Tuesday, October 18, 2005

Democrats: Show Us The Voters

I found this over at MyDD:

Growing the Democratic Party is perhaps the most crucial task we can commit ourselves to over the next year. If we're successful, we have a very serious chance to win back control of Congress. Two stories in particular have brought the issue to my attention today. Mathew Gross, commenting on the latest polling and strategy memo from Democracy Corps highlights Carville and Greenberg's suggestion that "Democrats should revisit the Perot voters and their concerns" if they want to "become the party of change" in 2006. Meanwhile, at CQ Weekly (subscription only), the cover story "New Heaven, New Earth" examines the political branching out of evangelical Christians into areas outside of anti-abortion activism.


Here's how Carville and Greenberg define Ross Perot's natural base, which they view as up for grabs in 2006.

His voters were the most anti-political and anti-elitist, anti-big government and big corporations, anti-free trade and anti-immigration. They were pro-military but anti-foreign entanglements. They were libertarian and secular, pro-gun and pro-choice. The Perot voters were younger, more blue collar and rural, and economically pressed and uneasy in the new economy. They were also angry with the political and economic elites that failed to represent them.

They argue that this was the group that helped shift the House to the Republicans in 1994 as well as breaking for Bush in 2000. Examining this list point-by-point, it's easy to see how this group could be swayed to the Democrats in next year's midterms.

...Democrats created a near majority with their coalition of suburban and more secular voters, the best educated and more cosmopolitan, union households, and the growing number of minority voters, particularly African Americans and Hispanics. But that has been more than offset by their dramatic decline among white rural and blue collar voters - the consequence of the values issues but also of Democrats not figuring out how to incorporate the dislodged Perot voters.

Hey, I like Carville. And as far as 2006 goes, maybe he's even onto something. But this form of "strategery" concerns me. It sounds like pretty much what the party's been trying for the last twenty years in some form or another. And it just sounds very lacking of anything like consistency, principles, or values. It's a strategy that just wants to know how this year's voters can be appealed to. But it doesn't clarify what the party stands for, and it doesn't seem interested in responding to the very real crisis that I think modern conservatism presents us with.

Scott Shields seems to be wary of this himself as he says:

My fear is that many of the Perot voters are simply anti-government and therefore anti-incumbent. Though they very well could vote for Democrats in 2006, can we really count on them to stick with the party over the long haul?

My answer to that is, probably not. And that's the problem.

Meanwhile, even as we Democrats are getting a kick out of the conservatives' infighting amongst themselves over the Mier's nomination, I can't help but be bothered by the fact that at the root of their in-house bickering, lies an ideological dispute about their movement and what they want government to do and society to look like. Democrats don't seem to have arguments like this.

The Washington Post today has another article of how conservative ideologues and interest groups are reacting to the Mier's nomination and what the import is for the conservative movement.

In the Godfather II, Michael Corleone is in Cuba prior to the revolution on a business trip and witnesses the capture of a number of Castro rebels, one of whom blows himself up rather than be captured. This intrigues Corleone who reasons with Hyman Roth, an associate who wants Michael to put up 2 million dollars in cash in a hotel deal. Corleone notes that the soldiers of the Cuban government are paid to fight but the rebels are not. What does that tell you, Roth asks? Corleone responds by saying that It Tells Me They Can Win.

The conservative movement, complete with its inflexible, dogmatic interest group bosses, reminds me of this movie's scene and the drive of the rebels. They don't much care whether a majority of people agree with them or like them. They're going to do what they want anyway. Or die trying.

Democrats, on the other hand, show too many signs of trying to align themselves with voters rather than giving voters a reason to align themselves with us. In the case of the Carville-Greenberg memo, it's the elusive Perot-voter, which is another way of saying "the center". But this group is either non-existent, or isn't going to buy into what Democrats are selling because they are not selling something consistent.

Now, obviously, parties need to reach beyond a base of voters to win, and winning elections is what parties are all about. But the problem has become that the strategy of reaching beyond the base is the entire Democratic strategy, and there is very little base upon which to expand into the world of a governing majority.

As Robert Reich has noted:

We failed because we failed to build a political movement behind us. Americas newly ascendant radical conservatives do have such a movement, which explains a large part of their success. They have developed dedicated sources of money and legions of ground troops who not only get out the vote but also spend the time between elections persuading others to join their ranks. They have devised frames of reference that are used repeatedly in policy debates (among them: its your money, tax and spend, political correctness, class warfare). They have a system for recruiting and electing officials nationwide who share the same world view and who will vote accordingly. And they have a coherent ideology uniting evangelical Christians, blue-collar whites in the South and West, and big business, an ideology in which foreign enemies, domestic poverty and crime, and homosexuality all must be met with strict punishment and religious orthodoxy.

Democrats have built no analogous movement. Instead, every four years party loyalists throw themselves behind a presidential candidate who they believe will deliver them from the rising tide of conservatism. After the election, they go back to whatever they were doing before. Other Democrats have involved themselves in single issue politics, the environment, campaign finance, the war in Iraq, and so on, but these battles have failed to build a political movement. Issues rise and fall depending on which interests are threatened and when. They can even divide Democrats, as each advocacy group scrambles after the same set of liberal donors and competes for the limited attention of the news media.

This isn't to say that among most Democrats there aren't a core group of principles and issues we support. Abortion rights, the social welfare safety net, and opposition to the war in Iraq constitutes a pretty sizable section of the Democratic electorate. But many among the Democratic leadership have been backpedaling on their support for abortion rights, and most of the Democratic leadership supported the war in Iraq, as well as the president's series of tax cuts that have made the financing of social security and health care precarious.

So, yes, let's appeal to today's version of the Perot voters where we can. But let's not get sidetracked by trying to appeal to a whole new group of voters every two years. Let's articulate the agenda that we believe to be important, and work on selling the American people on it over the long haul.

No comments: