How Can We Create A Change Election in 2006?
by Chris Bowers, Mon Feb 20, 2006 at 12:32:10 PM EST
This is a big and important question that we need to try and develop an answer for. Using a wide selection of my post-2004 election writings, I have placed my rundown of the most common ideas in the extended entry. In the comments, I would like to hear your ideas (and so would quite a few other powerful netroots progressives).
I am going to post one idea above the fold because, unlike everything else I discuss, it is based upon something I have never posted on in the past:
1. Clearly differentiating ourselves from Republicans. I'm all for this idea and for its sibling, "moving to the left." I actually believe that it is absolutely necessary in order to create a change election. After all, how can there be a big change if the electorate doesn't think that a big change is possible?
The problem with this is, I think it has already happened in the mind of the electorate. Long term NES data shows that more than any time since the start of public polling, the country believes there is in fact a clear difference between the two parties (see here), and that it matters which party wins any given election (see here and here).
Conclusion: If voters believe now, more than at any other time in history, that there are important differences between the two parties, and that it matter which party wins any given election, then maybe clear differentiation isn't the Holy Grail many have long thought it was. I still think it is good that it happened, because I'm not sure how a change election would be possible otherwise. But I don't think we need to do something in 2006 that already appears to have been accomplished in the mind of the electorate.
In the extended entry I consider several other ideas, including talking more about values, the "Culture of Corruption" frame, the 50-state strategy, running on national security, running on any issue besides national security, pointing out that Republican control congress and moving to the right / center.
Conclusion: To pass up appealing to the fastest growing demographic in the nation and in our coalition in order to appeal to a shrinking group whose values are truly antithetical to progressivism itself, count me as someone who doesn't see that long term "change" potential though "talking values."
3. Culture of Corruption. Back in late 2004, I wrote a piece that argued that largest, and most heavily swinging, demographic in the country was primarily non-ideological, mostly interested in good government, and always interested in "reform." Given that I still believe this, I really like the "culture of corruption" frame. It is a good government frame, an outsider frame, and a reformer frame. It could really appeal to this swing group. I also still believe that the big Republican success in 1994 was swinging the Perot vote away from Dems and heavily in their favor.
Conclusion: "Culture of Corruption" could swing the Perot vote back our way, and as such I give it a big "thumbs up" when it comes to creating a change election.
4. 50-state strategy. I definitely think that running in as many seats as possible would be a big help in creating a change election. I even included an entire article on its importance it in my still unfinished series Building a House Landslide. I think that it goes without saying that it will be impossible to create a "change" election if your primary strategy is to tepidly target only two dozen House seats, and a handful of Senate and Governor's races. An old saying goes that you end up governing based on how you were elected, and our current narrow targeting strategy pretty much guarantees that even if we win in 2006, we are going to end up governing narrowly as well. A 50-state strategy would help to create structural difficulties for Republicans on defense that could lead to a change election, and it will also help spread whatever message we end up running on to every corner of the nation. I have lots more on this in an old article entitled Uncontested.
Conclusion: A fifty-state strategy is almost certainly a pre-requisite for a change election to take place. However, it also is almost certainly not enough in and of itself to create a "change" election. Running everywhere in one election is not going to structurally change the electorate in one shot. This is something we need to keep doing again and again and again.
5. Hitting hard on National Security. One thing that has always baffled me about many progressive election observers and strategists is how often they are convinced that our number one priority must always be to eliminate the Republican advantage on the issue where Republicans are currently their strongest. The largest Republican lead is in defense? Then we must hit them on defense! The number one Republican issue is taces? Then we must hit them on taxes! And so on.
I have two basic problems with this. First, this mentality ignores the obvious fact that it doesn't matter where we gain on Republicans, because a gain is the same no matter where it comes from. As I wrote back in April:Pundits have a weird problem that emerges whenever they try and explain what Democrats must do to improve their electoral prospects. Whenever they see Democrats losing on Issue X but winning on Issue Y, they become convinced that Democrats would gain more by improving ten points on Issue X than they would by gaining ten points on Issue Y. However, that does not make any sense. Moving from a fourteen point lead on "pro-middle class" to a twenty-four point margin on "pro middle class" would gain us exactly as much ground as moving from a twenty-two point deficit on "keeping America safe," to a twelve point deficit on "keeping America safe." Both would move us ten points, and ten points are the same wherever you draw them from. The second problem I have with this is that attacking the strong point of the established national Republican brand is a lot more difficult than attacking the strong point in the established brand of any individual Republican. Republicans have built their national security band over the course of several decades, making it a lot harder to deflate than, say, it was to Swiftboat John Kerry's image as a war hero. Kerry image on that issue was, nationally, only a few months old, and it related entirely to himself. The Republican brand on this issue is decades old, and relates to numerous individual Republicans. Thus, not only is a ten point gain a ten point gain no matter where it comes from, there are probably a lot of other areas where Democrats could more easily make a ten point gain than on national security.
Now, all of that being said, I do think that Democrats have a terrific chance in 2006 to run on a national security issue: Iraq. Specifically, as I have argued repeatedly, Democrats need to run on a strong withdrawal plan, because not only is it the right thing to do, not only is it the number one issue on the mind of the electorate, but it is also overwhelmingly popular and would drive a wedge right down the middle of the Republican coalition. In particular, as the MyDD poll showed, Murtha's plan is overwhelmingly popular among Democrats, Independents, and Republicans. This could really sweep the nation, but I worry instead that Democrats will party like its 2002.
Conclusion: I think that Democrats have a big opportunity on national security in 2006, but I don't think they will bother to actually take it (probably because the policy wonks they go to cocktail parties with in Washington think it is a bad idea). Anyway, even though I think it would probably net a lot of seats, I'm not even sure if ti would seriously challenge the Republican advantage on national security, long-term, thus creating a real "change." I have real doubts about whether the American populace has learned any lessons from Iraq, except that we shouldn't invade Iraq. As dominant as it is right now, it may just be a short-term issue in the mind of the electorate.
6. Non-defense policy proposals. I'm just going to tell you right now that your well thought out, twenty-point plan to reduce our dependency on foreign oil, revitalize public education, or lower the cost of health care isn't going to swing a single seat in the country. Not only do I have grave doubts about running campaigns in specific issues, mainly because I am pretty sure the electorate doesn't organize policy issues the same way advocacy groups, congressional committees, and think tanks have organized them in Washington, but I can tell you right now that we have no chance of getting that message through the contemporary media filter. We just can't hope that well thought out policy proposals will win us elections, because the media doesn't bother to give such plans time, the electorate doesn't listen to such plans, and the republican Noise Machine is just going to heavily distort them anyway.
Along the same lines, I am also generally opposed lengthy policy platforms. In my experience, I felt hat policy and ideological platforms do far more to tear people apart than bring them together. Almost every ideologue is going to find something they dislike in any given platform. As such, rather than join up with a large movement they are close to, they will probably splinter off and create a new platform, convinced that said new platform is The One True Path that will sweep the nation. Never in my life have I seen a policy platform win an election, and that goes for the Contract For America. I don't think it was the ideology in that platform that won the day for Republicans back in 1994, but rather it was the good government, reformer appeal that they presented to the public.
Conclusion: Most wonks and ideologues either have no idea how to win elections or, more than likely, they are opposed to using tactics that are actually more likely to win elections. They would rather lose than have to play dirty and / or appeal to the way the electorate actually thinks.
7. Pointing out that Republicans Control Congress. Obviously, I think that this idea has great short-term potential. However, I am started to wonder if one the reason Democrats are already doing so well in generic congressional ballots is because two-thirds or more of the country already agrees that Republicans control congress. Still, even if this is the case, I can see nothing but positive things coming from raising voter knowledge even higher on this issue.
Conclusion:This is great for the short term, but it has absolutely no chance of creating a "change" election. Basically, it is just a short term "give someone else a shot" pitch, and it could easily be used against Dems in the near future if congressional approval ratings remain low. Since congressional approval ratings are almost always pretty low, even if it works it could be successful used against Dems in 2008 or 2010.
8. Moderating or moving to the right or center. Yeah, that won't work. I'm still with Lakoff on this one. Not to mention that I had a political scientist friend of mine tell me recently that only about 5% of the country is truly ideological anyway--the rest would be latent ideology, ala Lakoff. I don't think that actually being extreme or moderate matters in elections. What really matters is whether or are perceived as extremist or moderate.
Conclusion. People who think about politics a lot should realize that they don't think about politics the way that the vast majority of the nation does. For starters, the vast majority of the nation doesn't actually think about politics that much.
OK, so what have I got overall? Looks like a combination of culture of corruption, Murtha's withdrawal plan, running in every seat, and pointing out that Republicans control congress. I don't know if that is enough to create a "change" election, but it's the best I can do based on all my writings since November 3rd, 2004. In truth, I think that the country is so polarized and divided right now, that the odds of change elections taking place has been reduced significantly. Still, if everything goes our way, and Bush's job approval falls back into the mid-thirties, an indycrat realignment, or a mass swing of Perot voters back to Democrats, might just take place.