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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Party Loyalty: Fading Cause or Realistic Goal?

Although the media is fixated on the implications of the Edwards mess in the context of the current election, it also helps bring into focus a problem of longer-term significance that has been overlooked.
In John Edwards, we had a candidate who offered what was arguably the best package of reforms benefitting working people in decades. I still believe his concern was sincere, that he had some genuine compassion for those who didn’t have basic economic or health security. Yet at the same time, he was willing to risk getting his Party — the one party than can rise to this challenge — crushed in the presidential election by revelations of his sloppy personal life.
I’m sure Edwards rationalized it with the argument that he could do a lot of good if he got elected. But it’s not merely appalling that he would risk having his Party trashed. For me it’s a disturbing revelation of the underlying fragility of the Democratic Party. When even our better candidates have so little regard for the Party as an institution, what have we got?
The examples of Bill Clinton and Gary Hart prove that Edwards was not such an exceptional case in this regard. Earlier Democratic (and Republican) candidates knew that the media would give them a free pass. I’m just hoping Senator Obama is the exceptional case — a candidate who not only has his personal life together, but who also has enough respect for his party (as well as his family) that he would never jeopardize it so casually.
Not to let Edwards, Clinton or Hart off the hook for their personal responsibility. But party loyalty is pretty shallow across all demographic groups. Yes, the percentage of self-identified Democrats has increased significantly recently and the percentage of those who have a “favorable” view of the Democratic Party has increased. But only about a third of voters i.d. themselves as Dems, and evidently party i.d. doesn’t resonate very deep.
You have to go back to the FDR era to find a time when party loyalty was a strong value among many Democrats. Back then, a healthy majority saw the Democratic Party as a reliable champion of their interests, and a lot of the credit goes to FDR’s leadership. Reagan usually gets the cred for the GOP’s inroads into the working class, but really it was Eisenhower who laid the foundation and blurred party lines.
FDR had the benefit of a growing union movement to support his party. In Europe, stronger union movements have delivered better wages, benefits and working conditions, and European unions have helped empower European progressive parties. Strengthening Democratic party loyalty will also require rebuilding America’s trade union movement. Until that happens, my guess is that efforts to invoke ‘party discipline’ will have limited success.
To make this happen, unions must do a better job of informing the public about organized labor’s vital contributions. For example, why the hell is there no AFL-CIO TV network offered in my cable package? There should also be more creative membership options for unorganized service and white collar workers for unions to grow and become strong again.
On another track, the Obama campaign, with its elements of a social movement offers hope that we can begin to deepen party loyalty among Democrats. But much depends on the depth of his personal commitment to strengthen unions if he gets elected. The Democratic Party also needs a more aggressive campaign on its own behalf. We are seeing lots of candidate ads. But you don’t see many ads stating the Party’s commitment to needed social reforms. People need to know that the ‘big tent’ doesn’t mean Dems have amorphous values.
In a couple of weeks, the Democratic Party will convene for our quadreniial pep rally, culminating in a powerful, historic moment when Senator Obama accepts the nomination as the nation’s first African American presidential nominee on the 45th anniversary of Dr. King’s “I Have A Dream” speech. Obama and the Democratic Party will enjoy a surge of support, and hopefully, some of it will last through November 3. On day one after the election, that great energy driving the Obama campaign should be channeled into strengthening the Democratic Party.

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