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.
By Kenneth S. Baer and Andrei Cherny