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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Exposing the Opposition in 2016 May Be the Best Idea: Judis on Democrats and ‘Government Reform’

This post from John Judis is the second contribution in the Washington Monthly/The Democratic Strategist roundtable discussion of Stan Greenberg’s new article on government reform and the white working class from WaMo’s June/July/August issue.
John Judis is a senior editor at National Journal.

The analysis of the white working class’s voting patterns has been an important task for Democratic consultants and pollsters and political analysts over many election cycles–going back to Stan’s early focus groups in Macomb County–but I worry that it is becoming a cul-de-sac. Along with the blanket designation of minorities or people of color as automatic Democrats, it has mainly served simply to provide calculations that either produce or deny a “rising Democratic majority,” and these exercises may provide less insight about the present or the future than they have in the past.(use arrow to read more)
Stan correctly points us to a discussion of Americans’ attitude toward government as a critical issue, which is relevant, incidentally, not just to the non-college educated or non-college graduated, but to a wide range of the voters Democrats need to attract. The Democrats, once known as the party of the common man–a sure winner in American politics–have become known as the party of government, and that is indeed a problem for some of the reasons Stan cites. Bill Clinton, the DLC, and Dave Osborne tried to dispel this impression through launching a campaign in the early ’90s to “reinvent government.” That put Democrats on the right side of the debate, or at least inoculated them against the usual charges. But when I read the current proposals circulating among Democratic candidates and think-tanks and policy groups–highlighted in my mind by the idea of turning the ill-functioning post office into a public banking system–I worry that on the question of government Democrats are going in exactly the wrong direction.
Right now, the Democrats need to focus on thematics rather than on demographics. Yes, government reform is the right direction, as long as the proposals (like the perennial middle class tax cut) take into account how American voters actually think and not how Democrats in certain zip codes on the east or west coasts believe they think. Done correctly such an approach will allow Democrats to gain votes among some constituencies that spurned them.
There will a problem in 2016, however, in presenting “government reform” as the centerpiece of a Democratic agenda. This kind of agenda works best when presented by the party that is out of power–like the Democrats were in 1992 or 2008. It falls flat, on the other hand, when a Democrat or Republican is attempting to succeed someone from their own party. In that case, the candidates’ success depends primarily on convincing voters that their opponent would screw up government–as GHW Bush was able to do in 1988 with Dukakis or as Obama was able to do with Romney in 2012. For this reason, in 2016 the Democrats should basically frame their appeal around the appalling consequences that would result from a GOP victory and hope that the Republicans don’t move to the center in 2016, but instead proudly present themselves as the party of governmental obstruction, religious fanaticism, and welfare for billionaires.

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