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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

There For the Taking

There’s a blizzard of public opinion research making its way into publication that consistently makes one big point: growing majorities of Americans think the country is headed in the wrong direction (or, to use the train metaphor which a whole generation of pollsters has conspired to impose on us, America is on “the wrong track”). George W. Bush’s approval ratings have dropped to their pre-9/11 level, while his main priorities, especially Social Security privatization, are more unpopular every day. And the Republican Party and the Republican Congress are getting down there into the dangerous territory of being perceived as a menace to the country. But–Democrats are not yet benefitting from this wreckage. And it’s not too hard to understand why: for (largely) sound tactical reasons, they are focused on opposing the GOP agenda rather than projecting any positive agenda of their own. But that can’t go on forever. Negative perceptions of the Democratic Party on security, the role of government, and (to a lesser extent now that the GOP is lurching off the right-wing edge) culture have not gone away.How and on what set of issues should Democrats begin their crucial pivot to a positive alternative message and agenda? Regular readers probably know my answer to that one: we need a Reform message and agenda that (a) meshes with our negative critique of GOP misrule; (b) reminds voters who’s in charge in Washington; and (c) reassures voters we aren’t just itching to get back into power and substitute our form of special-interest pandering and fiscal indiscipline for theirs. As it happens, James Carville and Stan Greenberg of Democracy Corps agree with this argument, and in their latest strategy memo, lay out the evidence for it. A Democratic agenda that includes budget reform, lobbying reform, ethics reform, and tax reform, they say, could begin to connect the dots for voters skeptical of both parties and help Democrats finally get some tangible benefits from Republican misery. Will Democrats listen? There’s no inherent reason they shouldn’t. Most elements of the Reform agenda laid out by Democracy Corps (and earlier, by the DLC) don’t create any ideological divisions in the party, and are fully consistent with what Democrats want to say on other issues ranging from the economy to national security. The main opposition to a Reform message and agenda, so far as I can tell, is from political pros who learned in early childhood that these are boring “process issues” that don’t change voting behavior. That’s why it’s so helpful to hear otherwise from guys like Carville and Greenberg, who would probably make the case for an agenda centered on the Divine Right of Kings if they thought it would help Democrats win the next election.There’s a large segment of the American public right now that’s waiting for an alternative to Bush and the GOP, and is there for the taking for Democrats if they can walk and chew gum at the same time by combining opposition to Republican misgovernment with some clear evidence they could do better.

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