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August 09, 2005

Looking For Two of Three

Scott Lemieux has a good time mocking Michael Lind's request that all Democrats stop being social liberals and focus solely on the butter, please:

So let's get this straight. Democrats can't win because "populists" don't like Democratic positions on abortion (odd, since the Democratic position on abortion is far more popular than the Republican one. Lind also has an interesting definition of "banned," which apparently means that "you can only be the most powerful Democrat in Congress if you oppose abortion rights.) Populists were burned by Clinton. The electorate was so upset about it that in 1996 Clinton won by 8 points, and in 2000 they voted for Al Gore by a margin of a half million votes.

Scott is, as usual, right. And Lind is fairly unprincipled for suggesting we give up on equality, choice, and everything else in order to win some votes. But there is a deeper, more interesting point lurking around his analysis: Democrats, as a party, are defined as much by our social stands (pro-gay, pro-civil rights, pro-abortion, pro-feminism) as we are by our economic stances. In large part, that's fine. What's peculiar is that we're not at all defined by our national security accomplishments. We're credited for the New Deal and the Great Society, blamed for abortion and gay rights, but never noticed for World War I or World War II. It's weird.

More, it's dangerous. The electorate swings on three issue areas: foreign, domestic, and cultural. Democrats continually win on domestic issues, and when foreign policy is absent from the election, as it was in 1992 and 2000, we win the elections. But mostly, we lose. And we lose because Republicans dominate two of the three areas, while we only control one. Cultural issues are less important than either domestic or foreign policy matters, but added to the Republican advantage on national security, they basically consign us to minority status. That needs to chage.

So while Scott's right in his factual fisking, Lind's right on perception. Democrats are losing on cultural values, even if the electorate broadly agrees with our stance on choice. Clinton indeed ran as a cultural conservative, and he won in 1996 because 1) foreign policy was largely absent, 2) president enjoy an authority advantage on national security, and 3) Dole was a very weak candidate. Nevertheless, voters do think we're dogmatic on abortion (though we're not), in favor of gay marriage (though we say we're not), and too permissive on culture (though it makes no difference). Those are perception issues and, aside from the glimmer of potential shown by Hillary's recent rhetorical approaches to choice, there's not a whole lot to be done that wouldn't result in bad policy consequences or a betrayal of what we know to be right.

That leaves national security, and the two connect. As Matt notices, the Democracy Corps focus groups show that it's not necessarily cultural issues that people don't trust Democrats on, their quotes show questions about character, values, conviction. National security works the same way. Character traits, speech cadence, "toughness"...those make up a candidate's national security numbers. Nobody knows what George Bush is doing on terrorism. But his numbers on it stayed high long after voters had turned on him in every other area.

That's because George W. Bush looked like he'd punch bin Laden in the face, Kerry didn't. For that matter, George W. Bush looked like he could have been a war hero, Kerry looked sadly out of place in his Vietnam tapes. A Schweitzer-esque candidate who stepped up to the podium and was willing to fight for his beliefs, even unpopular cultural ones, would make gains on national security simply by proving himself the kind of guy willing to fight. Kerry's equivocations and careful language made him seem like someone who'd hesitate long enough to get nailed in the face.

And so that's where much of this should end. Democrats are losing in two of three areas that elections are decided on. We can't simply wait for election years that favor domestic policies. But we can't, a la Lind, betray our beliefs, and we shouldn't sell constituencies down the river because it's electorally useful. So given our narrow space for action there, national security is where we should focus. And that means becoming the party that, if nothing else, you can imagine fought and won World Wars I and II. As a party, we're defined by economic issues and cultural conflicts. If we could get a strong, competent national security image to coexist in there, our problems would be largely solved. Voters who don't like the Republican economic agenda vote for their national security and cultural plans anyway. Voters who don't like the Democrats cultural beliefs would still hand us elections if we swayed them on foreign policy and economic issues.

August 9, 2005 in Electoral Politics | Permalink


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I think that Democrats did get credit for WWI and WWII, while they were a party that, as you say, "you can imagine fought and won World Wars I and II." Kennedy was pretty liberal, but percieved as tough of foreign policy and no one ever considered LBJ a wimp.

Post-Vietname the Democratic party has been different though. You might think the changes they have made are correct, but they certainly are not popular with the majority.

Unfortunately, those basic changes in how foreign policy is viewed, are pretty central to what the Democratic party is today. Running a war hero Kerry or Wes Clark, with a basically anti-war policy will just make you seem less legitimate in the eyes of the electorate. Either run as what you are, or change your foriegn policy views if you want to win. You won't win, I think anyway, by pretending, as a Party, to be something you are not.

If you are right, stick to your guns and convince the rest of us. If you are wrong, change you stance. Don't try some middle way though were you don't change but try to appear that you have.

Posted by: Dave Justus | Aug 9, 2005 5:12:51 PM

The two of three argument is interesting. As you note, though, we don't really lose cultural issues. We come close to a draw on them, in part by letting rural Democrats have a little slack, just as Repubs give urban GOPers a little slack.

The problem is that our advantage on domestic issues is relatively insignificant compared to their advantage on foreign issues and the three break down in an interesting way among the electorate...namely in a way that sparks narrow defeat for us.

And, once again, this is why Democrats beating up on the Democratic Party is bad. Joe Biden and Evan Bayh should be saying that the party that stopped the huns in World War I and World War II is the same party that will actually win the war against Islamic extremism.

Democrats of late have been mocking the Bush Administration's switch of terms from GWOT to GSAVE, but the real thing worth pointing out is that it took the Bush Administration 4 years to find out we're fighting an ideology, not a tactic.

But the DLCers are too busy building themselves up by attacking our party that they fail to note that what they're really doing is costing us elections.

Ezra, you recently commented that Sirota is wrong to criticize Evan Bayh for not knowing how to win elections, since he apparently does. That may be true, but look down-ballot in Indiana. Bayh certainly doesn't know how to build a party.

Posted by: Matt Singer | Aug 9, 2005 5:19:48 PM

As Digby has been pointing out for about a year now, national security perceptions largely get created according to the public theater of how you respond to your political opponents, not your actual foreign policy. If you don't stand shoulder to shoulder with your party and fight back against the political opposition, you look weak and the Democratic "toughness" brand is harmed. It has absolutely nothing to do with which party or candidate knows more about national security or would be better at it. You can't get there by out-"me-tooing" the Republicans on how evil those evil terrorist are--paradoxically, that makes you look weak. And apparently you can't get there by being sane and sober and talking about what's really needed to make the country safe--that makes you look like an egghead. We can't afford Democratic candidates who run against the Democratic Party anymore.

Posted by: antid_oto | Aug 9, 2005 5:53:50 PM

I think we lost Security issues the moment the US embassy in Iran was taken over, and Jimmy Carter was turned into a wimp. There was also the whole soft on communism label the right wing echo machine kept repeating over and over and over again. The Democrats are victims of the creation of the "new reality" by the right wing propaganda machine, and the left would be smart to create a machine of their own, but alas, people such as yourself don't believe we need such a machine, and scoff at the idea that we need a Grover Norquist type to organize our message and keep folks in line.

But we can't, a la Lind, betray our beliefs, and we shouldn't sell constituencies down the river

During the Clinton years the Democrats sold out the labor folks for the dream of big business money, and they got the money and sold out a major constituency so they could have money to run in 96. Now the Democrats are Republican lite on economic issues, but they are stuck with all the icky social issues that can be spun to piss off social conservatives.

And back to security issues, aren't the liberal peace folks a constituency the Dems would be selling out if they all of a sudden became very hawkish?

Posted by: jbou | Aug 9, 2005 8:15:12 PM

Excellent analysis. I would only add that it may be misleading in some ways to claim that Clinton ran as a social conservative; he used some of the rhetoric, sure, but he certainly never promised anything of substance. And, as you say, on most "cultural" issues the federal government can't actually do anything. (And, with Lind as with most such arguments made by social conservatives, the countours about what he actually wants the government to do remain exceedingly vague. And he can't just be saying that Democrats should use some clever rhetoric, because that's what Clinton did.)

Posted by: Scott Lemieux | Aug 10, 2005 12:06:17 AM

Another point is that one reason that Democrats are perceived as more dogmatic on abortion is because while the GOP is good at highlighting the least popular aspects of a pro-choice viewpoint, Dems are completely unwilling to do likewise. THe GOP platform called for a constitutional amendment that would make abortion first-degeree murder in all 50 states. Lind notwithstanding, the number of genuine swing voters who believe this could fit in a phone booth--but Democrats refuse to even mention it.

Posted by: Scott Lemieux | Aug 10, 2005 12:06:50 AM

That's because George W. Bush looked like he'd punch bin Laden in the face, Kerry didn't. For that matter, George W. Bush looked like he could have been a war hero, Kerry looked sadly out of place in his Vietnam tapes.

It baffles me that you (and a majority of the American population, apparently) see Bush this way. There's nothing about Bush's physical presence, bearing, facial expressions, or anything else that suggests strength to me. In fact, as I've said on many occasions, he strikes me as a bit of a pussy. I'm not a fighter myself, but I'd be perfectly comfortable getting into the ring with Dubya.

Posted by: Toast | Aug 10, 2005 9:08:27 AM

Kinda agree with toast. The reason Republicans are trusted on national security is that a heavy majority of military officers are Republican, not because of any inherent personal qualities of Codpiece-Boy. All this talk about "theatre" and "speech cadence" is a little demeaning. If you're a military officer that has 100 times more substantive knowledge of security issues than I do, it's condescending to be told you vote Republican because of "speech cadence" or "perceptions of toughness".

Now if they know so much more about these issues than I do, how can it be true that we are right and they are wrong on these issues? Dunno, but it is, and Democrats are simply better than Republicans on national security, maybe because they're less sure of themselves and therefore less careless. But the only way to win these Republicans over, as far as I can see, is to try and adopt a respectful but confident persuasion strategy.

And first of all, to simply show up. The Democrat who wins will be a politician willing and able to address *any* crowd in America; an NRA convention, An Americon Legion meeting, a NARAL group, what have you - and be able to win the respect and understanding of the people attending, *without caving* on core liberal principles.

The alternative is a 100 different variations of "They think I'm weak? Well, I'll show them I'm one tough mf!" That is a way for Democrats to lose, not only elections, but their dignity.

Posted by: roublen vesseau | Aug 10, 2005 10:15:46 AM

Clinton burned populists, and the voters responded by handing Republicans complete control of Congress for the first time in 40 years, and continued control of congress for the first time in over 65 years. That the party became, or has become, more of a socially liberal party than an economically populist party, is in large part responsible for where it is today.

Posted by: Paleo | Aug 10, 2005 10:21:26 AM

. Running a war hero Kerry or Wes Clark, with a basically anti-war policy will just make you seem less legitimate in the eyes of the electorate.

There is so much truth, yet so much falsity in that statement. Does anyone really want to be "pro-war?" I think not. During war, it is the polically advantagous position to be a flag waver. Kerry, Clark, they are NOT anti-war. The Democratic position has never been no war, just war as last, justifiable resort. Americans agree with this, the Democrats simply didn't make that case good enough, for various reasons. What they weren't, however, is anti-war pacifists. Neither was their policy.

Posted by: Adrock | Aug 10, 2005 11:57:58 AM

Cultural issues are less important than either domestic or foreign policy matters...

Whoa....wasn't it you that was whining about "wedge issues" such as homo marriage and attack on religion that drove those stupid people to the polls that shouldn't be voting anyway?

Posted by: Fred Jones | Aug 10, 2005 12:01:45 PM


I think you know what I meant by anti-war. Sure no one wants war, but there is a difference between being basically confident about America projecting power on the world stage and being basically not confident about that.

If you think John Kerry was confident about it, you are sadly mistaken, and the fact that he served with distinction in Vietnam doesn't change that.

It is not automatically wrong (although it is unpopular) to believe that international institutions are more desirable than direct American power. There are a whole spectrum of beliefs along those lines, that translate (admittedly somewhat inaccurately) into the anti-war camp

I stand by my belief that trying to gain national security credentials for being tough (or hawkish or whatever you want to call it, essencially not 'anti-war') by running a military figure who nonetheless largely holds these 'anti-war' beliefs will be self defeating.

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