exit polls may say. Democrats are the opposition party because they canï¿½t seem to articulate a commonly identifiable set of values in a meaningful way, allowing the Republicans to wield values as a weapon against an adversary without a tactical defense.
Paul Starr describes destructive defiance in real terms as winning cases but losing voters. A Democrat who believes the substance of her politics had nothing to do with electoral defeat is living in a righteous yet useless world. In elections, thinking one is right is irrelevant ï¿½ to win an argument one must be able to convince others, but equally important is that one care to convince others rather then write them off as the selfish or weak-minded naysayers. Think about the battles, and donï¿½t get lost in the big tent in the process. Or, as Daniel Gilbert puts it, channel unhappiness productively instead of living in virtuous denial:
Many of the heroes and redeemers we most admire were unhappy people who found it impossible to change how they felt about the world - which left them no choice but to change the world itself. Outrage, anger, fear and frustration are unpleasant emotions that most of us vanquish through artful reasoning; but unpleasant emotions can also be spurs to action - clamorous urges that we may silence at our peril.
Common sense policies described in terms of values? An excellent idea effectively championed by Clinton ï¿½ and in the absence of a completely values-insensitive fatal flaw that caused forces to marshall against him, a message that probably could have endured. Social justice is a good start on a party message ï¿½ hating the religious right is not. Suggesting that one party reengage the other with clarity and purpose does not mean attempting to nonstrategically browbeat a formidable opponent into submission.
Iï¿½m not the only person with these opinions, of course. A post-election dialogue at Slate describes this mental shift on message at length and I agree with nearly all of the contributors. Bruce Reed offers this detailed breakdown of credible strategies Democrats should pursue. The arguments are all different, but they all tease out one similar theme above all that I completely support: a change in the nature of the dialogue. Iï¿½m speaking in generalized terms, of course ï¿½ thereï¿½s a time and place for any party to play hardball ï¿½ but no party whose most vocal constituencies dismiss their detractors as intellectually (or, dare I say it, morally) inferior can gain any sort of enduring ground.
If the hard-line position on social security is an isolated play for the Democrats based on a series of strategy sessions in a conference room somewhere, then thatï¿½s their business as a party seeking to gain ground. But if this is their long-term strategy for increasing national support, Iï¿½ll be watching with a heavy degree of skepticism and I donï¿½t think Iï¿½ll be the only one.