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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  • Indiana Senator Evan Bayh: moderate, centralist, democrat, who as a Govenor of Indiana stressed the importance of fiscal responsibility, lower taxes, job creation and smaller government

    Bayh serves on Senate Committees: Banking Housing and Urban Affairs, on which he is the Ranking Member of the Subcommittee on International Trade and Finance; Armed Services; the Select Committee on Intelligence; the Special Committee on Aging; and the Small Business Committee.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 7:08 PM  

  • I agree with some of what Soto says. Framing and strategy are important. But I think he is making the same mistake that liberals keep making--ie, that the only reasons Republicans win is that they manage to hoodwink the media and the gullible American public. While there's probably some truth there, I think liberals refuse to accept the fact that Republicans have advocated ideas that people have. More importantly, liberals (I won't say Democrats) have given Republicans more than enough ammunition.

    Let me give an example. Recently, I was reading a thread on a liberal blog (TPM Cafe)discussing the issue of the role of personal responsibility in individuals financial problems. IMO, the fact that this was even controversial shows why liberals are so marginalized in America. Many of the responders were quick to blame government policies (eg., lack of health insurance) or environmental issues (pervasiveness of advertising). To me, there seemed to be a sense that acceptign the need for personal responsibility was the same thing as saying that government had no responsibility. But most people in this country believe that personal responsibility is important--that people are not just a formless mass susceptible to any kind of influence.

    To me, this is the kind of thing that liberals don't understand. There is, IMO, too much reliance on mushy social science. I have commented on other blogs to the effect that I believe liberals have a psychological disconnect with the American public that distances them from the voters they need. Clinton was able to bridge this gap--he really did understand (or at least convey that he did) how normal people live their lives and how they look at the world. Until liberals can do this, I think they will be out in the political wilderness.

    So while I think it's fine for Democrats to talk about reframing their message and strategizing better (although I think they need to stop obsessing on this idea that the GOP stole the election--it's completely counterproductive), I think they miss the point if they focus only on the tactical aspects without looking at (as you said) what do they stand for and how does it relate to the American people. I have seen too much bashing of the electorate (a la Thomas Frank) for not voting the way that liberals think they should. That's got to stop. LIberals have to understand that, even people that are struggling economically still have values that transcend simple self-interest. You have to convince them that there is a reason to vote for your candidate rather than simply assuming that they should.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 10:32 AM  

  • Well put, Marc. I have a good deal to say in response, and I may end up posting on it later. For now, I agree that there's an unattractive smugness to many liberals. Whether it's Frank or Robert Reich or whomever, many liberals assume that they've got the truth on their side and that Republicans only win by stealing elections or otherwise duping the voters. Some duping is always bound to happen, but I'm not sure the American electorate should be so vastly underestimated.

    I read a number of those prominent liberal blogs (TPM Cafe -- where I post comments and my own blog posts from time to time; Daily Kos; Atrios; etc.), and though I generally agree with them I find much that goes on in the liberal blogosphere to be similarly blind to many of the fundamental values of the American people. So much of it, that is, smacks of intellectual masturbation -- and it always reminds me of how Marx and Engels so brutally misread the French electorate and its support for Napoleon III. To me, this is one of the problems that liberals and progressives face, and it's precisely an intellectual disconnect from reality. That reality might not be liberal or progressive enough -- and that's another matter entirely -- but it's the reality of America.

    Don't get me wrong. Although I find the "Right Nation" theory compelling, I don't entirely agree with it. America is not as thoroughly a conservative nation as people like George Will and David Brooks think it is. But I think that to understand America one must understand its philosophical and theological underpinnings. And here, I would say that America is a fusion of Locke, Hobbes, and Protestantism. Which is to say: liberty, security, and evangelism. This is greatly at odds with, say, Europe, which has developed according to different philosophical and theological traditions. So where Europe has come to embrace social democracy (often because the alternative is virulent nationalism), America has embraced classical liberal principles of individual rights, the free market, national security, and the Protestant work ethic -- all blended in with a strain of evangelism that is still alive and well. To me, conservatism has done so well in part because it gets this, because it's in tune with America's founding spirit. Of course, much has happened since the Founding, and liberalism has done well to adopt civil rights and social welfare as elements of an ever-involving American spirit. But conservatives are the ones who promote individual responsibility, national security and a strong defence, religious virtues, and the free market. Democrats aren't necessarily against those things, but they haven't been able (Clinton aside) from convincing American voters that they get it. Which is why I keep saying that Democrats and liberals (who are not always the same) need to think more about what they stand for and about aligning themselves with the mainstream of America's values.

    This doesn't mean abandoning some of the core tenets of post-war American liberalism. I certainly think that Democrats need to stand firm for social security, civil rights, and so on. But it does mean that Democrats need to be, well, more like Clinton, more like those successful Democrats throughout the country who have managed to connect with voters. Doesn't Obama also come to mind?

    By Blogger Michael J.W. Stickings, at 5:06 PM  

  • Michael,

    You are exactly right. After all, America was founded largely in opposition to Europe so it's not surprising that we are different from the Europeans. Many liberals (and I agree they are not the same as Democrats) really seem to pine for what they consider the European social democratic paradise. But Europe has its own problems and, in many ways, has not handled its problems as well as the United States, in particular, the immigration problem.

    Anyway, liberals have to accept that they live in America, not Europe, and deal with that reality rather than trying to create a new Europe here. But I also agree with you that Democrats can't simply just replicate Republicans;they need to represent a reasonable alternative.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 9:39 AM  

  • Yes, when the ever-tolerant Dutch are loudly complaining about the influx of illiberal Muslims (and that may be a serious problem), you know that there isn't anything like a social democratic paradise in Europe.

    By Blogger Michael J.W. Stickings, at 2:20 PM  

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