Monday, May 02, 2005

The Democrat's Problem...

This is a direct quote from a Josh Marshall/Talking Points Memo blog post from a couple of weeks ago. I found it telling - and I very much agree with it. Thought others would might too...

From TPM: (April 18, 2005 -- 12:43 AM EDT)
I spent way more time than I should have this weekend trying to distill my thoughts about the strategies and tactics Democrats should use to advance their agenda and unseat the Republican majority on Capitol Hill. Though my point was fairly straightforward -- forget about strategic and tactics, in so many words -- for some some reason I couldn't pull it together in a couple thousand words.
So let me, a bit more briefly, address how it applies to Social Security -- the issue that's on the table right now.
For starters, you may have seen this AP story that ran over the weekend, which read: "House Democrats have decided to quit emphasizing that they will not negotiate changes to Social Security until President Bush drops his idea for private accounts. The switch in strategy comes after Democrats learned from focus groups that people frown on the lawmakers for being obstinate."
Where to start?
The problem Democrats have is not bad tactics or bad strategies or poor framing. The problem is an over-reliance, even an addiction, to tactics and strategies.
For years I've argued that the Democrats' problem on national security issues is not so much that they aren't 'tough enough' or that they lack new ideas. The problem is a now-deeply-ingrained habit of approaching national security issues not so much as policy questions to be wrestled with but as a political problem to be dealt with and moved on from.
That has a host of damaging consequences, the most serious of which is that if you chart your policy course so as to avoid political damage, always casting about for the sweet spot of political safety, you tend to lack any greater programmatic consistency. And that tells voters (as it probably should) that you’re inconstant and unserious. It also muddles effective communication by confusing the communicators themselves about just what it is they are trying to say or accomplish.
What the last year has taught me -- both in good ways and bad -- is that this malady isn't limited to the national security domain but applies to Democrats pretty much across the board.
We hear a lot today about framing or being tougher or being united or dumping the failed consultants. But while each of these prescriptions has some element of merit, each also recapitulates the existing problem -- only dressing it up in clothes -- because each mistakes the disease for the cure.
When it comes to strategy and tactics, the current Democratic party is like a drunk in the early stages of recovery or a man or woman who keeps ending up in the same bad relationship again and again with different people. For folks like that, strong medicine is required. Indeed, they usually require steps, correctives, lists of dos-and-don'ts more drastic than anybody would ever need who didn't have a problem.
Today we hear Democrats asking whether they should take a hard line on Social Security or a soft line, stand in opposition or come up with a contending plan. Here's what I propose whenever Democrats have a question about just what stance to take on the Social Security debate.
One question ...
What is the actual policy outcome that would be most preferable on Social Security (to protect, preserve or augment it -- whatever) and how important is it that it take place in this Congress?
That's the first, second and third question.
That answer should drive everything else.
If add-on accounts are important to preserve Social Security or expand opportunities for middle class families to save for retirement, and if it’s important enough on the merits to make it a priority in this Congress, then let’s do it. Otherwise, I’d say forget it. Stick with opposing phase-out and take it to the voters. End of story.
If the demon rum of optics or tactical too-clever-by-halfism tries to slither its way back even into second or third, slap your wrist and get back with the program.
I'm not saying that the Democrats need to get in touch with their political or ideological roots or hold to orthodoxies. Nor is this an argument for political purism. My point is entirely agnostic on what the policy should be -- only that it should drive the politics.
Nor do I pretend that this will always generate the most effective political approach or the most supplely played tactical game. What I think is that we are dealing with a sick patient, one whose reasoning and judgment are often untrustworthy and one apt to slide back into the same old destructive habits without some firm and concrete correctives in place.
For a party so quick to get lost in the fog, this should be the compass. -- Josh Marshall

It's interesting to do some reading about "macro-politics." (That is my word - I'm not sure if it is real or not...I'm refering to looking at high-level strategies and trends in politics as opposed to looking at individual issues or elections.) If you go back about 40 years, well, let's start further back. If you go futher back - to the depression, the Democrats took political control through FDR and was in the Executive Branch for a long time - 1932 thru 1952. Eisenhower broke that string, but Dems went back in through JFK in '60. That time was a pretty exceptional time for American in general, but specifically, if you look at the 60s, there was a wave of progressive actions embodied in the Civil Rights Acts and the New Society programs. The Republicans were being beaten, and they were vigorously opposed to this progressive wave. So what did they do? ... They organized ... Beginning in the mid-sixties, Republican leaders began pouring money into organizational entities. Think-tanks to promote conservative policy. Educational and scholarship programs to identify young conservative leaders and enable them to be put into high-exposure positions. Foundations which were tasked with raising the money to fuel these other organizations. Public relation organizations to present unified and targeted messages to the media. Etc., etc., etc. If you go back and look at it, it is an utterly amazing and almost awe-inspring effort. There were very insightful, very forward thinking. It is analogous to an investment in infrastructure - you simply are not going to fully reap the benefits of, say, an investment in a mass transit rail system for a decade or more, but if you make the investment, those benefits will be huge down the road. Well, here, the conservative, republican leaders (generally not the politicians, but the money-men in the background) were patient enough to realize that they were sowing seeds that would be harvested over decades - not the next election. And they were actually successful quite quickly - most of this started in the early 60s, and by 1968 the conservative think-tanks had come up with Nixon's "Southern Strategy", which was a WHOLLY RADICAL way for the Republican’s to run an election. We look back from our perspective now, and it’s just, “ho-hum, the south goes to the Republicans” – but prior to the 70s, the “solid-south” was the democratic strong-hold. These new conservative think-tanks were able to, very early on, identify that the civil rights movement was terribly unpopular in the south, and those voters were wary and distrustful of the democratic party for advancing that legislation. So the initial pay-off came very quickly.

And since then, well, the results speak for themselves. The Republican party, and the conservative agenda has dominated the American political landscape for close to 40 years now. There have been blips – Watergate hurt and brought Carter into office, and Clinton being conservative-lite meant the Dems had the white house in the 90s, but other than that, the Reps have dominated. And they have dominated because of the insightful investments back in the early 60s. It gave the conservative movement a singular voice. It enabled them to identify objectives, develop a battle plan to advance objectives, and speak with a single voice to accomplish those objectives. Disciplined, rigorous, determined. They give no quarter. They do not bend. They do not waver. They have an agenda, and they advance that agenda. They spend wild amounts of money paying intelligent people within their think-tanks to come up with the next steps, to identify their next targets, to stay organized. They spend wild amounts of money keeping a stangle-hold on the mainstream media, they are so advanced at it, and have done if for so long, that it is natural that the media frames the “news” using the language that the conservative public relations gurus have created. They spend wild amounts of money identifying young leaders, and putting them in positions of success – and targeting specific offices to challenge for and put their people in place. It has worked, and it is working.

And all this time, the Democrats never changed their game. Historically - they didn’t have think-tanks; they didn’t identify young leaders; they didn’t build PR machines to manipulate the media. It was almost contrary to the progressive spirit to spend money on a think-tank, when that money could go to a grass-roots activist organization. Instead of identifying young progressives to lift to prominence, the liberal-mindset was to put them in the trenches to work on feeding people, or educating people, etc. Instead of a savvy understanding of the media, the progressive movement believed that the detailed principles and policies and programs would eventually win out amongst the public. Now, any and all of this individually (and, frankly, collectively) is not and was not bad. But it inherently prevents unified vision. It prevents a single voice. It does not promote the identification of specific objectives, a plan to advance those objectives, or working with a single purpose to accomplish those objectives. There are an infinite number of objectives – and each tiny little group isn’t able to be heard amongst the din of voices.

And so they lose. They lose consistently, and they lose pretty much across the board. They don’t lose because they don’t frame the issue right. They don’t lose because they don’t have a think-tank. They don’t lose because they don’t have young leaders. Just like Josh Marshall said above - they lose because they don’t have an objective. Or more specifically, they don’t have a specific objective. They keep trying to make everyone happy – instead of saying let’s just do the right thing.

Now, fortunately (for the things I believe at least), the progressive movement is starting to “get itself together” a bit. Over the past three or four years there has been some investment in some think-tanks such as the Center for American Progress. There has become a new sensitivity to PR and the media philosophy’s of guys like George Lakoff. There have been some (still very limited) attempts to counter groups like the Federalist Society that identify young conservative leaders with groups like the American Constitution Society. There has been an effort to invest in groups like to start presenting a unified presence in the media, and advance a more organized agenda. But it’s still 40 years behind the curve. I think Marshall’s post is incisive because he’s cutting though the “fluff” to get to the substance. None of the peripheral things are the end – they are the means to an end. But in order to be successful, one has to be able to identify where you want to go and then with discipline, with rigorous preparation, and with a determined plan go there. That is my opinion at least.

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