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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Party or Person?

This may seem like a strange question on election day, but how many times have you been annoyed when some friend or acquaintance says, often with self-righteous intonation, “I vote for the person, not the party”?
My answer would be, “a lot,” so commonplace the phrase has become in political discussions. My hunch is that there is a pretty good chance you have also heard the expression in the last couple of months.
It can be a conversation-ender, depending on your tolerance for political dialogue with those who don’t give politics much thought, unprincipled dimwits or otherwise intelligent but apolitical people. But the expression is emblematic of a larger problem, the failure of the Democratic Party to inspire broad-based loyalty of similar magnitude as progressive parties in other nations.
Steve Benen has an interesting observation about “The Limited Value of the ‘Vote for the Person’ Maxim” at The Washington Monthly. As Benen notes,

…I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve heard people say, with some degree of pride, “I vote for the person, not the party.” I get the sense those who repeat it consider it evidence of high-minded independence.
…The “I vote for the person” crowd is making an odd argument. These folks seem to be suggesting they’re not especially concerned with policy differences, policy visions, or agendas, but rather, are principally concerned with personalities. Maybe the candidate seems more personable; maybe they ran better commercials. Either way, as a substantive matter, the “vote for the person, not the party” approach seems pretty weak. Indeed, it’s what leads people to express a series of policy priorities, and then vote for a candidate who opposes all of those priorities — a dynamic that’s as exasperating as it is counter-productive.

Benen quotes Michael Kinsley to underscore the point:

…There is nothing wrong with voting for the party and not the person…. A candidate’s party affiliation doesn’t tell you everything you would like to know, but it tells you something. In fact, it tells you a lot — enough so that it even makes sense to vote your party preference even when you know nothing else about a candidate. Or even vote for a candidate that you actively dislike.

There are several reasons for the failure of the Democratic Party to inspire the kind of loyalty that motivates voters to support their candidates, even when a candidate’s charisma is lacking. Multiparty parliamentary systems seem to do this better. They have more ‘street’ or neighborhood presence, which builds solidarity. America’s culture elevates individual achievement over accomplishments based on ideological solidarity. And there’s no denying that the Democratic Party could do a lot better job of defining and projecting what it stands for.
I raise this issue today because the “I vote the person” maxim will have a particularly sour echo on a day like today. I find it hard to believe that majorities of voters really believe that Sharron Angle, Rand Paul or Nathan Deal are truly persons of superior character, competence or likability, compared with their Democratic opponents. In a way support for those candidates is based on party, but not party loyalty — numerous polls indicate voters don’t like the GOP very much. Rather, indications are that many are angry with Democrats for what they perceive as inadequate commitment to economic recovery.
Dems did not sell the very real economic achievements of their party during the last two years very well. I don’t recall seeing any ads in which Dems claim credit for saving the auto industry, talk about the impressive number of jobs created by the stimulus, explain that TARP is proving to be a cost-effective investment, or brag about the life-saving benefits of HCR. Instead they relied on interviews and speeches to get the message out, with limited results. As Joe Klein observed on MSNBC’s ‘Morning Joe,’

…This is one of the weirdest campaigns I’ve ever seen. The Democrats pass all this legislation — stuff they wanted to pass for 60 years — and then they run away from it. They don’t even bother to explain the stuff that they passed…

Painfully true. Lots of ads are necessary to tell a party’s story properly and unedited by outsiders, because TV editors clip interviews and speech excerpts, often drastically, to suit their programs.
But there is still hope that Dems can build a stronger spirit of party loyalty. The seeds are there, as James Vega has noted,

…During the 50’s and 60’s, in dozens and dozens of congressional districts blue- collar Democrats loyally voted for Democratic candidates who were much more liberal than they were on social issues. They did it out of a combination of party loyalty and trust that the Democratic candidate would be more pro-labor on economic issues.

Dems need a stronger commitment to assertively promote the party and its agenda, not just our candidates in their individual races. The image of the Democratic party has dwindled down into a collection of candidates who stand for different reforms in varying degrees with little solidarity between them. Party building is not just about recruiting good candidates; It’s also about creating a collective identity that inspires voters and invites them to be a part of it.

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