washington, dc

The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Editor’s Corner

Swing Ideas, not Swing Voters

By Kenneth S. Baer and Andrei Cherny
At this spring’s exclusive Gridiron Dinner, Senator Barack Obama — according to reports, as the dinner is closed press – offered up a complaint common in Democratic circles. “You hear this constant refrain from our critics that Democrats don’t stand for anything. That’s really unfair,” he said, “We do stand for anything.” As they say in the Catskills, the line killed. But the problem it refers to has been killing Democrats for years.
Since the end of the Clinton years, the Democratic Party has been adrift – without a coherent agenda or public philosophy. According to a poll conducted by Greenberg Quinlan Rosner Research earlier this year, only 29 percent of Americans believe that Democrats have a better sense than Republicans of what they stand for as a party (while 51 percent say that Republicans have a better sense than Democrats). As Stan Greenberg has put it, the American public believes Democrats have “no core set of convictions or point of view.”
Part of that is expected: when you lose the White House, a party loses a de facto leader who can impose message and ideological discipline. But there is more to it. The world has profoundly changed since President Clinton sat in the Oval Office: globalization has accelerated at a torrid pace as have the technological innovations fueling it, the country has become more diverse and more dispersed, changing family arrangements and workplace structures have deeply affected how people see the world, and the attacks of September 11th have brought to the surface a simmering war with radical Islamist terror.
Yet Democrats have not put forward a vision of where the country should go, where it should lead the world, and why. And absent that vision, no get-out-the-vote effort, re-messaging exercise, or charismatic candidate will help Democrats win the White House and, just as importantly, become a vibrant progressive force for years to come. That is why if Democrats want to win in 2008 and beyond, they must invest in the intellectual infrastructure that underpins a modern political movement. They need to develop coherent responses — rooted in the party’s deepest beliefs about democracy, liberty, equality, and justice — that respond to the new realities that America faces.
What Democrats cannot rely on are the explanations that have cropped up in the wake of the loss of the Senate in 2002 and the failure to win back the Presidency in 2004. These include the technological — witness the huge amount of money poured into the Democratic National Committee’s “Demzilla” database project, and now into the independent Democratic DataMart – but more often than not focus on the Democratic message. Here is a sampling:
1) All we need to do is retool our message – a quadrennial complaint that probably extends back to Thomas Jefferson’s loss to John Adams. This time this strategy has resurfaced under the rubric of “framing”, otherwise known as putting old wine in new bottles.
2) All we need to do is boil down our message to four phrases that have the same catchiness as the GOP’s “Smaller Government. Less taxes. Stronger Military. Family Values.”
3) All we need to do is figure out what goes on the bumper sticker. This produced a Democratic response to the 2006 State of the Union in which Virginia Governor Tim Kaine repeated the phrase “A Better Way” nine times in his short address – using the very same slogan which the Robert Redford movie “The Candidate” mocked as the essence of vapid, meaningless political rhetoric.
4) All we need to do is figure out “how to talk to” evangelical, gun-owning, Hispanic, exurban married couples in red states as if voters simply had merely not understood what we were saying.
Tactics and targeting, media and messaging – these are the ways we try to put lipstick on a party that does not know what it stands for. Democrats today are rich in strategies and poor in beliefs. Ask most Democrats what they believe in, and they will respond with a list of policies and programs, criticisms of Republican wrongs, or a series of painful stammers.
Right now, Democrats are like the fourth-generation that takes over the family firm: we have forgotten why we went into business in the first place. As a result, we spend most of the time fighting to protect the proud heritage of our past achievements from being destroyed, a necessary assignment in the current climate, but not sufficient to provide the roadmap to the future that America needs and that a great political party should provide.
Of course, Democrats have policies – by the truckload. But policies are not ideas – and anyone who tries to conflate the two is putting the cart before the horse. A policy is the “How?” An idea is the “What?” and the “Why?”. Social Security is a policy, one that has served the nation well. The notion that the federal government should mandate that Americans put money aside into a pool to ensure that seniors, widows, and orphans are not left to rot in poverty is a powerful idea, rooted in distinct beliefs about equality, justice, and the role of government in our economy.
Understanding what you believe and developing a view on how the world works and how it should are critical to the nuts-and-bolts of politics. That is to say that you cannot work on the bumper stickers or on talking to swing voters if you do not know what it is exactly you believe. Think of policy platforms, political slogans, and bumper stickers as the tips of icebergs. The ones that work are deceivingly simple but strong because underneath the surface is all the substance and weight that holds them up and that most people never see.
And therein lies the strength of the conservatives’ slogans. Their bumper sticker phrases were not cooked up in a focus group or decided by a central committee of Republican Party elders meeting in the wood-paneled boardroom of Dick Cheney’s secure undisclosed location. They were arrived at through years of vigorous debate and discussion by people who passionately held some core beliefs – and debated them with each other and the politicians seeking their support. They were unafraid to think big and unafraid to anger those who disagreed with them – including many voters.
And, most of all, conservatives had the institutions in which to float the fanciful idea and debate it — not just think tanks and academic institutes, but also idea journals such as The Public Interest and Policy Review. In fact, almost every signature idea that we associate with the modern Republican Party – from supply-side economics to pre-emption and Social Security privatization – was incubated in one of these journals years ago. It doesn’t change the fact that these policies are wrong-headed, but we cannot deny that underneath them is a well developed public philosophy.
Election Day is when the Republicans reap the rewards of this intellectual spadework. When George W. Bush, Bob Dole, or any other mainstream Republican is chosen as their party’s nominee, they get placed on top of a pyramid of thinking that has been developed far in advance of their first visits to New Hampshire. It was not George W. Bush’s campaign, for instance, that developed the theory of compassionate conservatism; that was done by Marvin Olasky and others before. Bush, characteristically, inherited the work that others had sowed in the intellectual vineyards. Democrats, on the other hand, tell their candidates to go into the fields and plant their own ideas six months before the first primary. As we have seen in campaign after campaign, what ends up happening is that candidates lapse into the default position: what does everyone else say or what does the most powerful interest group want.
To help Democratic candidates win and to revive the progressive movement, Democrats need to invest in ideas – and in the think tanks and journals that incubate them. They need to recognize the importance of investing in the development of a coherent public philosophy not just for its electoral implications (of which there are many), but because when a party lacks a viewpoint on the type of nation and world it seeks, then it loses its raison d’etre.
While winning elections is the ultimate goal for any political party and the way to affect real change, Democrats need to shed their compulsion for the transactional. Currently, candidates are selected by Party committees on the basis of their bankroll rather than their experience. Primary voters sometimes seem more concerned with that elusive quality of “electability” than with the old-fashioned notion of ability. Policies and ideas seem to be discussed by Party insiders almost exclusively in the context of which voters they would appeal to instead of what impact they would have on the nation and the world. What does it profit a political party to win an election and lose its soul?
Instead of another round of discussion over who are our swing voters, Democrats need a real debate over what are our “swing ideas”: the big notions that will remake the political landscape as surely as Republican ideas have over the past generation. To do that, we need to get back to first principles, thinking deeply about the world we want to build and how we will do it. Once we do this, we will be able to build a Democratic Party that strides boldly into this new century confident about who we are and where we are headed. That is a Democratic Party that will win again – and one that will be ready to change America for the better.
Kenneth S. Baer and Andrei Cherny are the founding editors of Democracy: A Journal of Ideas, www.DemocracyJournal.org.

Replacing the Battleground Mentality with the Mapchanger Attitude in the Democratic Party

By Jerome Armstrong
Ten years from now, the Democratic Party will have fully broadened its election strategy beyond the battleground mentality that dominates strategic thinking today. Democrats will be a national party, leaving no uncontested race anywhere in the nation, and will have rebuilt a party infrastructure down to the precinct everywhere in the nation. The Democrats will have regained their majority status as the governing party, and the mapchanger approach to elections will have been the reason.
The notion of “running Democrats everywhere” seems fanciful (to put it nicely) to DC beltway insiders and veteran political strategists. At the Presidential level, those strategists that subscribe to the beltway mentality believe that Democrats should forget about half the states, and focus all of our resources on trying to win a bare majority of electoral votes.
As the Democratic Party shrinks from a national party into a regional stronghold, the battleground also shrinks further and further. In the 1992 and the 1996 Presidential elections, with three candidates in the race, as many as 30 states were viewed as competitive battleground contests up through Election Day. In 2000, that number dropped to just 17 by Election Day. In 2004, the number of contested states early in the presidential contest stood at 18, and was whittled down to about eight by Election Day.
The battleground strategy – or more accurately obsession – that the Democratic establishment in DC pursues of narrowing electoral campaigns to ever shrinking “swing states” is self-defeating. It does not build any new converts to the party, it makes it easier for the Republicans to walk away with huge chunks of the country unchallenged and it starves the Democratic Parties in those “red” states.
At the congressional level the focus is on trying to win just enough seats to win back the majority. This incremental notion is exactly why the Democratic Party has not been able to reclaim a majority on the House side of Congress since losing control over a decade earlier. Every two years, since 1994, the congressional strategists mark out the 10 or 20 seats representing the best opportunity to win back bare control of the House, make a minimal show in 10 or 20 more, and cede the remaining GOP seats to Republican control-without even a party-supported oppositional candidate.
Those strategists have argued that they simply do not have the money and resources to fight on a broader front, and it is true – the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee was outspent by its Republican counterpart $186 million to $93 million in the 2004 cycle.i Yet, the party must have a better approach than narrowing its efforts only to the districts it sees as “winnable”. That may serve the short-term interest of trying for a slim majority in the House, but it completely ignores the long-term interest of acting, behaving and campaigning as a truly national political party.
As blogger Chris Bowers of MyDD noted November 5, 2004:

Abandoning a district also has repercussions for future elections. Failing to challenge your opponent’s message in an area is damaging to your message in that area in the future. Failing to provide a choice to those willing to support you – and there are always tens of thousands willing to support you in any congressional district – sends a message that you do not represent or care about those people. Even worse, failing to challenge an incumbent sends a message that you are afraid of your own beliefs and that you are not working to make this country a better Democracy.
Running a candidate in each of these districts would also have helped to identify Democratic activists in each of these districts. Identifying, encouraging, and assisting potential Dem[ocratic] activists throughout the entire country would help to strengthen the Party, both now and in future elections cycles. These are the people who can help to bring the Democratic message to every corner of the country.ii

The battleground mentality is cautious and narrow, and it plays to the Republican strong hand. The Republicans realize exactly which races are the battlegrounds, and focus all of their resources in kind, on the same races. This allows the party with the stronger array of resources to have the upper hand, and that is the Republican Party, which has invested hundreds of millions of dollars into new media, machine politics and database inventories that give them superior voter targeting capabilities.
In contrast, the mapchanger attitude urges an aggressive and broad challenge to Republicans. It provides the national party with the best opportunity to utilize the tens of thousands of grassroots activists in every state and congressional district. The power of people becomes the strongest resource and gives the national Party the ability to pour resources into those states or districts that become surprisingly contested.
Further, the battleground mentality leaves half the country without a contest of ideas. We abandon progressives in rural areas of the country and let Republicans rule there, without even a contest-and those Republican incumbents then go out and raise money for Republican challengers in contested races.
Challenging Republicans in “deep red” districts would force Republican incumbents to spend a great deal of time and money defending their seats instead of campaigning for other Republicans and donating to their campaigns. Walter Ludwig’s Project 90, which encourages Democratic candidates to run in “red” Congressional districts, found that

between 2000-2004, Democrats failed to compete or barely challenge in over a quarter of U.S. House races, and the Republican incumbents in those districts contributed over $60 [million] to their colleagues in closer races.iii

Activist bloggers do not advocate that the people wait for the Democratic Party strategists in DC to adopt the mapchanger strategy. The Republican Party has become an election machine. The Democratic establishment, while they believed they were the party of governance, wasted hundreds of millions of dollars while ignoring what the Republicans have been building.
Instead, Democratic Party officials and politicians have been under the powerful sway of a cabal of media and polling consultants in DC, whose principle contribution seems to be an extension of this battleground mentality into decisions over campaign expenditures, advocating that the majority of funds be spent on polling and media in a strategic manner that rewards their services with increased profits.
Even for this upcoming cycle, all of the Democratic candidates in big races are going with inside-the-beltway media consultants whose best practices remain entrenched within a conflict-of-interest approach. It is a fact that consumer businesses no longer receive commissions based on the amount of advertising that is done-that racket only remains in DC (particularly on the Democratic side). And if you look closely at what media consultants are doing, they are really only project-managing the task of creating television commercials. That is, they will usually outsource the creation and the placement of the ad, and thus are merely the middleman for the politicians. As project managers, they should be paid a set monthly fee, not commissions without end that sometimes reach into the millions. The Democratic Party and its candidates who are participating in this scam are ripping off people that are contributing through donations.
For beltway outsiders to take more of the duties of the Democratic Party apparatus is really the only option that seems to be available. Waiting for those tired and defeated Democratic consultants to “get it” means remaining in the political wilderness beyond the next decade.
The netroots and grassroots progressive community should begin to take matters into its own hands. It is time to go beyond merely collectively grouping hundreds of thousands of dollars and pushing it toward candidates and consultants that perform business as usual. Building a progressive movement is going to take more than that sort of hit-and-run attitude of activism. We should be creating institutions that effectively spend the dollars raised for campaigns, rather than relying on the establishment channels.
In order to begin the mapchanger process, and really reform the Democratic Party, progressives must organize online in a manner that takes control of the Democratic Party at the precinct level. This ‘trickle up’ strategy will yield results by creating a state-based power that dictates the party strategy from within the Democratic Party establishment.
Yes, the Democratic Party has a problem with branding. Yet if we can rebuild the party across the country, at this very local level, the message and branding problems will be much easier to address. They are certainly not going to be solved within DC. In fact, in many ways, the debate over strategy and tactics versus ideas and principles is a false one. The election strategies that a party puts into practice reflect its values. A national party cannot, through a slogan, say they are putting people first, and then in the next election blow off half the people of the nation.
No matter how you look at it, challenging Republicans in all races and all geographic areas is a good idea – it builds the Democratic Party’s brand, it exhausts the Republicans’ resources and it sows the seeds for future Democratic wins.

iCenter for Responsive Politics, Open Secrets web site, www.opensecrets.org. Accessed 4/13/2006.
iiChris Bowers, “Uncontested,” http://www.mydd.com/story/2004/11/5/115834/784, as quoted in Crashing The Gate (White River Jct., VT: Chelsea Green, 2006) 157.
iiiWalter Ludwig, as quoted in Crashing The Gate (White River Jct., VT: Chelsea Green, 2006) 158. (Ludwig’s Project 90 document is available from him personally.)

The Party of Prosperity?
In the age of globalization, what’s a Democrat to do?

By Harold Meyerson
We live in a time when there’s no such thing as purely good economic news. When the GDP surges – as it did by 4.8 percent in the first quarter of this year – something always lags behind, and that something is almost always the income of ordinary Americans. In that same first quarter, for instance, worker compensation rose by just 2.4 percent – half the rate (4.8 percent) by which inflation grew.
Save for the wealthiest of our countrymen, we are all of us laggards. The American economy booms; the American people are left behind. Once upon a time, in the period of great post-World War Two prosperity, median income rose at precisely the same rate as productivity (both increased by 104 percent between 1947 and 1973). Since then, however, productivity gains have outstripped the average American’s income by a rate of three-to-one, and in recent years, by eight-to-one. As Northwestern University economists Ian Dew-Becker and Robert Gordon have demonstrated, over the past couple of decades, all the income from productivity gains has gone to the wealthiest ten percent of Americans.
One economy vanisheth, another – a meaner one – taketh its place. GM and Ford announce they will close roughly 30 factories, while the median wage for newer hires among such industrial powerhouses as Caterpillar Tractor is now half that of their veteran workers. Or, to depress ourselves further, consider a survey of the nation’s 361 metropolitan areas, which account for 86 percent of the nation’s GDP. It found that the average wage of jobs lost in the recession of 2001-2003 was $43,629, while the average wage of jobs created in 2004-2005 was $34,378 – a cozy 21 percent decline.
Worse yet, it’s no longer clear that one of the lines that Bill Clinton frequently used in his 1992 campaign – “What you earn will be the result of what you learn” – is even remotely true, now that so much highly-skilled work can be sent electronically. Last year, economists J. Bradford Jensen of the Institute for International Economics and Lori Kletzer of the University of California at Santa Cruz concluded that within the service sector, it’s skilled workers in general and scientists, mathematicians, and engineers in particular who are susceptible to having their jobs off-shored. Indeed, over the past half-decade, the United States has generated just 70,000 new jobs in engineering and architecture. In such an economy, sending more people to college, while a social good in itself, may not prove an economic panacea. In 2002, the Bureau of Labor Statistics has concluded, 26.9 percent of all jobs in the U.S. required college degrees; by 2012, that will rise to 27.9 percent – one measly point.
The middle is falling out of the American economy. Globalization, immigration, de-unionization, the decline of manufacturing, and the rise of a financial sector and culture enamored solely of shareholder value have combined to imperil one of America’s defining achievements – the creation of the world’s first majority middle-class economy. At the same time, they have also combined to negate virtually all our theories about how to create mass prosperity. Oh, there are things the Democrats could do in power that would have very positive effects. Nationalized health insurance would take a major burden off employers with older work forces and enable them to compete on a more level playing field with foreign companies whose health care costs are picked up by their governments. The minimum wage could be raised and indexed. Labor laws could be amended so that workers could feel free again to join unions without fear of firing.
But none of these changes would basically alter the DNA of American financial and corporate institutions, which ceaselessly impels them to disaggregate firms, out-source work, and find the cheapest labor in a world brimming with cheap labor. In such a world, generating broadly shared prosperity amounts to squaring a circle.
This is a crisis for the nation, and it is a particular crisis, and challenge, for Democrats and liberals. At bottom, the Democrats – and parties of the left and center-left across the planet – are parties of broadly shared prosperity. Since the days of Jefferson and Jackson, that has been the one defining attribute the Democrats have largely clung to (though there have been periods – the presidency of Grover Cleveland, for instance – when they have happily dropped it).
Today, there’s not a political tendency on the planet that has much in the way of plausible notions as to how to preserve mass prosperity in the advanced economies in the face of the new global realities. The long-term political consequences of this dilemma, however, may not be equally distributed among all political tendencies. The alternative to a politics of economic advancement is often a politics of social and cultural resentment. The steadily declining income of white working-class males over the past several decades, for instance, correlates to their increasingly rightwing voting habits. We may not be able to prove that correlation is causal, but I doubt it’s entirely coincidental.
In any given election, the inability to lay out a plausible scenario for renewing mass prosperity is not likely to leap out as the Democrats’ most glaring deficiency – particularly since the Democrats’ economics both are and are seen to be more friendly to the ordinary American than the Republicans’. But the objective reality of downward mobility, of the vanishing of an entire stratum of secure, middle-income jobs, creates a volatile political terrain on which nationalist, immigrant-bashing, union-hating demagogues may thrive. If Democrats can not assure broadly shared prosperity, a floodgate of reaction will at some point likely burst.
What, then, should the Democrats be advocating? I have three suggestions, in ascending order of difficulty.
First, when they retake power, the one action that could most strengthen their base, politically and economically, would be to enact the Employees’ Free Choice Act, which would enable workers to join unions without fear of firing. The new Change To Win Federation estimates that there are 44 million non-union private-sector jobs in such non-off-shorable sectors as construction, hospitality, transportation and health care. Over time, the EFCA could lead to the betterment of low-wage service sector jobs, just as the Wagner Act transformed over time the economic life of America’s industrial workers.
Second, they need to revive the idea of industrial policy. In such proposals as the Apollo Project (backed by unions and environmentalists), which would create tax credits for businesses that retrofit and become otherwise more efficient; or the consortium of Midwestern states (proposed by political scientist Joel Rogers and economist Dan Luria) that would improve the infrastructure of and give benefits to firms that in-source their supplies from the Midwestern region; or Barack Obama’s bill in which the government assumes some of the auto companies’ health care costs so long as they invest their savings in hybrid technology, we see a movement to shore up the nation’s industrial sector. The nation and the Democrats would profit by more such movement.
Finally, and here we move from the difficult to what may be the near-impossible, the Democrats need to disenthrall themselves from many of the values and mindsets of the financial community. They need more Eliott Spitzers and Phil Angelideses to ride herd on corporate abuses and to invest public funds with an eye to social responsibility. More sweepingly, they need to make corporate and financial institutions answerable not just to shareholders and top management, but to their employees and communities as well. Doing that will take a reform and redefinition of corporate power at least as sweeping as that of the New Deal. Given the increasingly dominant role of finance in filling the party’s coffers (the Rockefeller Republicans are all Democrats now), and in defining the party’s “responsible” economics, this will be anything but easy. But the grim reality is that in the age of globalization, American capitalism as currently practiced is eroding mass prosperity in the nation as a whole. In that contest, Democrats’ allegiance must be to their nation.