I've just finished reading Rick Perlstein's The Stock Ticker and the Superjumbo, a short booklet outlining various perspectives on the Democratic Party's decline and future prospects.
Perlstein's basic argument is that the reason Democrats have continued to lose ground to Republicans over the last several decades is because the Democratic elite has grown too cautious, turning away from the economically populist vision associated with the New Deal and Great Society, substituting in its stead, a short term, swing voter approach that is either policy marginal (think V-chips, school uniforms) or self-defeating (balance budgets) but that is in either case, ever changing and malleable, leaving more and more voters less sure of the party's goals and values and therefore less and less likely to identify with the Democratic Party, ultimately driving down party identification and with it, long term party success. And resulting in more and more bad policymaking by conservatives. Perlstein says to interrupt this vicious downwardly spiraling process by proposing bold initiatives and sticking with them through rain or shine. As conservatives have patiently built a brand name, achieved majority status, and enacted a policy agenda--the many particulars of which majorities of voters cite as unpopular or of low priority--this way, so should Democrats go and do likewise.
The remainder of the booklet contains 12 short complimentary as well as counter arguments by several well-known and some not so well known analysts, former officials, and political scientists, followed by a final rebuttal by Perlstein at the end.
The critiques of Perlstein's argument represented by each of the contributors are not mutually exclusive and not easy to firmly pigeon-hole or categorize. Nonetheless, it helps me to at least give it a shot.
I'd say that at least one strain of criticism concerns the belief--held by many among the DLC--that the Democrat's achilles heal or heals has been its liberalism, particularly in regard to cultural issues, taxes and national security. This, combined with the country's growing conservatism, renders Democratic attempts to recreate itself on more economically liberal lines highly problematic. The pieces by Galston and Teixeira highlight this perspective and Klinkner touches on it. In the case of Galston and Teixeira, these authors would agree with Perlstein that the Democratic decline is real, worrisome, and presumably correctable. But they disagree with Perlstein as to the reasons--largely because they differ with respect to interpreting past election results--and what to prescribe to arrest the party's decline. Galston and Teixeira would have us tack to the right or at least shift our focus to a different demographic set of targets (i.e. more or less keep the status quo).
A second, important line of critique implies that the Democratic Party's decline is either not as dramatic or the party's future as worrisome as Perlstein alleges, or that to the extent that it is, is just as likely to remedied by time, outside events or chance as by any wholescale purposeful or planned changes in party direction, organization or philosophy. Dan Carol, Philip Klinkner and Larry Bartels all make arguments of this type. In Carol's case, he argues that while the old powerful and visible Democratic Party is probably not going to be reborn anytime soon, a newer do it yourself type of politics driven by grassroot activists and issue publics is and will do a lot to create the same effect. Klinkner, meanwhile, contends that planning the type of long term wholescale movement envisioned by Perlstein is unrealistic and doesn't take into account the fact that election outcomes are driven by party id, which isn't easy to change, and by outside and unpredictable factors, such as wars and scandals. Klinkner also notes that the party out of power has a 50/50 chance to win a presidential election in any event, so the advantages to be gained by vision making, dream building, and party restructuring may be easy to overstate. Bartel's contribution is to say that short term strategizing isn't all that bad since most elections can't be won on the basis of party mobilization alone--independents and fence-sitters need to be swayed so some degree of swing voter targeting makes sense.
There are other arguments I could discuss but I think these the most important.
So where do I come down in all of this? Basically I tend to discount the Galston, Teixeira school of thought. I agree with Perlstein that few voters are carrying around images of the Democratic Party from the 1960's and increasingly, from the 1970's, two decades that have done so much to singe the memories of many Democratic strategists.
I do, however, think there is a lot to the arguments presented by Carol, Klinkner and Bartels. In particular, elections, especially presidential ones, are both highly idiosyncratic as well as difficult to control or shape. The economy, part id, and the charisma of the candidate matter a lot and aren't always susceptible to message intervention or even mobilization (as we saw this last time around).
At the same time, while the quantitative evidence for Perlstein's argument may be somewhat insufficient, I do agree that the party is at a minimum highly tentative, defensive and inconsistent in regards to promoting the cultural, economic and international liberalism I think most of its members support and which I believe would enjoy greater respect and support among the public were Democrats to be more upfront and less apologetic about it. This may in fact be what drives Perlstein's views more than anything.
What needs further refining is how Perlstein believes the Democrats should go about implementing his vision. Should it be driven by the presidential candidate and thus dependent on a progressive at the top of the ticket? How do congressional elections, dependent as they are on local influences fit into this? Perlstein I believe also minimizes the importance of civil rights and civil liberties issues to the Democratic agenda and the public good of the country.
In any event, I come away from Perlstein's thesis and the arguments of his peers somewhat more optimistic than I was going in. And I see a good deal of issue consistency in Democrats support for reproductive rights, civil rights and the like, defensive as it may be, and as unpopular or at least subject to negative demogoguery as these issues sometimes are, that model much of the consistency I believe Perlstein would like Democrats to emulate on economic issues.
In conclusion, I think it's important for Democrats to think about picking up the tool used so well by Newt Gingrich in 1994 and begin working on a contract type document, outlining what the party would do if it had control of Congress. I'll even mention a few: prevent the president's tax cuts from taking permanent effect; restore the estate tax; increase the minimum wage; reverse the bankruptcy "reform" changes; reverse the "tort reform" changes; reauthorize the voting rights act.
That should get you started. Please contribute your own ideas. Maybe with a little luck, we bloggers might provide something constructive for Democratic members to think about in preparation for 2006 and beyond.