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“New Democrat” redux

Posted by Richard on October 23, 2005

In 1989, William Galston and Elaine Kamarck wrote The Politics of Evasion, the Democratic Leadership Council study and strategy paper that advocated a sharp turn away from the left and an embrace of more centrist, mainstream values and issues. This was the strategy that brought Bill Clinton to the White House. Now, Galston and Kamarck have released a new study, The Politics of Polarization (PDF), via Third Way, which bills itself as "a strategy center for progressives."

So, what’s new? Not that much. G & K make a couple of key points. First, for quite some time, self-described conservatives have significantly outnumbered liberals, 34% to 21% in 2004 exit polls. Second, in the past couple of decades, there has been what they call "the great sorting out" of the two major parties. The Republican Party contains far fewer liberals than it once did, and the Democratic Party contains almost no conservatives. These two facts alone give Republicans a big advantage: their base puts them much closer to a majority at the polls. The Democrats have to attract a much larger group from outside their base.

According to G & K, the Dems have been failing to do that because they embrace four myths:

  • The myth of mobilization is the belief that the key to Democratic victory is to energize the base and bring them to the polls in record numbers.
  • The myth of demography is the view that long-term, ongoing changes in the U.S. population – such as an increase in the number of Hispanic voters and female professionals – will secure a Democratic majority for decades to come.
  • The myth of language holds that the problem with the Democratic Party is not what it advocates, but rather how it speaks.
  • The myth of prescription drugs is shorthand for the theory that the Party can win national elections by avoiding cultural issues, downplaying national security, and changing the subject to domestic issues such as health care, education, and job security in the post-9/11 world.

Interesting stuff, and it’s hard to argue with the diagnoses. The problem facing the Democrats is that most Democrats just don’t believe and aren’t comfortable with policy positions and values that would make them more appealing to the majority of Americans. Michael Barone wrote a long piece about G & K’s study, and he thinks it will be difficult for anyone to follow their advice to run a more Clintonesque, centrist campaign:

And who could do that? Galston and Kamarck name no names. But one obvious one is Hillary Rodham Clinton, whose positions, as I have noted, are in some tension with those of the liberal base of her party. Another possibility is Mark Warner, who was elected governor of Virginia in 2001 by appealing to NASCAR fans, among others. …

… Hillary Clinton, as popular as she is with rank and file Democrats, will be—is—under pressure from the Democratic left to take positions and adopt a tone which, Galston and Kamarck argue, are likely to be liabilities in the general election.

I think he’s right, and not just because the Democratic grass roots are so liberal. The bigger problem is a consequence of the decline of the party’s power due to campaign finance reform and other systemic changes. The Democrats have a much smaller contributor base than the Republicans and depend much more on large sums from a few individuals and groups. George Soros,, the Hollywood left, and other radical interests control much of the funding for Democratic campaigns these days.

In a Washington Times op-ed, Tod Lindberg notes that the Democrats will have trouble fulfilling G & K’s prescriptions for an electable Presidential candidate, either in terms of issues or character:

The authors say voters ask three main questions about candidates apart from where they stand on the issues: Is "the candidate a person of strength?… of integrity?… of empathy?" For the first category, at issue is the matter of core conviction and the ability to persist through challenges and adversity. For the second, it’s a sense of straight-shooting and the consistency of words and deeds. For the third, it’s the sense of the candidate as someone like you, not aloof from you.
The recommendations follow accordingly: The party needs a candidate with real credibility on national security, whose convictions on social issues are accompanied by a spirit of tolerance, and who embodies those big-three characteristics of strength, integrity and empathy.
The problem for Democrats is that the man who best fills this bill is Sen. John McCain. And he’s a Republican who, notwithstanding his maverick reputation, still has a better shot at winning his party’s nomination than his Democratic doppelganger, if indeed there is such a one, has of winning the Democratic nomination.

Meanwhile, on the left, they’re skeptical. Kevin Drum described himself as "underwhelmed" and actually raised an objection that I agree with 100%:

And their recommendations? Get tough on national security. Give up on gay marriage and quit opposing parental notification laws. Advocate "nothing less than a 21st century economic and social policy." And nominate candidates who are personally appealing.

I dunno. Some of this I’m OK with, some of it I’m not, but it doesn’t strike me as a very coherent response to the issues they raise. G&K insist that Democrats need to demonstrate that they believe in something, but the entire paper is rooted in conventional slice-and-dice electoral polling analysis. It’s not really clear precisely what they think Dems should believe in or why they should believe in it — aside from the fact that poll numbers suggest it might be a good idea. Color me uninspired.

Drum’s right, this is conventional and uninspiring "positioning" advice — what Limbaugh describes as the Democrats’ "how can we fool them today?" analysis. The trouble for Drum and his allies is that it’s the only way the Democrats can win. It’s abundantly clear to any objective observer that what most Democrats really believe in is unacceptable to the majority of Americans.

Democrats can either proudly stick by their principles and accept permanent minority status (a larger version of the Libertarian Party), or they can do some soul searching and honestly rethink their beliefs (yeah, that’s going to happen), or they can "position" themselves based on polling and focus groups, which risks alienating their base.

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One Response to ““New Democrat” redux”

  1. Right Democrat said

    A good start for Democrats is move center on social issues and focus on the economic concerns of the working and middle class. Democrats must stress issues that will appeal to working families such as expanding access to health care, fair trade, education and job training, protecting Social Security, worker rights and safety. To build a majority, Democrats need to win over values voters and to national security minded voters. Democrats have to show the necessary resolve to lead a war on terrorism and protect America’s borders. Democratic House Whip Steny Hoyer recently released a policy document which points the way for Democrats to once again become the party of national security. Link to PDF

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