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Hullabaloo


Monday, August 22, 2005

 
Politics vs Policy

Matt thinks that the base is all about shrill rhetoric over substance, and I think there's some truth to that.

My main critique of the netroots would be that I sense a large degree of willingness to elevate shrill rhetoric over actual policy. Dick Gephardt, having done more than any other member of the Democratic Party to land the country in Iraq, was able to recapture the hearts of many bloggers by calling Bush a "miserable failure."

It warmed my heart to hear that line, too, just as I thrilled to Hackett's Bush-bashing. But I'd much rather live with a moderate tone and an an anti-war policy than live with the reverse. Liberals need to be clear about what our priorities are.


I think most liberals' first priority at this point is to remove the Republicans from sole power and many in the Democratic netroots have come to the political conclusion that we will only do that if we speak truth to power. The immoderate tone that thrills the netroots is not just for emotional satisfaction; it is a political strategy for beating the opposition.

I think that many in the netroots are no different than the vast majority of Americans everywhere. Policy is seen through a heuristic prism of impressions, image and preconceptions. Very few people are engaged in politics as a purely intellectual debate about the actual efficacy of one policy over another. Most people, even most smart people, make their political decisions based on a whole range of perceptions, only a few of which are based on strict reason.

I think the base of the Democratic party has come to the conclusion that one of the reasons Democrats have been successfully tagged as being soft on terrorism, crime, national security what have you, is because of the way we appear to the American people when we allow the other side to bash, swift-boat and deride with impugnity. And they have concluded that one way to show that we are not in fact a party of wimps and sissies is to call out the Republicans.

It is conventional wisdom that one of the reasons Hackett did as well as he did was because of his sincere righteous indignation about the leadership of this country and I think it's at least partially true. That translates to strength and authenticity to people who hear long-winded multi-year withdrawal scenarios and immediately switch the channel --- which are a majority of voters. I think the guy is tremendously charismatic whose status as an Iraq war veteran made him somewhat unique, but there is little doubt in my mind that he was able to win over some people, probably the Ross Perot type independents, who respect candor and authenticity. In this day of over-handled candidates it is a very heady breath of fresh air to see a Democrat appear unafraid and unintimidated.

I think it's terrific that people want to have a dignified wonk-fest about how to deal with the situation in Iraq. But I will guarantee you that the best "plan" isn't going to win any elections. They never do. Elections will be won because the country is sufficiently disillusioned with the GOP and the Democrats prove to them that they are a better alternative. And that proof will not come from the details but from the big picture.

I'm not even sure I think that Democratic politicians should be on the record with any detailed withdrawal plans at all at this point. The focus, to my way of thinking should remain on the president as the country (finally) internalizes the fact that this war was a mistake. There is plenty of time for our patented 10-point-plan yawner of a stump speech as we move into the next election cycle.

Right now I think the right political move is to keep the pressure on the Republicans. Make them take ownership of this war, gas prices all the simmering discontent that you can see lurking in all the polls on every issue. Separate ourselves, not with our intellectual superiority (which is a given in any case) but by our energy and our disgust with the status quo.

The think tanks and pundits can debate the various strong points of withdrawing on a six month vs a two years modified pull back or an urban withdrawal backed by air support or whatever. I think that's great. But since we have no chance of implementing any plan ourselves and since it is, in my view, almost impossible that any action the Bush administration undertakes will be successfull no matter how perfectly we design a plan for him to implement --- from a political standpoint all this wonkery beside the point.

What we should be debating is how we win elections. The base of the party is ready to support anyone who is willing to speak in clear, straighforward terms about the contrast between the Republicans and the Democrats and they believe that it could be a winning electoral strategy to do that. Certainly, they are extremely impatient with the split the difference, triangulation strategies that have failed to win majorities for the last several election cycles.

That, I think, is the real question here. Will our "shrillness" help or hurt the party? I think the netroots believes it's time to try a message that has a little more heat than lukewarm water. The establishment, still smarting from their seminal loss in 1972, is scared to death of anything that resembles real passion. Far more than a serious division in the party over specific policy, that, I think is the real fault line. What kind of politics --- not policies --- do the Democrats think will win?



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