Saturday, August 02, 2003

The DLC's Presidential Stragedy (No, it's not a misspelling...)

Senator Evan Bayh (D, IL), one of the most prominent members of the Democratic Leadership Council, says he's not trying to stop Howard Dean from taking the nomination, but to position the Democratic party for victory. His proposal for how to do that? The opposite of Bush's strategy in 2000.

The DLC has been throwing not-so-thinly veiled punches at Dean since their national conference. The group warns of the party pulling too far to the left and out of the electable mainstream. DLC strategists think that to win the Presidency in 2004 Democrats must make their traditionally "weakest" issues, national defense and taxes, as nearly indistinguishable from the Republicans' as possible. With those issues "neutralized", we can address the areas of traditional Democratic strength, the economy and deficits, and win the election. Howard Dean cannot use this strategy, he is about as far as one can get from Republicans on both defense and taxes - which is why he's so popular with many Democrats, and so unpopular with the DLC.

The DLC plan is simply the reverse of what Bush did in 2000 with his blandishments about Compassionate Conservatism. With proposals on social security and social spending that were as close as possible to those of Democrats, he is thought to have "neutralized" those issues for Democratic and swing voters. Bush was then able to push strongly for increased defense expenditures and tax cuts, which won him the race.

There's one big problem with the DLC's logic: Bush didn't win.

Yes, he was able to claim the Presidency, but having lost the popular vote by 500K and won the electoral college by the narrowest of margins, and that under Constitutionally suspect circumstances, he can hardly be said to have clearly won the election. What Bush's 2000 strategy led to was the most narrowly divided electorate in history, not victory. It seems likely that trying to reverse the strategy will produce similar results, or fail to work at all.

There are several factors that the DLC may not be considering in advocating such a contra-Rovian strategy; there was no incumbent in 2000, people had no reason to strongly approve or disapprove of either candidate in 2000, and the DLC plan relies on swing and crossover voters when there are indications that the last two Presidential races depended more on energizing the base than winning the center.

An incumbent President has several electoral advantages, even if he is vulnerable. He is able to access the media with complete freedom. He as able to take the initiative and pass new law to shape his profile for the election, lessening the impact of poor past performance with renewed hope for change. He has the authority and gravitas of having been Commander in Chief and the advantage of being able to appear in that role whenever he chooses. Finally, people don't much like change, as the old saying goes, "Better the bastard I know, than the bastard I don't." A certain political inertia assists even a weak President. And Bush is not weak.

These advantages could be particularly acute under the DLC plan. A challenger who advocates positions very similar to that of the sitting President may "neutralize" those issues, but inertia gives the advantage to the President anyhow. With no difference in these policies, why change Presidents? A challenger who has locked in on a policy position very close to that of a sitting President can easily find himself made irrelevant by a change of field by the President. If a challenger who advocates sticking it out in Iraq, for instance, could find himself made irrelevant if the President changes his position. The challenger is then stuck either reformulating his policy to conform to the President's, and looking weak, or sticking to his position, and appearing out of touch.

In 2004, Bush will have the opportunity to once again reshape his profile with the passage of legislation. He has a compliant Congress and there is almost nothing they will deny him. He can put his Compassionate Conservative personae back into play by passing a few key pieces of legislation which are unfunded or creatively financed but hold out the promise of new benefits. This won't play as well as it did in 2000, but if both candidates are using a strategy of trying to "neutralize" each others traditionally strong positions, the race will end with hardly any daylight between them. This situation again plays to the advantage of the incumbent.

In 2000 people had only a vague sense of Al Gore as a potential President and almost none of Bush. In the end, the fact that people actually didn't know much about Bush, even once they "elected" him, was probably a great asset for Bush. Now people are strongly polarized by him. A lot of people think he is a worm and the worst President ever, and a lot think that he is hero and the best President ever. These strong feelings about the sitting President will have a lot more impact on those voters than the issues will, unlike 2000. Polling currently indicates the majority of both Democratic and swing voters hold very negative opinions of Bush. A candidate who contrasts strongly with Bush may be the best choice for the Democrats, regardless of his positions.

Members of the DLC, notably Bill Clinton, say that a President must pass the Bar of Gravitas. A rather pompous way of saying that people have to be able to imagine you as Commander in Chief, and still feel safe while doing so. For a sitting President this generally is a cake walk; for Bush it is not an issue for the majority of people, though that majority is shrinking.

The DLC plan calls for the candidate to embrace the national security positions of the current Administration. But unless the candidate has a personal bio which recommends him strongly, he can't compete on this issue if his positions are identical. This strategy recommends Kerry as a challenger, he's the only war hero in the race. He might be able to advocate the same positions as Bush and not come of worse for it, but he's not going to gain by it either. A Democrat simply aping the defence position of the Republican, it not going to activate Democratic voters, and it is unlikely to cause a groundswell among moderates either. What's to get excited about? Yay, we're going to keep everything the same! Right.

With taxes the dilemma is even greater. A candidate can embrace Bush's tax cuts, but to do so he must abandon all pretense of Democratic values. Bush's cuts are completely irresponsible and inequitably skewed to the rich. What Democrat can keep the name and tell Democratic voters to just live with such injustice? No Democrat advocating such a thing will get through the primary. If the candidate pulled a switch, Democrats would rather stay home than vote for him. In fact, that's exactly what they'll do.

How the Democratic candidate is supposed to address the economy and deficits while embracing the President's defence policy - consisting of out-of-control and off-the-books military expenditures, and tax policy - keeping in place at least major portions of an irresponsible tax cut which has helped send us into one of the largest deficits ever, is unexplained. How can a candidate make bold and reasonable policy initiatives on the economy and deficits without changing military and tax policy? I assert that it is impossible. That's why Lieberman speaks inaudibly and carries and big name recognition; there's nothing for him to say on economy and deficits so long as he avoids defence and taxes.

Aping the positions of your opponent is only useful if his positions are good ones, and a lot of very serious people have very serious concerns about the wisdom of this administration's national security policy, as well as the tax cuts. When there is a broad spectrum of opinion suggesting that current policy is poorly made, reckless in fact, then perhaps it is wiser to formulate a new policy and argue strongly for it to the voters. Showing the wisdom and ability to strongly critique your opponents views can, at least in this instance, be a better way than simple emulation to establish the credibility to pass the Bar of Gravitas.

Finally, the DLC's plan may rely too much on swing voters. Studies indicate that the last two Presidential elections hinged more on energizing the voters of party's base than on moving swing voters to one side or another. Swing voters have become more polarized, even though not professing a party affiliation. It has become harder to swing them. It is conventional wisdom in national politics that it is more cost effective to steal your opponent's voters than to get a new one to vote. That may no longer be true.

We need a Democratic candidate who can energize voters and turn out the base. Only such a candidate can inspire people to become politically active, providing the manpower for new voter registration drives and other permanent grassroots organization which will be the key to victory in 2004 and beyond. Dean seeks to provide contrast to Bush for the voters. Rather than "neutralizing" the issues, Dean is "activating" national defense and taxes because he knows Bush and GOP is out of touch and out of step with America on these issues. Dean's right, they're wrong. I happen to still believe in those concepts, so does Dean, and so do most Democrats. That's why people support him.

Possibly many DLC members still want a contest of right and wrong, too. But they have lost faith that ideas can move people, so they seek an election devoid of any. The DLC's plan seems fine if you look at it from their perspective of business as usual, but today we are not doing business as usual in America. Many American's see America as under assault from the Far Right and Corporatist shills of the GOP. This is a fight for America's soul, not just the Presidency. The DLC may know where America's wallets are, but they don't know where Americans' hearts are.

The DLC's overall strategy for the Party is no longer viable or tolerable. People are tired of the Party's ever rightward drift and campaigns by polished idiots mouthing identical catch phrases. It is time to pull this whole country, not just the party, back to the left. The Democratic electorate by their adoration of Dean is saying, "Enough!" And the DLC can't comprehend what they are saying.

The DLC is welcome to represent the right of our party, they are welcome to lend their fundraising and campaigning expertise to Democrats; but they are not welcome to sneer at us, the voters, and say that they know better than we who should represent the Democratic party.

If we want a clear majority, a real mandate, and a candidate with coattails upon which Democrats can take back America, we must have a candidate that will deliver a major victory, not a niggling margin. With nearly a quarter million signed up with the Dean campaign, and over 68,000 meetup.com participants, and a grassroots only fundraising machine that has proven the most effective in the Democratic field, Dean doesn't look like the party's doom to millions of Democrats: he looks like its savior.

Copyleft, Michael David Bryan, 2003

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