Friday, June 03, 2005

How the Democrats can win again

By being more like the Republicans -- at least in terms of strategy and tactics. Steve Soto at The Left Coaster, an excellent liberal blog, makes the case here.

Key passages:

Armchair consultants like me say over and over again that we need to 1) Toughen our spines and fight like hell against the GOP at all times; and 2) add a moral values dynamic to the progressive ideas we want to discuss with voters in order to break through the red state mind set. In order for us to be able to win campaigns against these guys we need to broaden the Democratic gene pool and have people all over the country who know how to do this, instead of just saying over and over again we need to do this...

Maybe before we go any further with any more conferences talking about issues for 2006 and 2008, it is time instead to gather many people together to learn what our opponents already know about:

-- tactics and attack campaigns;
-- messaging/framing/imaging;
-- dealing with, and manipulating the media;
-- energizing new constituencies; and
-- rigging and controlling the elections machinery.

I'm somewhat less partisan than The Left Coaster, but I would certainly call myself a Democrat, and I think that Steve's really onto something -- although "manipulating the media" concerns me greatly and I would like to know a bit more about what he means by "rigging and controlling the elections machinery".

At the moment, I'm of two minds on this:

On the one hand (if I may mix body parts), 2000 and 2004 have indicated, at least to some degree, that Democrats just don't play the political game as well as Republicans do. I would thus agree that Democrats need to learn how to package (or "frame") their ideas more effectively -- and, indeed, to learn how to spin Republican ideas more effectively. Republicans have succeeded in part because they've managed to control both the terms of the debate and the language itself. There are any number of examples, but here's an obvious one: while the "conservative" label is something of a compliment, the "liberal" one has been associated with un-Americanism for over two decades, this in a fundamentally liberal country. (Democrats can learn from their apparent victory on social security, where Bush has failed to muster much support for private accounts despite packaging and re-packaging of his central message, though it should be remembered that here Democrats have been defending an extremely popular program and Bush has had problems, uncharacteristic of Republicans, maintaining a consistent message.)

This is where the media come in. The Republican message machine works because it is able to use the media as effective conduits of well-packaged information. Some of this has to do with the fact that Republicans have used the "liberal media" tag to shift much of the mainstream media to the right (ever fearful of such accusations of bias, however unsubstantiated). And some of it has to do with the fact that Republicans now control (or are disproportionately influential in) many of those conduits: for example, talk radio, FOX, much of MSNBC and CNBC, and certain major newspapers and their editorial boards (like The Wall Street Journal). In such a media environment, it is indeed important for Democrats to strategize accordingly. The conservative movement as a whole may be fairly diverse, but the Republican Party is an extraordinarily effective bottleneck that channels the various strands of that movement into electoral success. It may be more difficult for the Democratic Party to unite liberal and progressive elements, many of which don't get along nearly as well as their counterparts on the right, but some concerted effort needs to be made to balance ideological diversity and partisan unity.

On the other hand, I think that the weaknesses of the Democratic Party have been wildly overplayed. Yes, Bush won two elections he shouldn't have, the Republicans now control both sides of Capitol Hill, and conservative appointees threaten to shift the entire federal judiciary to the right. But look at it this way: Bush barely won in 2000 -- indeed, he may not have won, but that's another problem entirely. He only won because everything broke his way: Gore was a lousy candidate; Nader took important votes away from Gore in key swing states; Bush effectively campaigned as a compassionate conservative, blurring the differences between him and Gore; a relatively peaceful and prosperous country was willing to take a chance on Bush after eight years of Clinton; and, well, there was Florida. If Florida had gone the way it should have, or if Nader had taken himself off the ballot in certain states, or if Bush hadn't campaigned as such a moderate, then Gore would have won. Then Gore would have guided the country through 9/11 and Afghanistan, the Democrats likely would have done well in 2002, the U.S. likely wouldn't be in Iraq, and Republicans would be having this very same conversation about how to refashion themselves in the face of a significant Democratic majority. As it is, Bush won, then capitalized on 9/11 for partisan purposes, leading to a solid Republican showing in 2002.

But -- here's the crucial point: Given all this -- the memories of 9/11, the threat of terrorism (which Bush, as president, was able to manipulate to his own benefit), and the bully pulpit in a time of war, not to mention mass mobilization of evangelical voters -- Bush barely won re-election last year. And although Kerry was a stronger candidate than Gore, he wasn't a great one and never quite managed to find his footing (too much nuance, not enough bluntness). It wasn't as close as 2000, but 2004 was hardly a rousing endorsement of a sitting president. Yes, Democrats can learn something from Karl Rove's campaign strategies and tactics, and Democrats would do well to reconnect to their own base in the same way, but how exactly did Democrats fail?

But, look, this is just the federal level. At the state level, Democrats are actually doing quite well. While everyone's talking about Hillary and Kerry and Edwards and Obama, the real success stories may be -- as Reihan Salam pointed out in a TNR piece on second-tier Democrats last November -- Gov. Phil Bredesen of Tennessee, Gov. Mike Easley of North Carolina, Gov. Kathleen Sebelius of Kansas (what's the matter with Kansas? at least they elected a Democrat!), Gov. Jim Doyle of Wisconsin, Gov. Ed Rendell of Pennsylvania (a bigger name, to be sure), Gov. Jennifer Granholm of Michigan (born in Canada), and Gov. Mark Warner of Virginia (okay, a really big name), among others. Note that this list includes the governors of three southern states and a couple of key swing states.

Don't get me wrong, there's a lot Democrats need to think about. And strategy should be right at the top of the list. Although "framing" is crucial, the main effort at that level should be centered around unifying the diverse elements of the left, center-left, and center behind the common purpose of electoral victory. After all, that's how Republicans have been able to hold together the disparate (and contradictory) elements of the right (even if the signs of fragmentation are now more visible than ever) -- the taste of victory supersedes ideological purity. But part of this also means thinking about ideas: What do Democrats stand for? What does liberalism mean? Is it possible to re-inject a moral purpose into progressivism -- or at least to redefine morality in more progressive terms? How do Democrats reach out to moderate Republicans distressed at the rightward shift of their party, at the grassroots evangelicalism that has come to dominate it? How do Democrats reach out to "values" voters, regain the confidence of Americans in terms of national security, show that they're capable of dealing with grave domestic and foreign threats? Yes, part of this is strategy and framing. But, in the end, Democrats have to have the right ideas to frame and around which to strategize.

Some of this, of course, is just the inevitable aftermath of defeat. Nonetheless, it's healthy for a political party to engage in just this sort of discussion if it is to remain vibrant, if it is to avoid complacency and the oncoming stench of failure. So my advice is to have that discussion -- but also to stand firm. Although Rove and other strategists on the other side are seeking to transform the Republicans into the governing party for a generation, it's likely that that effort will fail. Americans don't want to live in a one-party state and, as I've already mentioned, the Republican coalition is already showing signs of fragmentation -- indeed, the arrogance and corruption of many Republicans, best exemplified by Tom DeLay, are sure signs of oncoming decay. So is the approach of absolutism.

I suspect that the Republicans have already peaked. And that peak meant two narrow presidential elections, Congressional victories fueled by 9/11, terrorism, war, and gerrymandering, and Democratic successes at the state level. That's hardly the kind of dominance worthy of emulation. Steve Soto is right that Democrats can -- and must -- do better. But I also think it's important to keep their recent troubles in perspective. They won't last.

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