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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Mobilization, Persuasion, and Partisan Contrast

[Note: the following is cross-posted from a diary at DailyKos] As someone who has devoted a big chunk of his professional life over the last few years trying to promote constructive dialogue between netrooters and New Democrat types (most recently here), I wasn’t exactly happy to see Markos use an out-of-context 2005 quote from me to exemplify the unbridgeable, eternal gap between the two perspectives on Democratic politics.
He invited me to post this diary to respond.
The quote, which appeared in a Ron Brownstein piece in The National Journal, was this:
“We are more of a coalition party than they are. If we put a gun to everybody’s head in the country and make them pick sides, we’re not likely to win.”
The context of the quote was a long conversation with Brownstein about how Democrats needed to deal with the Rovian “polarization” strategy. And all I was trying to say was that counter-polarization was an insufficent response for Democrats, given the enduring ideological tilt of the electorate, for many decades, towards the center-right. I did not say, imply or mean that Democrats needed to “move to the right” or “blur the differences between the two parties.” Au contraire. The whole point was that Democrats had to complement a mobilization strategy with a persuasion strategy designed to pull swing voters in our direction over time. “Standing up” to Bush and the GOP, and offering clear choices between the two parties, I thought then and think now, is essential, but the choices we offer have to be attractive to people who aren’t reflexively on our side.
As it happens, today, as opposed to 2005, we’d likely win the “gun to the head” test. But that’s not just because Democrats are suddenly “standing up to Bush;” it’s because his record, and his party’s complicity in that record, are abysmal, and the whole world knows it. The tangible consequences of Republican misgovernment are at least as important as the “noise” we make about it. That matters because Bush is going to leave office soon, and like it or not, if Democrats want to build an enduring progressive majority, we’ll have to seal the deal with millions of voters who will be vulnerable to Republican arguments that W., like Nixon before him, failed because of personal incompetence and imperial delusions rather than conservative ideology.
Ironically, a fair number of netroots folk seem to be buying into the same kind of triumphalism that New Democrats were sometimes guilty of during and just after the Clinton administration: we’ve found the keys to the kingdom about how Democrats can win elections now and forever, world without end. The netroots played a crucial role in the 2006 victory, just as the DLC undoubtedly played a crucial role in Clinton’s 1992 victory. But in both cases, Republican failures had as much to do with the outcome as Democratic successes, and the enduring challenge is how to not only moblize but expand the Democratic base, bringing back a natural Democratic majority that really expired way back in the 1960s.
There are a variety of sub-issues I could get into here, most notably the peculiar belief that Clintonian “triangulation” was the primary cause of the 1994 debacle, and of the stupid “change the subject” campaign strategies of congressional Democrats during the long struggle back to a majority.
But I’ll leave it here for now, resisting my old-guy tendencies to get into historical debates. If my perspective is truly the prime example of netroots/New Dem disagreements, then maybe we’re more united than you might think.

5 comments on “Mobilization, Persuasion, and Partisan Contrast

  1. Peter from WI on

    The difference between the New Dem triumphalism and the momentary celebrations (though with much concerned hand-wringing because we’re not quite yet a movement) of the netroots, grassroots, and progressives within the party and beyond is that New Dems thought that it was all about winning the next election, while the latter group, of whom I consider myself a proud member, are confident that for the long-term, we have found something that is more sustainable (especially as we overcome the structural political challenges we have had – something the New Dems and the DLC never really had much interest in taking on).
    New Dems thought the ticket was accommodating a center-right country more than anything (don’t try to hide that part – it was a major aspect of the New Dem ethos, and not “explaining ourselves better”). The netroots et al believe that we need to build a sustainable movement that is not trapped by the electorate-as-slices-of-pie mentality as well as that of a traditional political spectrum.
    As we build an infrastructure, show some backbone electorally and governing, and provide a compelling vision, we have the opportunity to remake political culture and get to the point where for the foreseeable long-term, progressive politics is indeed winning politics because it’s where the American people really are at.

  2. PhD9 on

    failed because of personal incompetence and imperial delusions rather than conservative ideology
    But Conservative ideology IS personal incompetence and imperial delusions!
    (sorry – I couldn’t resist)
    For the first time in my lifetime, the degree of intelligence we apply to our dealings with the rest of the world is an overriding electoral issue.
    There’s a lot of mileage that be gained from the simple message – “We’re not Cro-Magnons”.

  3. nfreeman on

    Hear hear, New Donkey!
    I think the real lesson behind the Democratic victories in 2006 isn’t that our party has necessarilly gotten better at explaining our positions and persuading voters to join our cause but rather that the mismanagement of the War in Iraq made our not always so persuasive arguments more compelling, if only for a while.
    I think that the blogosphere has been a huge part of the improvements that have been made to the Democratic message but that improvement has not been as great as it could be and it’s certainly not where it should be to build a lasting majority.


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