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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Code Red

Yesterday I got via the email transom an article, slated for publication in The American Prospect, entitled “The Democrats’ Da Vinci Code.” The author, one David Sirota, sent along his piece with a missive saying, in part, that “various ‘red state’ and ‘red region’ Democrats are already showing the party how to win in conservative areas. The key is to fundamentally reject the corporate/DLC argument–and follow those who continue to win with a progressive populist message.” (emphasis in original).
That let me know right away that Sirota is one of those guys whose knowledge of the DLC is unencumbered by any actual information on what we believe, write, say and do, other than what he’s picked up on the Democratic Underground site, or in the Collected Works of Bob Borosage.
It turns out the whole piece pretty much lives down to my initial expectations.
I hate to sound like a pointy-head here, but the argument Sirota’s making–that economic ‘populism’ of the most atavistic sort trumps cultural conservatism–has been around for a long time, dating back at least to the early ’70s. Yet Sirota seems to think he’s the first to discover it; hence the “Da Vinci Code” title, and article’s breathless claim, repeated often with the tone of revelation, that beating back the Cultural Right is real easy if you just keep appealing to the ol’ pocketbook.
But it’s the specific examples cited by Sirota for his post-election satori that are especially weird.
He was involved with Brian Schweitzer’s campaign in Montana, so unsurprisingly the Governor-Elect of that state is his Exhibit 1. And he usefully explains how Schweitzer blasted Montana Republicans for corporate subsidies, government inefficiency, and poor public lands management to win–without, of course, realizing that these are strategies the DLC has strongly and repeatedly endorsed. But you wouldn’t know from Sirota that Schweitzer also (a) chose a Republican as running-mate, (b) endorsed a ban on gay marriage, or (c) vehemently opposed gun control in any form. I’m not approving or disapproving of these actions, but it’s pretty clear Schweitzer himself didn’t think populism made it unecessary to deal with cultural issues on their own terms.
Sirota goes on to list a lot of other red-state Democrats who have succeeded by defying the “corporate/DLC argument,” and most of them are actually politicians with long-standing close connections with the DLC: Ken and John Salazar of CO, Janet Napolitano of AZ, John Spratt of SC, Eliot Spitzer of NY, and Stephanie Herseth of SD.
But the bizarre nature of Sirota’s definition of a “progressive populist” is illustrated by his constant references to two House Members: the Socialist independent from Vermont, Bernie Sanders, and the Blue Dog from Mississippi, Gene Taylor.
You don’t have to be a political whiz to know that Sanders is the at-large Congressman from Vermont, a state that gave John Kerry a 20-point win over George Bush. That state’s relevance to a discussion of “red-state and red region” Democrats is mystifying, to say the least.
As for Taylor, this “progressive populist” is a guy who (a) voted to impeach Bill Clinton, (b) voted for Bush tax cuts, and (c) has supported virtually every socially conservative piece of legislation that’s ever come to the House floor.
The only way to shoehorn Sanders and Taylor as fellow “populist progressives” is to make opposition to trade agreements the sole definition of both “populist” and “progressive,” and sometimes that seems to be the thrust of Sirota’s argument. But if that’s the case, perhaps the roughly one-third of House Republicans who routinely vote against trade agreements deserve another long look from “progressives.” And perhaps that great opponent of “corporate free trade,” Karl Rove’s idol William McKinley, was the real “populist” in his two presidential campaigns against free trader William Jennings Bryan.
In any event, if you feel compelled to read an argument for the “populism trumps culture” totem, give Sirota a pass and read Thomas Frank’s “What’s the Matter With Kansas.” At least he’s readable and very funny.

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