Tod Lindberg

Myths of the Democratic Party: Mobilization, Demography, & Prescription Drugs

Posted by Tod Lindberg on October 18, 2005

The Washington Times

William Galston and Elaine Kamarck, two of the keenest observers of American politics and the fortunes of their Democratic Party in it, were co-authors of a 1989 analysis and strategy paper that in certain respects paved the way for Bill Clinton’s triumph in 1992 as a “New Democrat,” a candidate set apart from the left-liberalism that had come to dominate the party and to which Mr. Galston and Miss Kamarck rose in opposition. The two have just released a new study and strategy paper, “The Politics of Polarization,” that hopes to galvanize Democrats’ fortunes once again by directing the party back toward the electoral center.

You will not find a more astute political analysis. Unfortunately for Democrats, knowledge is not virtue, and a clear-eyed view of the political problem at hand, while a prerequisite for a solution, only begins the hard working of crafting a workable approach to the party’s national problem of powerlessness.

Let’s start with the basics: There are more voters in the United States today who call themselves “conservative” than call themselves “liberal,” 34 to 21 percent, according to 2004 exit polls, figures that have held remarkably constant over time. To the extent that each party, in what the authors call “the great sorting-out” that has taken place over the past couple decades, have essentially become the sole home to one or the other of these two proclivities, the Republicans start out with an advantage: It is a shorter distance for them from the baseline outlook of the party to a winning percentage at the polls.

That leads us to “the myth of mobilization,” the idea that by devoting their time and resources to catering to and turning out the party base, Democrats can fight their way back to victory. Such an approach will fail in the absence of an effective appeal to the center (an appeal the authors rightly understand the Bush-Cheney campaign made in 2004).

That’s only one of the “dominant myths … preventing Democrats from asking tough questions and making hard choices.” Mr. Galston and Miss Kamarck point as well to the “myth of demography,” according to which population shifts will inevitably return Democrats to power. The authors think this is not likely in the absence of more substantive change, and in any case will happen no time soon.

They also cite the “myth of language,” according to which Democrats need merely to find better ways to talk about what they believe in – to envelop their policy preferences in a more compelling narrative. As the two see it, the problem is the substantive package Democrats present and unfavorable associations voters have made with Democratic candidates.

And they offer as a shorthand formulation the “myth of prescription drugs”: the party’s tendency to try to push to the side national security issues and cultural issues, on which Democrats’ standing with voters is weaker, in favor of domestic policy issues on which the party is stronger. Here, the problem is that Democrats’ de-emphasizing these issues does not make them go away for voters or reassure voters that Democrats pass muster on them.

The authors’ analysis of changes in voting behavior point to two key groups among which Republicans have made gains: married women and Catholics, both of whom used to be much more favorably disposed toward the Democratic Party. Here, in particular, the national security and cultural issues rear up. Democrats have yet to overcome the Cold War-era deficit they acquired on national security, nor is the issue likely to recede in public consciousness again as it did in the 1990s, enabling Bill Clinton to get around it.

Democrats are also too prone to view cultural issues and moral values through the prism of the hot-button social issues, from abortion to gay marriage to end-of-life decisions. Democrats like to think that Republicans are intolerant in trying to impose their views on such matters, but they miss seeing their own intolerance.

Moreover, no less important than “issues” are the character traits people associate with candidates. The authors say voters ask three main questions about candidates apart from where they stand on the issues: Is “the candidate a person of strength? … of integrity? … of empathy?” For the first category, at issue is the matter of core conviction and the ability to persist through challenges and adversity. For the second, it’s a sense of straight-shooting and the consistency of words and deeds. For the third, it’s the sense of the candidate as someone like you, not aloof from you.

The recommendations follow accordingly: The party needs a candidate with real credibility on national security, whose convictions on social issues are accompanied by a spirit of tolerance, and who embodies those big-three characteristics of strength, integrity and empathy.

The problem for Democrats is that the man who best fills this bill is Sen. John McCain. And he’s a Republican who, notwithstanding his maverick reputation, still has a better shot at winning his party’s nomination than his Democratic doppelganger, if indeed there is such a one, has of winning the Democratic nomination.

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