|January 30, 2006|
Strategy for Democrats: Turn Left
A BUZZFLASH GUEST CONTRIBUTION
Interpreting biennial election results is an American tradition, and so is Monday-morning quarterbacking. The most sacred tradition involves second-guessing the strategy of politicians and giving advice to the losers. Some commentators feel comfortable in taking the outcome of a few high-profile races and manufacturing a national trend. The good news for this past election is that, for the most part, analysts concluded that there was no major realignment in party allegiance. The bad news is that, none-the-less, they have recommended changes for Democrats that imply the need for a major shake-up in strategy. This seems odd given the fairly evenly divided Congress, the small numbers change from 2000, and the almost complete domination by incumbents from both parties (98% success rate).
The message of the midterm, say some commentators, is that the Democrats did not have a distinctive message—or even a unified one. Yet others are saying that Democrats should avoid moving to the “left,” where presumably they would have a more distinctive message than preaching the mixed message of moderation. What’s a poor Democrat to do?
Let me suggest a path for Democrats, realizing that I, myself, am giving overall strategic advice when fine tuning is perhaps more in order given 2002 results. But at least I'll give advice geared toward the long term, based on analyses of past elections over a decade, and derived from examining global election results rather than on the outcome of high profile races. First, there will be no attempt here to analyze the results of the most recent election or its individual races, beyond agreeing that there was no major change. Doing so would feed the same problem just discussed.
So let's begin the history lesson to see if, indeed, Democrats need to somehow find a distinctive message that is not liberal--if that is possible. Our analyses of House elections over most of the nineties found that it was the liberal Democratic incumbents who did better than their moderate colleagues in some election years --while at other times there were no differences (Neil Wollman, Leonard Williams, Abigail Fuller; Roll Call, Campaigns and Elections; reported in Washington Post, New York Times, etc.). But what about the signature election of 1994 that supposedly highlighted the vulnerability of a more extreme, liberal position? In that blowout, liberal ideology was not the cause of losses for Democrats. Analysis revealed that while only 7% of liberal incumbents lost, a whopping 26% of moderates did so (judging ideology by voting patterns on congressional bills). Thus, if Democrats need a distinctive message, a liberal one seems more likely to bring success, at least at the congressional level that is relevant here.
But turning to history again provides evidence of a bigger picture, one that leads to a recommendation for extreme (non-centrist) political strategies for both parties. Democrats need to learn the correct lesson from Republican congressional successes in the nineties. They won elections not by shying away from ideology, but by embracing a consistent message of conservatism—even when those views earlier consigned them to the political wilderness. Newt Gingrich was once labeled an “extremist,” but now conservatism appears as “mainstream” as New Deal or Great Society liberalism once was. But what about the rebuke of Newt and conservatives in the election of '96, when the Republicans lost a number of seats. As with '94, the elections were misinterpreted. Our analyses revealed that it was the moderate Republican incumbents who were more likely to lose than those more conservative.
The upshot is that Democrats should not embrace a, perhaps, mushy centrism. Rather, Democrats should commit themselves to showing that liberal ideas matter, particularly in a time of economic and political turmoil. They need to make the case that progressive values are also American values. While change in the short term may be small given the dominance of incumbency, recent history shows that, at this point, that's where the more successful case lies.
Perhaps there are stirrings of that already with the party election of Nancy Pelosi and the post-election statements by some Democrats. Of course, if both parties follow the electoral strategy of the "extreme," then Democratic election attention will focus not on "old" vs "new" Democrats, but on how a liberal Democrat can best defeat a conservative Republican.
A BUZZFLASH GUEST CONTRIBUTION
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