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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Leaders

Most Democrats understand the downside of winning elections and then being held accountable for conditions in the country they did not produce. Consider the endless talk about the federal budget deficits in the Obama administration’s first budget. As David Leonhardt of the New York Times explained yesterday, Obama inherited most of the red ink from Bush policies and from the recession (indeed, as Jonathan Chait argues, Leonhardt may have actually underestimated that inheritance). But it’s considered poor form for Democrats to keep “blaming Bush,” doncha know.
One often underestimated benefit of holding the White House, though, is the extraordinary power and visibility of the Bully Pulpit. And that factor is nicely illustrated by a new Gallup survey that shows Americans clearly think of Barack Obama as the leader of the Democratic Party, while having little idea whom to treat as the leader of the opposition.
Worse yet, the three people most often cited by Gallup respondents in an open-ended question about the “main person who speaks for the Republican Party today” are Rush Limbaugh, Dick Cheney and Newt Gingrich; 29% named one of these three gents (as did 29% of Republicans and 34% of Democrats). These are precisely the three “spokesmen” most Democrats would wish on the GOP. But that may overstate their prominence: a remarkable 46% of Republicans and GOP-leaners in the poll either couldn’t name a party leader or asserted there wasn’t one.
Meanwhile, Barack Obama is considered the main Democratic spokesman by two-thirds of Democrats and 58% of Americans generally. The latter number is as low as it is because fully 20% of Republicans (but only 6% of Democrats) named Nancy Pelosi as the main Democratic voice, reflecting the obsession of conservative media with the House Speaker.
This situation obviously helps the president serve as a messenger and agenda-setter for the Democratic Party. But it also helps explain the hyper-partisan and ideologically rigid atmosphere among would-be Republican “spokesmen,” who are competing for attention by focusing on the hard-core conservative base. It’s enough to drive a party crazy.

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