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.
TDS Strategy Memos
Latest Research from:
By Ed Kilgore
While mulling some recent material from The Bulwark, I thought I’d explain something to the converted “Never Trumpers” the outlet represents, and did so at New York:
For a while now I’ve had a guilty-pleasure reading habit: The Bulwark, that semi-official outlet of Never Trumpers who view themselves as having definitively broken with the GOP thanks to their former party’s thralldom to Donald J. Trump. I share its contributors’ belief that they (the tribe usefully described by Miller as Red Dog Democrats) represent not just a self-promoting claque of elite scribblers but a real if marginal faction of the Democratic Party, having burned a lot of bridges on their way out of the GOP. Their views appear to parallel those of a significant number of suburban Republicans and independents who voted Democratic in 2018 and 2020. And given the very close balance between voters of the two parties, as reflected most recently in 2020, Democrats really can’t afford to contemptuously reject any potential adherents, however alien or even repugnant they might find their backgrounds.
So it’s understandable when Bulwark co-founder Charlie Sykes expresses frustration that Democrats refuse to consider their pleas for policy concessions on grounds of holding old grudges:
“The spending. The wokeness. The repeal of the Hyde Amendment. I could go on …
“These are difficult times for folks on the center-right, who’ve tried to join Democrats in a loose alliance to protect the Republic from Trumpism …
“Litmus tests are applied: it’s not enough to be pro-democracy, NTers are also expected to embrace the elements of the progressive agenda — from free community college, to abortion, rent moratoriums, police funding, transgenderism, CRT, social spending, and the candidacy of Greta Thunberg for sainthood.”
Sykes fears it’s all very personal, and warns, “If you cancel moderates/conservatives for their past sins, you don’t have a coalition.”
Here’s the thing, though: It’s not really about the Red Dogs. Yes, I’m sure it’s been tough for them to watch Democrats largely come together around a legislative program that’s significantly more progressive than the one advanced by the Obama administration. But Democrats have been coalescing around the basics of the Build Back Better agenda for some time now. That the famously moderate Joe Biden now embraces it is a sign of how the party has slowly evolved, not some sort of betrayal or surrender to the left. And anyone who paid close attention to the 2020 presidential primaries should have understood that there is less distance between Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders than between Joe Biden and the Joe Biden of the 1990s.
Part of what has happened is simply a resolution of internal conflicts among Democrats that left them defensive and at times incoherent. A classic example is one that Sykes mentioned: abortion policy. For years, Democrats claimed to value reproductive rights even as they accepted significant limitations on them: e.g., the Hyde Amendment, which made abortion services, unlike any other medical services, ineligible for any sort of federal support. That amendment, along with acceptance of some largely symbolic restrictions on rare late-term abortions, and the whole “safe, legal, and rare” messaging introduced by Bill Clinton, represented concessions to a significant bloc of Democratic voters and Democratic pols who did not recognize reproductive rights at all.
That has changed over time. Anti-abortion Democratic politicians are a rare and shrinking breed, and there are now significantly fewer anti-abortion Democratic voters than there are pro-choice Republicans. Most Democrats, including Joe Biden, have made the leap into a more coherent and unified position. They aren’t going to turn back the clock to satisfy ex-Republicans, but they aren’t insisting on a “litmus test” just to annoy or exclude them, either. The same could be said for other policy tenets once beloved by a significant number of Democrats — from fiscal hawkishness to armed interventionism to an openness to “entitlement reform” — that remain attractive to the newest proto-Democrats. As for the idea that Democrats are some sort of rigid ideological cult: Come on, seriously? Look at what’s going on with the attempted enactment of the Build Back Better reconciliation bill. If this is an intolerant and exclusive political party, I’d hate to see a loosey-goosey one try to function. It may just be that the issues Red Dogs fret about may lie outside the still relatively loose bounds of party unity.
This doesn’t mean Red Dogs should despair, but it may mean another painful reevaluation of priorities, recognizing that most have already had to sacrifice a lot of old allegiances and even the habitual language used to make sense of the political world. In many respects, the Never Trumpers resemble their spiritual (and in some cases biological) predecessors, the neo-conservatives. These were people who broke with the Democratic Party out of a conviction that Democratic views on national security made continued party loyalty impossible. But most of them retained many views that horrified their new Republican allies until they accepted the inevitable role of a factional minority and grew to accommodate or even share the policy positions and ideological language of the GOP, which was increasingly dominated by conservatives with their own ideological-consistency demands.
Most Red Dogs have no illusions about the party they’ve left and understand their constituencies are too small to form a third force or demand concessions from a position of strength. Most, I suppose, will get used to the strange and sometimes lurid landscape of the Donkey Party. Others will embrace the posture of the gadfly, the people of no party or coalition. But it’s really not personal. It’s just politics.