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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Clintonism, Consultants and Character

What’s holding back the Democratic party? Here are three nominations, as advanced by three different observers in recent articles.
1. Clintonism. Chuck Todd, editor of the Hotline, argues in the new Atlantic that Clinton’s strategy of triangulation–neutralizing troublesome issues by “splitting the difference”–had great success rehabilitating some negative parts of the Democrats’ image and, combined with Clinton’s great skills as a politician was a successful formula for a limited time at the Presidential level. But Clintonism did little to build the Democrats as a party (indeed the Democrats’ Congressional majority was lost in the heyday of Clintonism) and, as applied by less skillful politicians in a changed environment, has contributed to the deadly perception that Democrats don’t really stand for anything and have no core values.
2. Consultants. Amy Sullivan argues in her entertaining new article, “Fire the Consultants“, in The Washington Monthly that the Democrats’ tendency to employ the same losing consultants–who are so inbred with the Democratic establishment that they wind up, in essence, assigning themselves work–over and over again ensures that the same losing strategies are employed in campaigns over and over again. No market discipline on these consultants (in fact, it seems more like a form of crony capitalism) means no progress for the Democrats.
3. Character. Jill Lawrence argues in USA Today that Democrats keep nominating men of sterling character (Gore, Kerry) whose character the Democrats’ inexlicably fail to defend against a deliberate Republican strategy of character assassination. She suggests that Democrats’ just don’t take character seriously enough and think they can deflect these attacks by talking about “issues”.
What do I think? I think there’s truth to all three of these critiques, though each of them overstates their thesis. It seems reasonable to me that Clintonism did not perform particularly well either in party-building or in building a positive image of Democrats’ core values and convictions among constituencies like white working class voters who no longer “got” what Democrats were about. Perhaps that was inevitable given the other problems that Clintonism had to solve first, but it seems silly to deny that these were real failures of Clintonism. (See Ed Kilgore over at NewDonkey, however, for a stout defense of Clintonism against Todd’s critique.)
It would also be silly to deny that rewarding those consultants that fail (all shall have prizes!) with more and more work is flat-out dumb as a strategy and stands in depressing contrast to the Republicans’ ability to promote new talent and reward winners. And who could deny that Democrats have handled character attacks poorly in the last several elections and need a more aggressive appoach to beat them back?
But none of these critiques add up to a silver bullet for Democrats’ electoral fortunes. Let’s take the elements of truth in each of them, without getting dogmatic about any of them. That’s the “Newer Democrat” way–or the “Vince Lombardi Democrat” way, to use a term coined by Rahm Emanuel, the new head of the DCCC. The last thing we need is a new orthodoxy about what’s wrong with the Democratic party. Instead, let’s be pragmatic and take only the elements of these critques that may help us win and discard the rest.