washington, dc

The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Ed Kilgore

Is the South Hopeless for Democrats?

While some Democrats continue to wax sanguine about the 2004 election results, arguing that a nip here and a tuck there and a little better performance among Hispanics everywhere could elect a Democratic president in 2008, I think it’s safe to say that all of us are more than a little nervous about the skewing of the electoral battlefield in favor of the GOP. As Ron Brownstein persuasively argues today, Democrats start every presidential election at a serious disadvantage if they are simply playing defense in a host of “blue states” while trying to pick off one or two key “red states.” And the perils of the electoral status quo are even more evident down-ballot, where it will be very difficult for Democrats to make gains in Senate, House, gubernatorial and state legislative races if they begin each cycle by conceding 30 states.
But where to go in expanding the battlefield? The most pressing question involves the South, where we’ve gotten skunked in two straight presidential elections, while losing a majority of statewide races from 2000 through 2004.
There is a legitimate argument that can be made that the whole region, with the exception of the quasi-southern state of Florida, has just gotten impossible, at least for the national party, and/or that the kind of issue positions necessary for success in the South would involve a sacrifice of party principle.
But I would remind Democrats that we’ve been here before, and that predictions of the Democratic Party’s demise in the states of the Former Confederacy have been notoriously premature for four decades.
In presidential elections, the Democratic share of the popular vote dropped precipitously from 1960 to 1972. It rebounded dramatically in 1976, and then declined steadily through 1988, rebounding yet again in 1992 and declining steadily through 2004.
Down-ballot, the ebbs and flows of Democratic strength have been even more regular. As early as 1966, it looked like the party was toast throughout much of the region, but by 1970, Dems were winning most Senate and gubernatorial elections. 1980 was another year when obituaries were read for statewide Democratic candidates, who rebounded nicely in 1986. 1994 was a disaster; 1996 and 1998 showed a partial rebound.
The constant element in this drama has been the relative ability or inability of Democrats to build and rebuild biracial coalitions that drew on the loyal support of African-Americans, who make up about a fifth of Southern voters, combined with varying combinations that added up to roughly 40 percent of white voters. In the 1970s and the 1980s, Democrats managed to hold onto a significant share of rural white voters. In the 1990s, they improved their performance in the suburbs. The point is: so long as Democrats continue to earn the support of African-Americans (and part of that equation is to support African-American candidates in the South), it’s not that big a stretch to get to 50 percent, and in the long run, certainly no harder than winning nearly half of white voters in places like Minnesota, Wisconsin, Iowa and New Hampshire with limited numbers of minority voters.
One example of why Democrats shouldn’t give up on the South is this: in Georgia, in 2002, a now-legendary Republican blowout that defeated Sen. Max Cleland and Gov. Roy Barnes, two African-American centrist statewide candidates (Attorney General Thurbert Baker and Labor Commissioner Mike Thurmond), and two white centrist statewide candidates (Lt. Governor Mark Taylor and Secretary of State Cathy Cox), all won.
And this year, Southern Democrats did not exactly get destroyed in Senate races: with the exception of Oklahoma and a lopsided race in Georgia, Dems lost pretty narrowly in a tough year on tough terrain.
There’s also reason to believe that time is on our side in the South, for several reasons:
1) The more the Republicans become the majority, governing party, the more they will have to defend their records in office (viz., a whole series of failed Republican governors in the region dating back to the 1960s).
2) There are a variety of slow but sure demographic and economic changes, including the growth of “knowledge industry” jobs, the rapid expansion of the Hispanic population, and a reversal of African-American outmigration, that favor Democrats in the region, as explained by John Judis and Ruy Teixeira in their 2000 book, the Emerging Democratic Majority.
3) The current Republican boom in southern exurbs will almost certainly be moderated by time; new suburbs are always heavily Republican, but invariably are influenced by fears about over-development; intra-GOP factional fights; and the gradual aging and diversification of population.
I am not arguing that national Democrats need to obsessively focus on the South, and I do not believe we have to nominate a southernor for president to become competitive there, though it clearly helps. But at a time when Democrats are rightly looking at the whole map and wondering where they can reverse the Red Tide, it’s no time to “look away” from the South without considerable reflection.


Brain Food

This is another one of those occasional Sundays when it’s worth the effort to heft those fat newspapers through the front door and read them. At some point I’ll find time to check out some regional papers online, but there’s plenty of brain food in the Papers of Record, WaPo and The New York Times.
In the Post, The DLC’s Bruce Reed assesses where Democrats need to go in an Outlook column, and as usual, he says more in fewer words than about anybody in the business. His money quote about the basic lesson of the election for Democrats is typically concise: “We ran a good campaign against a bad president and still got beat.” Sad but true. Opposite Bruce’s article is one by National Review’s Kate O’Beirne, that argues rather unconvincingly that the GOP is not an ideological party, but a coalition party, in which “social liberals” like Ah-nold and Rudy have a real home. We’ll see about that in the immediate future.
Elsewhere in WaPo, there’s a front-page piece about Karl Rove that was painful to read. Written by the excellent Dan Balz and Mike Allen, it’s relatively free of puffery, but does let Rove and his friends express a DeLay-ish rejection of Democratic “demonization” of the Boy Genius, while not exactly providing a whole lot of evidence that Dems are wrong about his basic character. Sure, there’s some anecdotes about Rove’s “goofiness,” along with a photo of Rove dressing up like a hunter to mock Kerry’s goose-bagging incident in Ohio, but “goofiness” in the pursuit of the destruction of one’s political enemies is in my opinion no particular virtue. Caligula had his “goofy” and fun-loving moments as well.
Here’s the passage in the article that most disturbs me: “Those around him expect he will stay at Bush’s side for the foreseeable future. They note that his interest in policy is as deep as his interest in politics. ‘Karl sits at the intersection of politics and policy, and that’s where real power is exercised in a White House,’ said a Republican official who works closely with him.”
The one thing we know for sure about Rove is that he views policy as little more than a lever for producing political advantages. That he will remain “at the intersection of politics and policy” is a very bad if unsurprising sign about where the Bush administration is likely to go.
Over at The New York Times, Adam Nagourney provides a clear assessment of Democratic thinking about the election and its implications. The quotes from Democratic governors Janet Napolitano, Mark Warner and Jennifer Granholm are especially blunt and instructive.
In the top Times editorial, the Grey Lady usefully lays out an agenda for making voting procedures more uniform, in the accurate anticipation that interest in this subject tends to fade after each screwed-up election, until the next election, when it’s generally too late to do anything about it. The conservative warhorse Lyn Nofziger implicitly responds to O’Beirne’s WaPo piece by arguing that Bush will not be able to accomplish much of anything unless he suppresses the socially liberal and fiscally conservative views of his “coalition partners” of the GOP center, especially in Congress. And there’s lots of interesting micro-political analysis as well, especially the piece on Florida which shows that Bush won that key state by boosting both turnout and the GOP share of the vote in in exactly the places you’d expect it to happen: the panhandle and the I-4 corridor.
There’s a lot more in both papers, including Dana Milbank’s sober assessment of the chiliastic tendencies that have led Christian conservatives into such a passionate alliance with Bush, and buried in the Post book section, a review of the latest Tom Wolfe novel that shows you don’t have to be a Bible-thumper to be worried about the moral and cultural condition of American adoloscents.
All of us Donkeys are still partially in recovery, partially unwilling to think about what happened on November 2, and partially hostile to any intepretation of events that strays from the comforting line that the bad people beat the good people through evil and cynical tactics and strategy. It’s good that Dems aren’t melting down, freaking out, or going after each other with knives. But it is time to read and think.


Bush and Bipartisanship

Predictably, perhaps, George W. Bush is making noises about reaching out to Democrats, and healing partisan divisions and serving as “president of all the people.” And there’s a debate among Democrats in Washington, at least, about how they respond these suspect overtures.
We’ve been here before, folks. Bush said similar things upon becoming president in 2001, and, with the exception of the No Child Left Behind law (which he betrayed after the fact), his primary strategy for bipartisanship was to pick off handfuls of Democrats in the U.S. Senate who were willing to pocket small concessions while giving Bush most of what he wanted. Bush’s party then proceeded to demonize those very “bipartisan” Democrats as obstructionists whenever they came up for re-election.
But what is bipartisanship? Back at the beginning of the Bush presidency, the DLC published an analysis of the ten very different meanings of that term, and a pessimistic evaluation of Bush’s intentions, that’s held up pretty well over time. It makes for good and relevant reading today.
The most important question for Democrats in Congress today is not their attitude towards Bush or his party, but their willingness to become an insurgent, outsider party devoted to genuine reform of Washington, and focused on communicating a positive, alternative agenda to the American people. Yesterday’s New Dem Daily outlines the kind of reform agenda Democrats ought to embrace, even if–perhaps especially if–they are forced to fight Bush and the GOP like wolverines.


The Culture Gap, Continued

There’s a reasonably strong consensus now that an inability to address cultural concerns is one–not the only, but one–of the reasons Democrats are struggling to build an electoral majority despite the extremism and failed policies of the Republicans who run Washington these days.
But the debate over the “culture gap” among Democrats remains mired in imprecise thinking about what we are talking about, and who we are talking about.
Beliefnet’s Steve Waldman, who, along with The Washington Monthly’s Amy Sullivan, remains the best advisor for Democrats on culture and religion, has penned an excellent Slate piece that slices and dices the problem with real precision. Democrats cannot and should not try, says Waldman, to win the votes of self-consciously Christian Right voters who think abortion is murder, feminism is disobedience to God’s will, and homosexuality is an abomination in the eyes of the Lord. Yet there are millions of voters, including Catholics and “freestyle evangelicals” who don’t share the views of the American Taliban, but who simply want to know that Democrats have some sense of moral resolution about good and bad behavior, and not just for the executives of Enron and Halliburton. Waldman cites Bill Clinton’s success in making personal responsibility (at least prior to the moment when his own failures of personal responsibility became manifest) a key theme for Democrats as a model for the future.
In a separate article for Beliefnet, Waldman usefully warns Democrats that just dressing up liberal policy nostrums in “God Talk” is not going to solve the party’s problems, and could actually make them worse.
Some of you may recall that a couple of weeks before the election, I did a post quoting from John Kerry’s campaign book A Call to Service that discussed the meaning of his Catholicism. It focused on the two “Great Commandments” laid down by Jesus–love God and love your brother as yourself–and interpreted the first as an injunction to seek out right from wrong, and the second as an injunction to make love and justice the most important truth.
When Kerry discussed his faith during the campaign, the second “Great Commandment” came through clearly, but the first was ignored or muted. It was all Gospel, no Law; all New Testament, no Old Testament; all Christmas and Easter, no Advent and Lent; all love and justice, no moral clarity. That was the missing signal to culturally-oriented religious voters that Waldman is talking about. And it’s not a problem that’s attributable to Kerry personally; it’s a systemic problem Democrats have in talking about the political implications of faith.
To those of you who aren’t religious at all, I’m sure this sounds like superstitious gobbledygook, but trust me on this, it matters to a lot of people who wouldn’t give Jerry Falwell or Pat Robertson the time of day. Democrats can reduce the “culture gap” without compromising their principles–indeed, maintaining our principles is the only way we can speak and talk authentically about values–but it must begin with an understanding of how the people we are talking to actually think and believe.


The Anti-Recrimination Tide

I was glad to see that Paul Glastris of The Washington Monthly and Garance Franke-Ruta of The American Prospect took note of the DLC’s no-circular-firing-squad advice to Democrats, and echoed it. Garance made an interesting comment after quoting NewDonkey on the subject:
“The DLC and the Prospect, which have historically been at odds over the direction of the Democratic Party, formally buried the hatchet earlier in the year. Leading liberals and centrists may have ongoing disagreements on specific policy prescriptions, but the younger generation of thinkers, writers, and consultants, regardless of where they hang their hats, seems to me to have experienced a kind of convergence of thought that greatly diminishes the likelihood of future intraparty conflicts like those that ripped through the party in the 1980s and 1990s.”
That “bury the hatchet” moment–the product of a series of quiet center-left discussions that began at the beginning of this year–didn’t get much attention at the time, but it showed the center-left convergence that Franke-Ruta is talking about was not just a battlefield compact in the heat of the general election campaign.
Of course, I’m also amused to discover myself among the ranks of “the younger generation of thinkers, writers and consultants.” Maybe 50 is indeed the “new 30.”


Please, No Phony Debates

I guess I should have expected this, but there have already been two major published articles preemptively criticizing the DLC for arguing that Democrats need to “move to the right” in response to this year’s losses. First came the normally reasonable Tim Noah of Slate, who simply assumed that’s what the DLC would say and then devoted several graphs to why is was a dumb idea. And today, New York Times columnist Paul Krugman interpreted Al From’s rather obvious suggestion that Democrats need to close the “cultural gap” with Republicans as a call for “Democrats to blur the differences between themselves and Republicans” and then, like Noah, Krugman was off to the races with a long diatribte about how dishonorable and politcally useless this would be.
People, people, we’ve got enough to argue about without making up positions and then knocking them down. I work at the DLC every single day, and I’ve never heard a soul say anything about “moving to the right,” and pace Krugman, we’ve gone way out of our way on many occasions to say that dealing with our culture problem is not a matter of “moving to the right” on abortion or guns or gay marriage or anything else. And if by “blurring the differences” between Democrats and Republicans on cultural issues means challenging the perception that they care about cultural stresses on the American family and we don’t, then hell, yes, we need to blur that difference, but it has nothing to do with aping conservative positions on hot-button issues. What it means is taking seriously the belief of millions of people, not just religious fundamentalists, that they are competing with a toxic and increasingly amoral culture for the character of their children. What it means is addressing those concerns in a progressive way, instead of conveying the sense that we believe they should put aside all their silly superstitions about the moral order of the universe and chow down on a prescription drug benefit.
To those of you who don’t see anyway to express solidarity with culturally stressed voters other than “moving right,” think about this: we always tell middle-class families we want to “fight for them” against powerful interests, especially corporations who place profits ahead of people. We rightly say HMOs and tobacco companies should be accountable for the pain they inflict on consumers. What about the giant, profit-seeking corporations of the entertainment industry? Does our willingness to stand up to corporate America stop at the borders of Hollywood? And if so, is it because we want their campaign contributions? Now that’s a “blurring of the differences” between D’s and R’s sho nuff!
So long as Democrats continue to think the world of public policy is divided into “our issues” and “their issues,” and can’t come up with a progressive way, consistent with our values, to deal with every issue, then we’re going to lose when voters decide we really don’t just give a damn about the issues they care about.


Reflect and Reform, Don’t Recriminate

Sorry once again for the lack of posts, but (1) the posting problems have continued, (2) the Day Job has been frantic, between helping formulate the DLC’s official take on what happened Tuesday, and dealing with an incredible number of press calls, and (3) like many of you, I am still in recovery from Election Night. After a good night’s sleep Wednesday, I felt pretty good until I made the mistake of reading today’s morning papers, and the previous night’s bad dreams came flooding back.
To those of you who think of the DLC as an organization that wants to engage in intra-party warfare, and that perennially advises Democrats to “move to the right,” I suggest you give today’s New Dem Daily a thorough and dispassionate read. We do not think this is a good time for a “struggle for the soul” of the Democratic Party; the unity we achieved in this campaign is a precious asset that it would be stupid to throw away, and moreover, we are all complicit in the mistakes our party keeps making.
Moreover, and I will say this personally, you won’t get any argument from New Democrats that the Dean/MoveOn legacy of this campaign–the ability to build passionate grassroots organizations, and to raise money from small donors–should be thrown away, either. But in the end, the problem we had this year was not a shortage of money, volunteers, organization, excitement, or candidate charisma: it was a shortage of message. An electorate poised to fire Bush and his Republican allies was never convinced it understood exactly what Democrats would do with the power they sought, and that was the killer.
The GOPers had a clear message, and a mobilization strategy as well. We just had a mobilization strategy, and it wasn’t enough. You have to persuade as well as “energize,” and we didn’t do it.
It’s time, finally, for Democrats to understand that we have to walk and chew gum at the same time. We have to persuade and mobilize; we have to appeal to voters on cultural and economic issues; we have to make inroads in red states without sacrificing blue states; we have to turn out our base and reach out to expand it.
And there’s another point on which Democrats of every ideological tendency ought to be able to agree. We’re the “out party” now. Republicans control every nook and cranny of the federal government they still pretend they are fighting. Why on earth can’t Democrats finally take advantage of hostility to Washington, supplementing anti-corporate populism with anti-government populism? Polls consistenly show that more than a third of Americans don’t know who controls Congress. But how often did you hear any Democrats–not just Kerry, but congressional Democratic candidates as well–remind voters of that fact, or pledge to reform all the patent abuses of power in Washington, from corporate welfare to strong-arm partisanship to fiscal profilgacy? Why are we defending government programs, and demonizing every dishonest Republican claim to reform them, when Washington is being run by Republicans like a country club? Beats me.
Reviving Democratic fortunes is not a matter of moving left or right. And it’s not a matter of money or mechanics or organization, important as they are. It’s a matter of reconnecting the party with the mainstream values, the economic aspirations, the openness to reform, and the craving for security and unity, that Americans want, and that we can and should be able to supply.


Exit Here

Sorry for the lack of Post-Decision Posts on this dreadful day, but I’ve been experiencing technical problems with posting, wasting valuable time I should have spent screaming in my sleep.
Weighty analysis of the election will have to await the dawn’s early light. But I did want to explain the bizarre backstory of the odd tone of so much Election Night analysis in the blogosphere.
Us Washington Insiders, and many other Political Savvies, spent much of November 2 staring at black-market exit poll data that showed Kerry winning the popular and electoral vote. Throughout much of the evening, the networks seemed to be covering a different election, in which Bush was marching inexorably towards victory, and Kerry was only carrying the bluest of blue states.
Righteous in our wisdom, most of us Democratic Insiders spent hours shouting “Call New Hampshire! Call Pennsylvania!” at the nearest television, while phoning non-insider friends and family members to let them know the Red Tide on their living room screens was a chimera.
While many of those uncalled states did indeed eventually break to Kerry, the ironic truth is that all our unenlightened friends and family, bereft of exit poll data, had a better sense of what was actually happening than we did. Sic Transit Gloria, so to speak.
Alan Abramowitz has offered a quick read on why the exits were off, but the bottom line is that we all got bamboozled by the scientific mystique, and the special cache, of being able to know something that others would not know for, God, six or seven hours!
The folks at Edison who conducted the ’04 exits quickly tried to atone for the embarassment they caused the chattering classes yesterday, by usefully re-weighting their data to reflect the actual results. This step preserves the value of the exits for their more legitimate and enduring use as tools for interpreting why voters did what they did, once it’s clear what they did.


Ohio Math

The Ohio Secretary of State’s office has released an official talley of provisional ballots issued in each county of the state yesterday. The total is 135,000. Bush’s current margin in the state is 136,000, and many overseas (largely military) absentee ballots haven’t been counted.
I’m sure people better informed than me are triple-checking these numbers, but we can all do the math.


Meanwhile, Back in the States

I’m going to do a quick post on this because you’re not likely to hear anything about it from the talking heads on the tube: there was a whole lot of shakin’ going on in state races around the country. Democrats apparently won control of the Oregon Senate, the Washington Senate, the Vermont House, the Colorado Senate, and the North Carolina House. Republicans appear to have won control of the Oklahoma House, the Indiana House, the Tennessee Senate, and the Georgia House.
In gubernatorial contests, there was no clear partisan pattern. Democrats held West Virginia, Delaware and North Carolina easily; the GOP held North Dakota, Vermont and Utah easily. Dems knocked off an incumbent in New Hampshire, and won Montana, but lost the governorship in Missouri and Indiana. Washington, which Dems currently control, is still disputed, with less than a 1,000 votes separating the candidates.
If you can see any clear pattern in these results, you’re obviously in better mental shape than I am this morning.