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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Message, Partisanship, and “Fighting”

I’m doing this post because my old friend Armando at TalkLeft has cited me twice in the past week for opposing partisanship, “contrast,” and “fighting” as elements of a Democratic political strategy, once quoting, slightly (but not unfairly) out of context, something I said back in 2005.His latest post selectively quotes from an analysis I did the other day of the Democratic presidential field, noting in passing that Gore and Kerry lacked an overarching message, but had plenty of policy proposals and lots of Shrumian “fighting” rhetoric. This somehow translates, in Armando’s view, into me saying that I said Gore and Kerry’s candidacies lost because they “fought” or were too partisan. Not true. All I said is that both candidacies (and yes, I understand that Gore won the popular vote and Kerry clame close) would have benefitted from a consistent, overarching message that complemented their vast policy agendas and their “fighting” spirit. No, I do not think wanting to “fight” Republicans represents a sufficient message for any Democrat; but that doesn’t mean I’m opposed, then or now, to a strong contrast in campaign messages, so long as there is a message other than “I oppose the bad guys.” As it happens, I was as unhappy as anybody with the weird, poll-driven reluctance of the Kerry campaign during the 2004 convention to attack the opposition; I was in the convention speechwriting operation, and chafed against the High Command’s edict that speeches barely mention Bush and rarely mention the GOP. As Armando suggests, the Kerry campaign got out of that mindset later in the campaign, and I’m glad they did. As for the “politics of contrast,” which Armando has repeatedly used me as a foil to promote, yes, of course, absolutely, if you don’t explain to voters why you’re different from the opposition, you can’t expect to win many elections. But just as obviously, there are legitimate questions about where to draw contrasts, and how much contrast is necessary. If contrast is the only thing that matters, then Democrats should just distance themselves as far from Republicans as possible, regardless of public opinion, principles, actual consequences, or common sense, and I doubt Armando or anyone else really thinks that makes any sense. He has his point of view about how far Democrats need to go to “contrast” themselves with the GOP on Iraq, but that point of view, however passionately and articulately advanced, is just a debating point between people who agree on the basics, not a self-evident position held by anyone who wants “contrast.” So don’t count me among the (largely imaginary) ranks of Democrats who never want to be partisan, don’t want to draw contrasts, and don’t want to fight. I continue to think we need a broader message that appeals to people who aren’t reflexively ideological or partisan, and I reject the idea that Bill Clinton (for example), wasn’t acting as a partisan politician when he talked about “progress not partisanship” in 1996 and 1998. Partisanship, contrast and “fighting” do need to be connected to a broader national agenda and a rationale for Democratic candidacies that transcends these tactics, and that’s all I’ve tried to say.

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