Wednesday, November 10, 2004

Six Ways to Fix the Democratic Party

Like many of you I am disappointed by the results of the recent election. On the left, there has been much discussion about how to change political tactics for 2008; on the right, we have heard much about Democrats being out of touch with the electorate. I have been a loyal Democrat for twenty-four years. After some reflection, I do think the party needs to rethink some of its basic planks. If there were ten major issues in this campaign (and in 2000), my sense is that Democrats are consistently blowing their opportunities on six of these. It is understandable that they have been unable to win over the electorate with odds like that.

On four major issues, the Party is just plain wrong. On two others, the Party needs to significantly reframe the debate and its tactics.


#1. Iraq. Democrats found themselves obsessed this year with the lack of discovery of WMD in Iraq. Understandably, this issue was a metaphor for the current Administration's overall mendacity. But pointing out mendacity should not be a major Party platform. Our opponents were able to frame this as an issue of bringing Democracy to the Middle East and fighting world-wide terrorism. The public (rightly, I believe) concluded that vindication for justifications were not that important. Whether or not there were connections between Saddam and Al Queda, the public (rightly again, I believe) concluded that unchecked, undemocratic dictatorships in the Middle East do much to undermine our long-term safety at home. The Democratic Party has lost the big picture here. We need to forget about criticizing our opponents on day-by-day military tactics and outcomes and focus on creating a strategic vision for transformation of world in order to reduce Islamic militancy. Diplomacy with France is not it. Policing Al Queda is not it. We need a vision that competes with Bush's doctrine of "pre-emptive action" not because we are squeamish about using our military might or afraid of being called international bullies, but because it will be more successful. The public is uncomfortable with pre-emptive action too. But they won't abandon it until we have a simple, two-word articulation of something more effective.

#2. The Economy. For some reason, the Party has lapsed into a sing-song of Populist corporation bashing over the last six years. I agree with every economic principle Kerry put forward. And Democrats are obviously better managers of our public coffers. But in terms of rhetoric, we need to stop the us-versus-them formulation. Bashing pharmaceutical companies does little to endear the millions of middle-class voters who work in the pharmaceutical industry. Yes, there is an immediate populist rush in finding an easy target to blame for economic woes. But we aren't just blaming CEO's – we have been in effect castigating vast swaths of middle-class voters who work in these industries and who embrace the American economy. Our Populism alienates as many voters as it energizes. Yes, corporate excess should be kept in check; but this party needs to be a champion of corporations and capitalism. That's how you create prosperity for the middle class, and money to fund health care and other popular social programs.

#3. Social Security. Bush has a plan for reforming Social Security. It may work, it may not. But at least it's an idea. What's ours? Do nothing. But Social Security needs to be reformed. We should stop using this as a wedge issue to court Senior voters and seriously come to the table with positive ideas here. If we don't, Republicans will take over this issue, and take credit as the party capable of successfully defending entitlements...and they will ultimately win the Senior voter.

#4. Immigration. Remarkably, Republicans have again trumped us on what is traditionally a Democratic issue. They have a plan for amnesty that is immensely popular with Hispanic voters. We again have no ideas and are losing what should be one of our core issues – and core constituencies. We need to be creatively listening to Hispanic voters and have equally bold plans to address their critical issues.


#5. Abortion. Barack Obama has the correct formulation here. No one wants to see more abortions. We need to get away from framing this as an issue of women's rights versus rights of the unborn. That's a moral impasse. Rather, we need to bring Democratic values to the cause of reducing abortions, by supporting single mothers and providing education, and argue that keeping abortion legal is the best way to reduce it. We have the majority of the public on our side on this issue. We also have statistics on our side. But as long as we look like we don't care about the unborn in our arguments, as long as we act like abortion is nothing more than another operation that women are entitled to, we will turn off the thoughtful swing voter.

#6. Gay rights. What's happened? Republicans have successfully turned this into a wedge issue because they have exploited our utter lack of coordination. Gay people are rightly frightened and feisty. The gay leadership is steaming ahead to fight for their rights. Gay people turn to the Democratic party three-to-one because they see Democrats as their only hope of not being bashed. Meanwhile, Democrats want those votes, but run from gays like they are radioactive. And this backfires on them – Republicans know Democratic candidates are scared of the issue, and use gay-baiting of their opponents even more. No one wins with this formulation: gay people are scapegoated even more, and Democrats running away form the gay issue are turned out of office.

Candidates need to have the courage to stop running away from the issue. This will help them politically. (I've seen it happen personally – it's the attempt to deflect the issue that brings you down.) A solid majority, more than 60% of the public, understands that gay people need some kind of rights to protect their partnerships. Democratic candidates need to be vocal in their defense of these rights, and they need to more openly coordinate with the HRC and other gay-rights organizations. By coordinating and getting behind the issue, Democrats can help gay-rights organizations to modulate their cause, to step back from overreaching and alienating the public, and keep public-relations fiascos like Gavin Newsom's under wraps. This is how Republicans have been working with Religious Conservatives for twenty years. They've now formed a powerful coalition that amplifies conservative concerns much more than reflects their public acceptance. Imagine Democrats and gay organizations like the HRC working together – backing off of the issue of marriage for now and working toward civil unions or relationship rights in a way that builds upon this solid support in the middle. Both sides would see victories. If Democrats and gay-rights organizations started coordinating half as well as Republicans do with conservative evangelicals, we could trounce this "values" vote with very little concern.

I respect Bill Clinton immensely, but on this issue, he is wrong. He is over-learning his attempt to eliminate discrimination in the military his first months in office in 1992. That backfired on him. But why? Because no one created this Democrat-gay rights coalition. Without the coalition, there is no popular mandate, and the timing of any of these issues is out of our control. Running from gay rights is only going to continue to tar the Democrats more.

Believe me, this issue isn't going away – as gays gain more acceptance, it is just becoming more of an issue. Eventually, Democrats embraced the NAACP and black people as a valued minority whose rights are worth standing up for, and blacks have found a natural home in the Party. The time has come to make the same overture with gay organizations and to bring this minority home to the Party as well. That is the only strategy that will neutralize the radioactivity of the issue.

So those are my concerns. I'm putting these out there as a loyal Democrat who feels that his party is the natural home to most Americans, and could do better at winning a solid majority. I know that there is much soul-searching happening these days. I hope that this missive has perhaps given you some ideas for how we can emerge more successful than ever, or re-enforced thoughts of your own.


By the way -
this cartoon
explodes the myth of the Bush "mandate."


Anonymous said...

We definately do need money to fund health care as we are in a major health care crisis.

Martin Schecter said...

True - this is one issue that the Democratic party already has right. However, money for healthcare won't be there unless 1) entitlements are reigned in and 2) taxes can grow government revenue while giving middle-class tax payers (and the economy) a break.