Strategic outlines for a positive outlook for America.
When thinking about the political situation, it is easy to alternate between despair and hope. Hope, because some Democrats are beginning to see the benefits of federalism and limited government. Despair, because the Republicans supposedly championed those very principles until George W. Bush came along. Once Democrats get back into power, it is unlikely they would shrink government. Government hasn’t shrunk since the days of Martin van Buren - nearly 170 years ago.
Democrats have two big disadvantages. The first is the “moral issues.” No matter what polls suggest from year to year that Americans are generally pro-choice, there are far fewer absolutists on the pro-choice side than on the pro-life side. Abortion is a complicated issue of life, liberty, and individual sovereignty, but it is also, on account of the Roe v. Wade Supreme Court decision, a state’s rights issue. Gay marriage is a similar problem. Social conservatives and state’s rights conservatives may not ever get on board with the Democratic Party, whereas these issues do not dissuade many “social” liberals on these issues from voting Republican. Since 1964, only one Democratic Presidential candidate, Jimmy Carter, has won a majority of the popular vote, and that was razor thin. Moreover, his opponent, Gerald Ford, was liberal on social issues while Carter was an outspoken evangelical Christian.
The second obstacle of Democrats is their base of teacher’s and other government employee unions. Unions are essentially wage cartels, and the incentive for a government union is ever-bigger budgets and more, well-paid, unionized employees. Thus, Democrats not only have the perception of being the more-tax, more-spending party, it is has the further problem that this perception is, indeed, the reality. Therefore, it is difficult to win over economic conservatives. Even the “increase taxes for the rich” theme probably doesn’t work. My friend Augie once told me that not only do people not want to pay higher taxes themselves, they also don’t want their bosses paying higher taxes. The higher the taxes, the lower the profitability, which means expenses - and jobs - must be cut.
These two factors haunt the Democratic Party. It is why Bush could get re-elected despite his spectacular failures. The coalition of feminists, blacks, Jews, and other minorities, gays, and government workers, somehow fails to win over Joe Six-Pack and Joe Fast-Food Lunch (the modern replacement of Joe Lunchbox). Most of whom probably don’t even vote at all.
What can Democrats do? Veer left, or veer to the center? Bill Clinton received loads of credit for moving to the center, but he enjoyed the spoiler role that Ross Perot provided, whereas neither Al Gore nor John Kerry faced an effective right-wing spoiler. (Gore actually received an effective spoiler role from the Left, Ralph Nader, and still won the popular vote.)
The key for Democrats is not 2008, but 2006, where they have a chance to win back Congress. Republican hegemony today is the result of the 1994 Congressional elections. The “Contract with America” designed by Newt Gingrich effectively framed the issues for voters. Many Republican Congressmen were elected not necessarily because of their own merits, but because of the Contract. It was the most effective political operation in my lifetime, because the advantages of incumbency are normally too great for Congress to change hands in one swoop.
Considering the Democratic Party’s liabilities, what can it do to reclaim Congress? I’d recommend a three-fold strategy:
1. Go “partisan” only on the record of the Republican Party: its ethics and its performance. Stay away from George W. Bush, only emphasize the record generally, on such issues like the deficit, cronyism, and torture. Bush isn’t running in 2008, he has his own bizarre personality cult, and to pick on him personally won’t do any more good than the GOP’s Congressional performance against Bill Clinton in 1998, when they lost seats.
This also means staying away from the language of the “right-wing crazies,” the “fundamentalists,” the “theocrats,” the “rich,” the Rednecks, and even the “neo-cons.” Scapegoating classes, ideologues, and religious people isn’t any more acceptable than scapegoating ethnic and religious minorities. Put the focus on Republican failures. This isn’t about Left and Right anymore, or liberal or conservative. This is about the record of the Republican Party and how “we” (that is, the Democrats) can do better.
Perhaps do not even blame the “Republicans” at all. Blame the “Republican Party.” Otherwise, adopt an all-inclusive approach, a “we’re in this together” rhetoric. Do not write off any state or demographic. Make Republican candidates “guilty by association” with the Republican Party, not personally guilty for their own religion, ethnicity, or ideology. Force the Republican candidate to not defend his own record, but that of his Party, since when push comes to shove he or she will usually follow the Party line.
2. Avoid nostalgia. Yes, we are less free today than we were ten years ago. And the blame lies entirely with the Republican Party. But the nature of the beast called government is that it does not retreat from any new precedent. The Democrats will not “restore” some lost past of greater liberty. With each war and each piece of major legislation, the nature of the country changed forever. The one failure of the libertarian-conservative coalition of forty years is that despite overall Republican victories, it never did shrink the size of government. And I doubt that shrinking the size of government has ever been the Democratic ideal. But we can shift the rhetoric from “as little government as necessary” vs. “as much government as necessary” (as Mario Cuomo enunciated at the 1984 Democratic Convention) to a pragmatic position in which common problems are addressed without zeal toward or against political solutions. The Democratic Party can’t honestly pretend to be the party of small government or social conservatism. But it can frame its issues around a theme. It can embrace the language of opportunity and progress and discard the themes of victim- hood and bigotry. How about a statement of principles and goals for Congressional Democrats in 2006 called “Positive Progress” or a similar name?
3. Attract the so-called “socially liberal, economically conservative” voter, who aside from voting for Clinton, has favored Republicans. This doesn’t necessarily mean moving to the “center.” It means pragmatically working to the economic base of America, which is small-business owners and their employees. Moving toward the “center” in the past meant moving toward favoring “globalization” and other managed-trade efforts that favor corporations over small businesses. Yet speaking against corporations, or creating a regulatory “hostile work environment” for corporations is the language of class warfare and costs jobs. Scapegoating doesn’t work.
There is no way to square one’s definition of “greed” with another’s definition of “ambition.” These are the vague, gray areas of political rhetoric. It’s a real turn-off for a lot of people that they are assumed to be guilty of “greed” and “dishonesty” for pricing their products to as high as the market can bear. That is what markets do, price things as high as they can. For the Democratic Party to win a majority, it must be market-friendly. Entrepreneurial-friendly. Small business-friendly.
What this entails, requires further columns. This is but the roughest outline of how the Democratic Party can overcome its obstacles and provide an attractive outlook and platform for America.