The Facts Machine

"And I come back to you now, at the turn of the tide"

Wednesday, March 30, 2005

DID YOU KNOW THAT THE DEMOCRATIC PARTY IS AT A CROSSROADS?

Jack of TigerHawk points to a piece in today's NY Times from former senator and presidential candidate Bill Bradley, in which he identifies the structural differences between the Democratic and Republican parties, and makes suggestions for what the former party needs to do to get out of its current wilderness. After outlining the power structure the Republicans built out of the ashes of the Goldwater candidacy, Bradley says of the Democrats:
Democrats who run for president have to build their own pyramids all by themselves. There is no coherent, larger structure that they can rely on. Unlike Republicans, they don't simply have to assemble a campaign apparatus - they have to formulate ideas and a vision, too. Many Democratic fundraisers join a campaign only after assessing how well it has done in assembling its pyramid of political, media and idea people.

There is no clearly identifiable funding base for Democratic policy organizations, and in the frantic campaign rush there is no time for patient, long-term development of new ideas or of new ways to sell old ideas. Campaigns don't start thinking about a Democratic brand until halfway through the election year, by which time winning the daily news cycle takes precedence over building a consistent message. The closest that Democrats get to a brand is a catchy slogan.
This is by no means a new critique, and it's one that holds some merit. The problem for Bradley comes along when he identifies the problem for Democrats as being a preoccupation with Kennedyesque charisma (and Jack agrees):
Democrats choose this approach, I believe, because we are still hypnotized by Jack Kennedy, and the promise of a charismatic leader who can change America by the strength and style of his personality. The trouble is that every four years the party splits and rallies around several different individuals at once. Opponents in the primaries then exaggerate their differences and leave the public confused about what Democrats believe.

In such a system tactics trump strategy. Candidates don't risk talking about big ideas because the ideas have never been sufficiently tested. Instead they usually wind up arguing about minor issues and express few deep convictions. In the worst case, they embrace "Republican lite" platforms - never realizing that in doing so they're allowing the Republicans to define the terms of the debate.

A party based on charisma has no long-term impact. Think of our last charismatic leader, Bill Clinton. He was president for eight years. He was the first Democrat to be re-elected since Franklin Roosevelt. He was smart, skilled and possessed great energy. But what happened? At the end of his tenure in the most powerful office in the world, there were fewer Democratic governors, fewer Democratic senators, members of Congress and state legislators and a national party that was deep in debt. The president did well. The party did not. Charisma didn't translate into structure.
Bradley didn't discuss the 2004 campaign, possibly because the Democrats ditched charisma in favor of competence and medals when they made John Kerry their nominee. And let's face it, Al Gore wasn't exactly Elvis Presley either (and of course, he defeated Bradley in the 2000 primary). To add to that, Bradley shoehorns the electoral developments of the Clinton presidency into a package that supports his thesis in only a superficial fashion. (The bulk of the legislative-etc Dem losses were in 1994, and they made a number of gains in 1998 and 2000) Excluding Clinton, the Democrats haven't chosen a candidate of remarkable charisma since JFK. In fact, I'd find it much more easy to argue the reverse of Bradley's point: The Democratic Party has been much more focused on substance than on the packaging of said substance, though part of that packaging is what Bradley mentions, vision for example.

Is the Democratic Party in a wilderness of sorts? Yes. But a Goldwater-era GOP-style wilderness? I don't think so. What happened in 2004 was a coalition shift for the two parties, partially caused by 9/11, rendering a 49/49 split into a 51/48 split. The other factors involved are that the Republicans have been long cultivating the conditions to establish a 51% popular majority; Kevin outlines them here. I also agree with him that the way to move the ball back across the 50-yard line cannot be just to mimic the GOP step-for-step.

Remember that the nature of the two parties was much different 41 years ago. That was during the exodus of the southern white Dixiecrats from the Democratic Party, largely to the GOP, and with that, Nixon's "southern strategy" and the decline of the Democratic Party in the South.

Turning aside developments including the end of the Fairness Doctrine, the rise of the Limbaugh-types and the founding of the major right-wing think tanks, the GOP's biggest electoral accomplishment was to identify and cultivate their major constituencies and hold them together well enough to form a coalition capable of winning every time out. That meant doing just enough to please the corporate bloc, giving just enough nods to keep the religious right in line, and flexing enough muscle on security to hold the support of white males. (very broad brush, by the way). I have believed, and will continue to believe, that the corporate-religious alliance is inherently untenable, and the only reason it hasn't disintegrated yet is because the GOP hadn't been in a position to give the evangelicals what they wanted until now. Eventually --I don't know when-- the coalition will break up, because (possibly) the religious right will arrive at the opinion that the GOP is only giving lip-service to their anti-abortion and anti-gay stances and isn't taking enough action on those issues. Republicans will find that they are much more comfortable talking loudly about abortion as a minority opposition party.

Because this crack-up will eventually occur (I don't think the Schiavo matter is of a magnitude large enough to bring it on), and because they only lost the 2004 election by 2.5 percentage points, the Democratic Party is not nearly as deep into the wilderness as the Republicans were in the 60's and 70's. Heck, Southern Strategy aside, if LBJ hadn't squandered the Dems' credibility on foreign policy, things would be a lot different today in an electoral sense.

Now, on to Jack.

Jack also disagrees with Bradley about both the Dems' problem and their way forward. He argues in his post that the Dems' have a smaller amount of people among their elites who are experienced in the management of large organizations than the GOP does (people from the corporate and military world). This is an interesting hypothesis and I'm hesitant to reject it, though I would note that in large part the major Democratic constituencies fell in line during last year's election. That Bush won his re-election means that it wasn't enough because, as I mentioned, the GOP had a slight structural advantage due to their long-term coalition harvesting, and the post-9/11 security climate. (This is the jumping-off point for a lengthy "Dems lost trust on military affairs after 'Nam" discussion, but it won't happen now)

Jack makes a point about all those right-wing Scaife-tanks:
Bradley is also wrong that Democrats can correct the unpopularity of their policies by funding a bunch of think-tanks, as conservatives and libertarians have done. The Republicans resorted to this strategy out of necessity, because universities and the mainstream media were so pervasively liberal. Republicans had to establish alternatives to traditional academia and media because universities were not a rich source of conservative ideas and the big networks and newspapers did not do a good job of spreading those conservative ideas that emerge.
There's a problem with this. As liberal as many segments of university faculty can be, afternoon tea and tofu at the faculty lounge in Chomsky Hall is not a Democratic Party operation. That is to say, they aren't immediately interested in cultivating Democratic majorities in the way the Heritage Foundation is interested in Republican ones. If a wave of Republicans applied for and received professorships across the nation tomorrow, Heritage/Cato/AEI/etc would still be chugging along. Those institutions aren't about an alternative to the campus community; rather, they're first and foremost about goal-oriented efficiency.

The same goes for the "pervasively liberal" media. However much the right might complain about, for example, the recently-retired Dan Rather, he cannot be an efficient tool for Democratic electoral gain the way Brit Hume is more than happy to be. The New York Times, CBS, CNN, all of these supposed bastions of liberalism went hard (no pun intended) after Clinton during the impeachment and the initial Whitewater investigation; those networks were not safe havens for Clinton apologists the way Fox News is for Bush apologists.

And that's the key for Democrats: Efficiency. I'm not sure about this whole executive issue (I thought the Dems were a bunch of commies who loved centralized power!), but what I do know is that the Democratic Party needs to develop more institutions that are centrally focused on its electoral advantage. And yes, that includes think tanks and media organizations, and the Center for American Progress, and Media Matters, as examples, make up a good start. Again, deliberately copying GOP strategery on too many fronts will ultimately be detrimental to Democratic goals. Thus, new avenues (such as Dean's netroots, MeetUps, the use of Blog Ads in special congressional elections last year) must continue to be sought out.

Lastly, Jack criticizes the Democrats for branding themselves the opposition party:
Above all, though, Democrats must stop defining themselves as the opposition to Republicans (as Bradley, to his credit, did say, although I think he got the reason wrong). We get a lot of Democratic Party mail in our house, and it is virtually all negative. Within the last month or so Nancy Pelosi sent a three page fundraising letter to the party's "big list" (I got it, so it must be the really big list). The letter was entirely devoted to criticizing Republicans. There was not one word describing Democratic priorities, other than to stand in opposition to Republicans. The Democrats will be in opposition for precisely as long as they act and speak as though they are the "not Republican" party.
I agree that the Democrats need to be more than just an opposition party. However opposition, especially at this point in the election cycle, is a fine thing. Republicans jumped on Clinton in 1993, swiftly pushing the meme of the "failed Clinton presidency", and circling the wagons in opposition to his health care plan. The positive part of their message -- the "Contract for America" -- didn't emerge until after a long bout of opposition wad-shooting over a number of issues, including the health care plan, and the 1993 deficit reduction act.

Because Bush began his second term so heavily focused on domestic issues, primarily Social Security (the biggest bread-and-butter issue the Democrats have), the Democrats are lucky, because they get something of a fresh start, a do-over of early 2001. This time, though, Bush has emphasized an overhaul (er, phasing out) of an immensely popular program, one championed by Democrats, one near and dear to their hearts. The question for the Democrats will be, in the next year and a half, whether or not they can harness both their opposition to privatization, and the general population's opposition, and create a positive message out of it. They don't need to propose a sweeping plan of their own on Social Security -- do you remember Republicans doing that after defeating the health care plan in 1994? -- but they do need to re-declare their principles in an audible and positive fashion.

0 Comments:

Post a Comment

Subscribe to Post Comments [Atom]

Links to this post:

Create a Link

<< Home