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Hullabaloo


Saturday, January 17, 2004

 
Reinventing The Wheel

John "uncool when uncoolness is necessary" Emerson wrote me and others an e-mail in which he argues that we can't keep running to the center because it takes us ever rightward.

I agree that any more policy shifts to the right are a mistake, but "running" to the center is a different thing altogether. The party moved to the center for two reasons during the late 80's and early 90's. The first and most important reason was purely because we were losing ground across the board and the future looked grim. We were about to lose our congressional majority as soon as the remaining southern Democrats retired; they had only stayed with the party because they would have lost their powerful committee positions if they had jumped. (That process was finished in 1994.) And, presidential politics had been a disaster since LBJ. The Democrats decided they needed a different, more pragmatic approach in order to win.

But, there was another reason they moved to the center. People like Mickey Kaus and others advocated it as a way to force the Republicans to tack leftward or be left looking like extremists. This was a serious miscalculation as we now know because the old bipartisan consensus was disappearing with the emergence of the new breed of GOP gangster like DeLay and Gingrich. The more we shifted to the right on policy, the more rightward they went in response.

So, to the extent that John is talking about the latter, I am in complete agreement. We simply cannot compromise on policy anymore. No more "pilot programs" on privatization, no quarter on "faith based" initiatives, no bipartisan cover on anything. It only hurts us. Any experimental ideas can be tested in the states. As a national party, and particularly as congressional delegation, we have moved as far to the right as we can go and it is time to hold the line.

Just as important, we must counter their obfuscatory rhetoric and never, ever adopt it as our own. Any Democrat who uses terms such as "tax relief," "tort reform" or "partial birth" abortion should be fined 1000 dollars per instance. (And, might I add that constantly calling the leadership of the Democratic Party "cowards" only reinforces Rush Limbaugh's daily rants, as well.) Changing the language, re-framing the terms of the debate and developing an idea/media infrastructure has been the most brilliant Republican achievement of all and we have to stop enabling it. It is, in my view, the primary reason why they are in power today.

But, I don't think any of those things have much to do with winning presidential elections and winning this next one is mandatory. This GOP lock on institutional power is so dangerous and has such huge long term ramifications that we must be ruthlessly pragmatic and intensely focused. We must take control of one branch of government and the executive branch is the only option in 2004. We have to assume responsibility for foreign policy because if Bush gets elected legitimately they will take it as a further mandate to expand the Bush Doctrine of unilateralism and military confrontation. This is too dangerous to allow.

Likewise, while I know that we are all tired of damage control and we want desperately to enact a progressive agenda, the fact is as long as the GOP has control of the congress, damage control is our singular duty. The checks and balances aren't working. The modern GOP is a rogue Party that has proven it cannot be entrusted with the reins of power. Taking back the executive branch is job one. It's more immediately important than "taking our party back" or building for the future or purging the Clintons or "letting it rip."

I hate to be too dramatic here, but it is our responsibility to save the country and the world from another four years of a power mad, reckless group of ideologues who are acting more and more crazy with each passing day. (Can we talk about Mars?)

This is not the time to reinvent the wheel or ignore the things that we know. We won the last 3 presidential elections. Until 2 years ago the Republicans had been losing seats in every election subsequent to 1994. There is data and experience to be culled from that. We just had a census, information from which when combined with sophisticated new marketing tools and detailed demographics can help us figure out how to target voters and formulate a winning message. Dean and Clark and all the others to a certain extent have opened up a new way of communicating and fundraising (and potentially organizing) via the internet. The base is unified on policy.

We don't have to blow this thing but from what I see, there is an increasingly good chance that we are going to if we decide that this election, of all elections, is the one where we must simultaneously attract 8 to 10 million disaffected voters, try out a untried theoretical idea for winning swing voters, experiment with an electoral strategy that openly writes off the south, and ignore all of the empirical data we have about how people vote in this country. (I'm not, by the way, accusing Emerson of advocating these things.)

I don't mean that we can't be innovative or that this election doesn't present unique opportunities, but we don't have to behave as if we've been in the wilderness forever. We know that the economic message alone does not work with people who are culturally conservative. We know that we are weak with white males and stronger with white females. We know that Bush's highest ratings are on leadership and national security. We know that polls consistently show that 40 percent of voters consider themselves conservative, 40 percent moderate, and just 20 percent liberal. We know that incumbent presidents have a built in advantage. We know that Bush is going to run as The Bold Man Of Vision Who Saved The World and anybody who disagrees with that is going to be labeled an unpatriotic, irreligious, cowardly, decadent, unhinged traitor. We know many things.

I realize it has become fashionable to say that we needn't worry about our candidates' perceived weaknesses because the Republicans just make stuff up anyway but that's like saying that you might as well send a fighter with a glass jaw into the ring because the other guy has a reputation for hitting below the belt. (I am guilty of saying that same thing some months ago, right on this blog, but I am here to say that I was completely full of shit.) The Republicans aren't omnipotent, but they are good at what they do and they have years of practice tearing down Democrats for being godless, elitist, sissified libertines. Of course they'll make stuff up but that doesn't mean that we should play into their hands by making ourselves even more vulnerable in areas that play into people's by now hard wired negative perceptions about Democrats. It's insane to think we can win this election without taking into account what the opposition is planning to do and trying to counter it. We know how to do that, too.

If we don't use our heads and focus intently on the goal of beating George W. Bush, I fear that the worst result will be a Bush landslide and at best, this, most depressing scenario:

David Berthiaume a Manchester taxi driver, has not been to any candidate's events. He hasn't paid much attention to the race -- he said he turns off the television when political ads come on -- and he says that most of his friends aren't particularly focused on the race either.

On the afternoon of Nov. 21, on a ride to Manchester Airport, here's what he told a nosy reporter in the back seat: "I'll tell you where my vote's going: to our president. I'm not a Republican, I'm an Independent. And I'm pro-choice. But I think he's done a good job, and so does at least 51 percent of the country. Fine, he might have been misled about Iraq, but it needed to happen anyway. We kicked Saddam in the teeth, and now he's gone. We should all be happy about that."


In the end it doesn't matter if it's a landslide or a squeaker. The kind of destruction that the Republicans are going to wreak if they get four more years of unfettered power is truly frightening. It simply cannot happen.





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