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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

‘New Ideas’ Over-rated as Key to Election Wins

In the current issue of The New Republic, Jonathan Chait blows away the cliche that the Republicans’ success in politics derives from their superior “new ideas.” Chait’s article, “The Case against New Ideas” makes a compelling argument that (a.) the Dems have lots of ‘new’ (and good) ideas, certainly compared to the GOP and (b.) getting elected isn’t so much about ideas anyway. As Chait explains:

To begin with, the plain fact is that liberals have plenty of new ideas. Troll websites of the Center for American Progress, the Brookings Institution, or the Century Foundation, and you will find them teeming with six- and twelve-point plans for any problem you can imagine: securing loose nuclear weapons, reforming public education, promoting international trade, bolstering the military, and so on. They get churned out by the shelfful providing more material than any presidential administration could hope to enact…Liberals are brimming with ideas about reforming health care and taming the deficit. Conservatives have little to say about either of these problems.

Chait offers impressive examples of creative policy reforms offered by Democrats that never got much traction in the media. He argues that “the vast majority of the time, the press will simply ignore ideas put forth by the minority party.” Chait points out that the Republican party is not exactly a treasure trove of new ideas (Quick, name the GOP’s fresh ideas for addressing global warming or the health care crisis).
Chait shreds the notion that Bush’s Social Security privatization scheme is a new idea and he notes that the Iraq war was not based on the ‘new’ idea of democracy-promotion, but the bogus threat of WMD’s. And where, Chait asks are the GOP’s new ideas about dealing with very real security concerns, like North Korea or Iran?
Chait’s point is not just that the Dems have more and better ideas than the GOP; It is also that ideas rarely determine political outcomes. As Chait notes:

Alas, this sort of thinking assumes a wildly optimistic level of discernment by voters. Polls consistently show that large swaths of the voting public know very little about the positions taken by candidates. In 2000, the National Annenberg Election Survey found that just 57 percent of voters knew Al Gore was more liberal than Bush, 51 percent knew he was more supportive of gun control, and a mere 46 percent understood that he was more supportive of abortion rights. “The voting behavior literature, which is massive, shows that people are not particularly idea-driven,” explains Berkeley political scientist Nelson Polsby. “They don’t know what the fashions are, with respect to what ideas go with other ideas.”
…A recent study in Science magazine was even more disturbing to those who believe in the power of ideas. Scientists showed the subjects pairs of photographs, which turned out to be matched candidates in Senate and House races. The subjects had to judge within one second which candidate looked more competent, on the basis of appearance alone. Their choice matched the candidate who won an astounding 71.6 percent of the time in Senate races. If you consider that a decent share of Senate races pit unknown, underfunded challengers against popular incumbents in highly partisan states, that is a remarkably high percentage. Faith in the discernment of the public is not based on proof, it’s premised on, well, faith

Chait emphasizes that the myth of ‘new ideas’ as the decisive determinant of electoral victories has been bandied about as much by liberals, as by conservatives, and he quotes numerous sources to make his point. Well-articulated, fresh ideas can be an asset. But Democrats who want to win would do better to keep focused on projecting good character and credibility, supporting solid policies that address real concerns of working people and getting their message out to new voters, as well as their base.