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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Can We All Agree on This?

Ed Kilgore over at NewDonkey has an excellent four part series on “Lessons Learned” from the previous 12 months of politics. I commend the entire series to you, but I particularly wanted to highlight four points of agreement among Democrats that Kilgore proposed in his first entry to this series:

(a) mobilization of partisans and ideologues is not enough; we need a persuasion strategy as well;
(b) we’re the out-party now, and no longer have any excuse for behaving as the Party of Government;
(c) you just cannot win a presidential election without a clear, overarching message, defined as a theme or two that explain what you propose to do to organize public resources to address the needs and interests of the American people at home and abroad; and
(d) that message must, for the foreseeable future, address the perceived weakness and incoherence of Democrats on national security issues; the perceived elitism and relativism of Democrats in terms of their understanding of the direction of American society and culture; and the perceived obsession of Democrats with a program-heavy, values-lite approach to economic and other domestic issues.

Can we all agree on this? We may disagree on exactly how to address these four points, but we should all agree that these are the points to be addressed. Kilgore provides his basic approach to these points in the other three parts of his four part series; it’s up to all of us to provide our own recommendations in the months ahead.

16 comments on “Can We All Agree on This?

  1. The Fool on

    The Democratic party doesn’t need any large scale overhaul. Bush barely won, and if Kerry had been able to slightly improve his game on almost any dimension, he could have won instead.
    The fact is Kerry lost because he wasn’t negative enough. He forgot to get the incumbent fired. End of story. Kilgore’s fluff does exactly nothing to advance our understanding of this core problem.
    If you look at the pooled time series of trial heat results over the course of the campaign, it is clear that whenever Bush was under fire he lost ground. Bush was vulnerable — but only if he was attacked. A vulnerability is nothing if you don’t exploit it. And it should be obvious that Democrats can’t rely on the media to do this for them.
    Bush lost ground during the primaries when he was being attacked by Dean and Wesley Clark. Bush lost ground early in 2004 when he was under attack for no WMD and being AWOL. Bush lost ground when Richard Clarke’s book came out. Bush lost ground when the Abu Ghraib scandal broke. Bush lost ground when the 9/11 commission and the Senate Intelligence Committee reports came out on WMD and pre-9/11 intelligence failures.
    But the Kerry team had no idea how to turn these opportunities from short-term proto-scandals into permanent stains on Bush’s record. They were foolishly positive. The Democratic convention was a gigantic blown opportunity to reach a large audience and go negative on Bush. The Republicans did not make the same mistake. The biggest blunder was failing to respond to the Swift Boat Liars. This was a perfect opportunity for Kerry to pivot off the attack on himself and turn it into an attack on Bush for going AWOL. But they failed to take advantage of it and simply failed to respond at all. This was an act of criminal negligence on the part of the Kerry campaign. Finally, there was a great opportunity to hit Bush hard during the debates, but Kerry played the debates under self-imposed Marquis of Queensbury rules and passed up many opportunities to hit Bush hard.
    The bottom line is that the Kerry campaign was too soft, and that is why they lost. End of story.
    Now re Kilgore’s points. First, as I mentioned above, Kilgore manages to entirely leave out of his 4 points the single most obvious problem with the Kerry campaign – that they were too positive. Having failed to notice the single most important lesson of the campaign, Kilgore goes on to make 4 trivial and pathetically empty points:
    (a) mobilization of partisans and ideologues is not enough; we need a persuasion strategy as well
    Duh. Kilgore’s straw man posturing is unimpressive.
    (b) we no longer have any excuse for behaving as the Party of Government;
    Duh. Yes, we need to be an opposition party. And Kerry needed to be an opposition candidate, but failed. Kilgore seems to have missed this point.
    (c) you just cannot win a presidential election without a clear, overarching message
    Duh. True, but trite and obvious. What Kilgore fails to point out is that in the 2004 election that message needed to be an extremely negative attack on Bush.
    (d) that message must, for the foreseeable future, address the perceived weakness and incoherence of Democrats on national security issues; the perceived elitism and relativism of Democrats in terms of their understanding of the direction of American society and culture; and the perceived obsession of Democrats with a program-heavy, values-lite approach to economic and other domestic issues.
    Duh. This is supposed to be insightful? Kilgore is saying that Democrats need to improve their message on national security, cultural issues, and domestic issues. Is it even possible to disagree with this utterly vapid statement?

  2. Jeff on

    I generally agree with the first three points. Although I am sure that I probably see it somewhat different than the DLCers.
    I agree that we need to persuade more voters. 48% is a good start. It seems to be the anti-Bush vote. Consistently, polling shows Bush’s negative numbers at 48%. We got that in the last election, but 48% is not enough to win unless there is a third party challenger on the right.
    That said, I think it is important to determine which group we will seek out to join our coalition.
    This, in my opinion, comes into conflict with the fourth point somewhat. We have to decide what:
    a) we stand for.
    b) identify groups which agree with us.
    c) explain why voting Republican won’t accomplish it.
    Our new coalition has to be one of:
    1) Democrats.
    2) Independants.
    3) like-minded reformers.
    The Democratic Party has to become a pro-active party, and not just one responding to every new piece of information the GOP conjure up on any given day.
    If one looks at the past 12 years, one need not look that far to understand where the alliignment might come.
    Ross Perot, John McCain, and even Pat Buchanan (to some extent) all have one thing in common.
    They challenged the Republican orthodoxy and demanded reform and got significant Republican support.
    Yet the Republican Party has not changed (or has done so for the worse).
    Independant Voters have been trending our way for some time now. Kerry actually won them in 2004.
    So for me it is obvious which group we must go after to accomplish point number one.
    Yet, the DLC isn’t about change. They seem to think that our “only” problem is that we aren’t tough enough on foreign affairs.
    Listen, we will never be Republican enough for the Republican voters. This strategy will only undermine our coalition on its left flank – something Al From and the DLC may be unconcerned about, yet as important or more important than any other group (since they have a history of voting for us, whereas the others don’t).
    I stated my peace on the DLC and security in an above post, so there is no need to repeat it. Yet I can not imagine us looking weaker if we just accept Bush’s worldview – especially if we do not believe in it.
    Second, supporters of Bush had to say something to explain why they voted for him.
    The two issues: morals/values; and security, were the ones most frequently cited.
    YET, and this is important, if Bush were to have poor records on both issues, it is likely these people still would have voted for him and just used another reason.
    ANOTHER THING – 80% of those who cited Iraq as their top issue, voted for us. A fact never even mentioned.
    So context, and a little perspective, is important.
    People’s voting habits die hard. A Republican votes for the Republican Party. Democrats vote for the Democratic Party. It’s not rocket science.
    The two parties are pretty close in terms of overall party identification, yet, the GOP have a slight advantage because of redistricting and other similar issues.
    It’s time to stop acting like the Republicans have won landslides. They consistently win squeakers.
    But the GOP base is shrinking, just as the Democratic base has grown.
    This is a fact, look at Nixon (72) and Reagan (84) – each won fantastic support from their party (like Bush did), carried the entire south (like Bush did) and won 500+ electoral votes to Bush’s 279 average.
    That by itself should tell you a lot.
    The mistake many Democrats made in this election is that they thought the reallignment would happen this year. I knew it wouldn’t. We’re still in the 50-50 stage, just look at recent polls. But the demographics are trending our way.
    A true reallignment comes when a group – who votes for one party – suddenly votes for another (given something that has happened).
    Bush’s foreign adventurism and big spending and tax cutting ways is turning away many of the McCain, Buchanan and Perot voters.
    If we come back to the GOP with our tail between our legs and just concede that they are the smartest people in the world when it comes to foreign affairs and must accept whatever they say as gospel. Then we be the most pathetic and weak opposition party in history.
    Especially given the fact that we actually won that issue.
    The DLC, and some reactionaries on this board, seem to be part of the centrist religion. However, what is centrism? That needs answering just like everything else.
    Because so far, the DLC seems to be saying that centrism is whatever the Republicans say – divided by two.

  3. michael johnson on

    I agree. It is a very useful series of essays. However, he needs to stop distorting the views of people on the left of his position so that he can trash them. He has done it with Trippi, Sirota, and others. It just demeans his reputation as someone to listen to.

  4. seamus on

    Yes, we can agree on this. Dems need to stop being afraid of national security and above to stop being afraid of values. People overwhelmingly vote for the man/woman and the message, not the plans or the programs.
    What I fear is that some of those most active in the party don’t get this, and they brand any attempt to face reality — that Americans care about national security — as “Republican lite” or “moving right.” National security and coherent values are a huge hole in the Dem message right now.

  5. Marc Brazeau on

    I totally agree. Obviously point four is where the debate starts. If anyone thinks that the general, unfocused hawkishness of Beinart and Glastris is going to carrying the day, my heels are already dug in. I think that the hawkishness of Kerry described in Matt Bai’s profile (but not by Kerry in the campaign) is a pretty good place to start.
    I would also add that we are paying a heavy price for the Democrats failure to take the constituency building aspect of governing seriously during the 90’s.
    While Clintonism was successful in winning elections for Bill, it did little to nothing to build party identification. The small counter example being the EITC. More significantly, NAFTA (and I’m agnostic on it’s overall economic pro’s and con’s) politically is an albatross around our necks. Blaming job losses in Rust Belt states on GW is insulting to people who know damn well who passed NAFTA and opened China.

  6. George Bradford on

    Kilgore’s four points are well taken. I think, however, that they are secondary to a greater and more urgent need for democrats and though few will admit it, that need must be discussed or argued first. It cannot be assumed to be obvious nor can it be taken for granted. It is not a philosophical ellipsis and must be an issue of pointed discussion. That first and most urgent issue is the messenger and not the message. Quite simply, before philosophy, doctrine, or principle we must find the messenger. Not a messenger, but THE messenger.
    With all due respect to John Kerry, he was the wrong person, at the wrong time, for the wrong cause and I supported him even before he was nominated. The good news is the worst news…so will every other democrat be the wrong person so long as republicans are able to sscare enough people motionless about their safety and their future.
    Zell Miller had no message. He was the total embodiment of fear wrapped in sarcasms with neither a basis in fact nor validity. No one cared about his veracity, they only cared that he terrified the bejeebers out of them and that he might be or, worst yet, could be right. Yet today, Zell Miller remains the most memorable personality at the republican convention. Why? Because they knew how effective the devil with a Southern accent would be.
    According to Sperry or whoever it was, our reptilian brain shuts down effective reasoning when we are sufficiently frightened. The proof is that relatively few really wanted Bush to remain in office, but their fear of the unknown was quantifiably more persuasive then an otherwise toss of the political dice might have been.
    There isn’t a lot of analysis necessary here. The very real task ahead is to single out the person or persons most likely to calm and reassure a worried electorate during the most troubled time that we can forecast for 2006/2008. We have to conjure up an absolute worst case scenario for that coming period. Then we must get the person best able to win over Jeb Bush whether Jeb runs or not. Once we have done that; hello Mr. Kilgore.

  7. november3rd on

    I haven’t read Kilgore yet, so I’m wondering what being the “out” party really entails, specifically.
    My sense is that these are all very pragmatic points. My hope is that the DNC will let the “message that persuades” be the one that percolates up from the roots.

  8. Jeff on

    This one thing is a must: WE MUST stop confusing “strength” in foreign affairs/security as parrotting whatever the republicans say.
    The Republicans are not inviolable when it comes to security and to oppose or contradict them is not a sign of weakness. I would argue the opposite is true.
    I remember reading an interview with Al From a while back, and he said something to the effect that HE WAS STRONG ON DEFENSE. He made this statement shortly after explaining why he supported every piece of the Bush Doctrine.
    To me, this is a sign of weakness. When you have to accept whatever the other party says (even when they contradict themselves), reaks of weakness. The DLC must get this through their stubborn heads.
    The DLC/Clinton wing are freaking out that 22% of people said that “values” were their first issue, and that 80% of these people voted for Bush. Let me remind you that Iraq was a very close 19% and 80% of those people voted for us.
    Bush won inspite of Iraq, not because of it.
    Yet, wasn’t it the same people in the DLC who told us that WE HAD to follow Bush to “look strong.” “Look” being the key phrase (and everything that is wrong with the DLC).
    Now lets look at the record of the DLC.
    They formed in 1985, but didn’t win their first election until 1992. But didn’t Clinton promise national health care in 1992? Clinton wasn’t as out there – on the right – when he campaigned. His success came from appealling to the “democratic wing” and the “moderate wing” of the party. “Building a bridge to the 21st century” (or was that all BS – like most of Clinton’s presidency?)
    Clinton ran his presidency like a DLCer. Yet we lost Congress in 1994 and he was impeached.
    Since then, with the DLC more or less in charge of the party, we have lost every other election.
    We have done well in states (even red states) where we run non-DLC type candidates. Look at Montana, Arizona, Colorado, Illinois, we even did better in Florida with Betty Castor (who was a Deaniac) then any other southern state.
    Yet, if you look at the South, where the DLC has its strongest influence. When the DLC was formed in 1985-7, there were 20+ Democratic Southern Senators – now there are only 3. IS this all the fault of Michael Moore – as Al From seems to be blaming for 2004?
    Or is it time to devise a new strategy?

  9. James Kwak on

    I agree with (a) through (c), but I believe (d) takes the wrong approach to developing a more powerful message. How can a single “message” address national security (a set of issues), elitism (a perception), and our obsession with detailed programs (an addiction)? (c) says we need a simple, clear message, and then (d) asks it to solve three separate and complex problems. It reminds me of the speech John Kerry was giving back in July (which I saw twice in one day) in which he attempted to redefine “values,” but redefined the term as a list of specific policy proposals.
    A message does not have to explicitly deal with all of your weaknesses. Consider President Bush’s (in my rough summary): “I will keep America strong, keep you safe, and defend traditional American values.” Did he bother addressing the widespread concern that the Republican Party is too closely allied with large corporations? No. Did he worry about the fact that his position on abortion is actually opposed by a majority of Americans? No. That’s what a message is. You don’t come up with one by first making a list of all the points it has to make, because then you end up with a policy platform. You figure out the single most important thing you can say that will appeal most powerfully to the most people, and you say it.

  10. Sam Loomis on

    Exactly. We lost on cold, hard mechanics.
    especially the ‘C’ item. Message.
    And how come no one ever addresses how the GOP telegraphs their strategies?
    I remember reading Newsweek three years ago and it was stating how Rove and Bushteam were hard at work doing exactly what they did. And they still are doing it.
    I would add as ‘E’ on the list: When GOP states strategy is telegraphed, we need to respond accordingly.

  11. Ben Ross on

    I cannot at all accept Ed Kilgore’s comment about “the perceived obsession of Democrats with a program-heavy, values-lite approach to economic and other domestic issues.”
    The DLC is guilty of promoting a cultural agenda for Democrats. It does this because it opposes the traditional Democratic economic program which is, in fact, supported by the overwhelming majority of the American people. When you can’t run on economics, you have to run on something, and you wind up running on culture. See the article about the DLC strategy that I published two years ago called “Democratic Misalliances: The New McGovernites”:

  12. Mister on

    Agreed. We’ll probably get another shot at winning in 2008. We’ll still be in Iraq after it sucks countless billions from our coffers. We’ll have an ex-body builder to contend with. If we try to find someone with enough prescence to win over voters–we might stand a chance. No stand-ins for Herman Munster, no ambulance chasers and no former first ladies…please.

  13. Mike Kruger on

    Ruy is right on this, but is still missing the key fact. Democrats must be able to fulfill the “elevator test”, which is being able to explain what we stand for in space of an elevator ride. Republicans can do it (lower taxes, less government, strong defense).
    Might I propose one? It even has a nice easy ring to it. Why not say that Democrats stand for JIF (Justice, Independence and Freedom)?
    Republicans can’t be against us then. Who is against justice, independence or freedom? Democratic candidates on the national level could build all their proposals and speeches around this JIFfy framing. We could put forward stronger anti-corporate measures from the justice point of view, we could pursue terrorists from that as well. We could argue for energy independence or fiscal independence (not borrowing from China) and also argue for equal rights, abortion, etc from the freedoms position. That kind of talk will help Demos in Red States without having to use God in every other sentence.

  14. melior on

    I disagree emphatically. It’s not our weaknesses that matter now, it’s theirs.
    A) Winning the next Presidential election is too distant a target to be worrying about for at least the next two years. There’ll be plenty of time in 2K6 to single out an over-arching message for 2K8, and we risk being overtaken by events if we try to choose one too early.
    B) Instead, this year we should be focusing on holding Bushco accountable for the twin disasters they have created (Iraq and the deficit) and on derailing their plans to destroy SS, health care, and our Supreme Court. These are Bush’s disasters, and the Republicans who control the House and Senate. They own them. They need to have their faces rubbed in the outcomes they chose. They should be humiliated in front of their supporters for their arrogance and lies, and put on the defensive for the ugly results of their self-serving actions. We were right, they were wrong. Let’s make them squirm and hide as they try to explain them away.
    In the same vein, we need to tie Bushco ever more closely to the myriad cases of fraud and ethics violations that plaque their members like a cancer. They are soaking in them, from Enron to Delay to Plame to Halliburton and on and on. Eventually, if we keep airing their excuses and their perp-walks, America will grow sick of their “values”.
    C) We need to focus on fragmenting the unholy and fragile alliance that Bushco rode to power. The true fiscal conservatives and the porkbarrel GOP deficit spenders are natural enemies, we need only to point out their idiocies to each other. Likewise, most of the fundamentalist agenda is anathema to the vast majority of moderate Republicans — they don’t really want a theocracy once it becomes clear what that means to their daily lives. Most of the NASCAR fans don’t benefit from the feed-the-rich strategies of offshoring and Big Pharma subsidies. Give each of these groups enough rope to insist on their “due”, encourage them to do so, and they will eat each other from the inside.
    D) Next year, we need to focus on regaining control of the House and Senate. Think locally, fund-raise globally.

  15. Dave on

    I think the inherent problem that democrats face goes straight to point (B). How can you be the party that’s the party of government while being the party that’s out of government? How can we make gov’t no longer be a bad word? How can we make gov’t solutions a positive instead of a negative? At the end of the day, we believe that gov’t can be effective, while the republicans believe the opposite. We run away from being the party of gov’t — just look at how they smeared Kerry’s health care proposal — but at the end of the day if we don’t accept that fact that the central tenant of democratic party is that we believe that gov’t is the best way to pull people together to collectively solve problems then we’re nowhere. It’s a core principals issue, but, I believe, the central core principal.

  16. The Fool on

    I, for one, do not agree that these are THE 4 points to address.
    By far the most important lesson of the past political year is the pathetic folly of failing to fight back. We forgot to get the incumbent fired, and now we will all pay a gigantic price.
    Are you and Kilgore willing to agree that our failure to indict the incumbent was the single greatest failing of the Kerry campaign and hence the single most important lesson of 2004?


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