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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Time For a New Theory?

This item by Ed Kilgore was originally published on October 25, 2010.
Many journalists never bother to acnowledge when their theories or predictions don’t pan out. That’s not true of TAP’s Mark Schmitt, who’s acknowledging that his sanguine attitude towards what Barack Obama might be able to accomplish substantively and poltically via a sort of post-partisan pragmatism wasn’t terribly prescient after all:

Republican intransigence and Democratic fecklessness have been well chronicled. But the more troublesome error in the theory appeared only after those barriers were overcome. Obama’s legislative victories, the most significant for a Democrat since Lyndon Johnson, began to seem like a burden rather than a source of future strength. The Obama presidency isn’t over, but his theory of governing — that change is possible by bridging partisan differences and enacting incremental policies that would pave the way for bigger proposals — is defunct. What comes next?

As someone who shared much of Schmitt’s optimism, I guess it’s time for a little self-criticism as well. My own theory of “grassroots bipartisanship” suggested that Obama’s conspicuous post-partisan approach might either split the GOP or force it into a position of self-destructive extremism. The split never happened; in effect, the right wing of the GOP has killed off its moderate wing, such as it was. So the GOP has been encouraged (not that it needed much encouragment) to become extremist, but so far, has not paid any tangible political price for it. Indeed, GOP extremism has excited the party’s conservative base, boosting midterm turnout.
Now it’s almost certain that this short-term outcome is the result of the economic calamity and the inability of Democrats to do much about it that voters will praise (avoiding greater calamity will await the praise of historians). Combined with the pro-GOP tilt of the midterm electorate, and the usual midterm reaction to any new administration, the economy has been enough to largely insulate the newly radical GOP from the consequences of its own bad behavior.
But that’s the short-term outcome. Emboldened by their initial success, and pushed by an activist base that will now be convinced the GOP has a mandate for extremism, the Republican Party going forward is in a fine position to squander its midterm wins and remind swing voters why they got so throughly sick of Repubican rule in 2006 and 2008.
So I’m not ready just yet to accept that Obama’s original “theory of change” was fatally flawed, and might not succeed in the long run. But Schmitt’s obviously right: this is not where we were supposed to be two years after Barack Obama’s election, and fresh thinking about the strategic and tactical challenges facing progressivism and the Democratic Party are most definitely in order. But panic, or a kneejerk decision to emulate Republican extremism, are neither fresh nor a form of thinking

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