Thursday, June 16, 2005

Manifesto 1.0

To win back congress and the presidency, the Democrats must lead rather than follow.

The party must take a principled, consistent, thorough, unambiguous stand against the war in Iraq. The party also needs to fight for and win support for a bold, broadly developed plan to gradually hand responsibility for security and oil extraction in Iraq to an international coalition that can win the active support of Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Iran, Egypt, Jordan and Pakistan.

It will take courage, intelligence and endurance -- leadership -- to see such a policy through. The U.S. news media has a vehement bias against fundamental criticism of the military's activities abroad. Any critical analysis of U.S. policy in Iraq that is systematic will routinely be framed as ``unpatriotic,'' ``irresponsible'' and even ``traitorous.''

The Republican party has benefited from this brand of media bias since the Nixon era. The 9/11 attacks made criticism of U.S. foreign policy even riskier for opposition politicians. Media bias, however, is not what has hurt and will continue to harm the Democrats most.

The dagger to the heart of Democrats has been the party's Promethean unwillingness to make clear its opposition to the war out of fear of being labeled unpatriotic. In the 2004 election, no single comment about John Kerry was repeated more often and with more alacrity than the one noting the candidate's own declaration that he voted both for and against the war.

Democrats' appeal to independent voters is decimated by this kind of equivocation. As a party, it must first admit that it was mistake not to have vigorously opposed the invasion of Iraq.

Why did John Kerry equivocate on the war? Because he listened to the people who, for decades, have insisted that Democrats can only win by being more like Republicans. That critique is true, in an obvious way, since Republicans are winning elections more often than Democrats. But that's meaningless unless you understand exactly what accounts for the Republican victories and what parts of that can be used by Democrats.
Today's GOP is more ideological, even more strident, and less committed than ever to subjugating political ends to policy development and implementation means.

The GOP keeps winning because it projects the appearance of confident, principled commitment. The Bush team branded this idea ``moral clarity,'' and sold it like Viagra.

It is crucial to understand that we live in the age of moral narcissism. One of the most common complaints among ``conservatives'' about ``liberals'' is that right-wing Christians and/or rural traditionalists are not portrayed reverently enough in news and entertainment media. Apparently, these constituencies consider it their right to have their values held up as superior and a failure to do that shows contempt for them personally.

Apparently, the main problem for this constituency is not that it's worldview is unpopular among educated Americans, but that its ways are derided or belittled on television and in movies. This is how white, middle class men bestow upon themselves the mantle of victimhood.
The point for Democrats is that no amount of pandering or redneck-friendly gestures or even policies are going to erode the self-declared victim status of this constituency.

The white trash jokes and derision did not, of course, originate in the Democratic party or even among liberal political activists; rather they are borne of a rural-urban divide that stretches across all societies everywhere. There is no point for Democrats to try to placate these feelings of righteous aggrievement, as they exist primarily for their own sake.

To the extent that Democrats cater to the narrow moral narcissism of rural and religious conservatives, they only deepen the perceptions that the party is unprincipled. Instead, Democrats should be vehement about how and why they support the separation of church and state, oppose teaching creationism in schools and support limits on weapons ownership.

Independent voters will appreciate the principled consistencies, even when they do not hold similar positions themselves.
The confidence and ``moral clarity'' of Republicans is what Kerry should have been seeking to emulate, rather than the Orwellian militarism and doubletalk that frames so much of mainstream media discussion of the war in Iraq.

Opposing the war is not a tactic for victory in 2006 congressional elections nor even to win back the presidency in 2008. Rather, it is necessary for the party to survive the century as one of the countries two dominant political parties.

Some Democratic leaders and pundits are calling on the party to reposition its policy mix to draw the segment of independent-minded voters that happened to vote Republican in the past two presidential elections. Their argument is wrong, though not easily dismissed.
John Kerry's razor-thin loss in 2004 and Al Gore's disputed defeat four years earlier make it easy to believe victory lies only a handful of swing voters away.

That analysis crumbles when you consider why Bush lured voters at all and what that means for candidates in 2006 and 2008.
Bush lured voters by projecting the persona of a stubborn, unbending, determined warrior. This explains why polls show a majority of Americans oppose the Bush administration's specific policies, yet supports him as best qualified to protect U.S. security.

Democrats faced similar challenges with Ronald Reagan, who somehow transformed a broadly unpopular set of foreign and domestic policy positions into formidable backing at the polls. The former actor's charisma and winning personality have been credited with that achievement, but that's only part of the picture. Reagan, like Bush, projected the kind of constancy and courage of conviction that Americans demand of a president.

Reagan and Bush were and are neither consistent nor constant in the views or policies they advocated. Indeed, liberal pundits in the 2004 campaign could point to undeniable examples of the Bush administration flip-flopping on major issues. Reagan managed to craft the image of a happy, indomitable cold warrior while responding to a terrorist attack in Lebanon by retreating.

The man who called the Soviet Union ``The Evil Empire'' and joked about bombing Russia, responded to Iran's hostage taking and support for terrorism with arms-for-hostages negotiations that amounted to the most unprincipled example of appeasement in American history.
How do Reagan and Bush ``get away with it?''

Reagan's vaunted ``teflon'' was built up because he stuck to unpopular positions and even, cannily in most cases, wore them on his sleeve. The Bush team has refined this to an art, pitching the idea that their man's widening unpopularity outside the U.S. comes not because his policies and churlish gaffes have made the world more dangerous for everyone, but because he refuses to compromise U.S. interests to win favor abroad.

Their marketing proposition is: He may be dead wrong, but he's not going to change his mind just to add to his popularity.
Even if most Americans would prefer their president to win the hearts and minds of leaders abroad, a big enough swath of the nation hasn't held Bush's global unpopularity against him.

Again, this is because the defiance of global opinion fits with Bush's broader image of the unflappable sheriff, determined to defend the town against the bad guys, even if it makes him look like ``the bad guy.''
American popular culture, with its iconography and celebration of rugged, ostentatiously armed and individualistic justice-seekers, is hospitable to this aspect of the Bush/Reagan self-image.

But the Democrats biggest mistake is to think that they can compete with this image by weakly imitating it, while attacking only its particulars and, belatedly in most cases, its consequences. Republicans own the tough-guy image, lock, stock and barrel. On a national basis and as a party, Democrats have no chance of wresting it away from them. To the extent that they try to present a ``tough-guy lite'' image, they come across instead as disingenuous.

Repeatedly, Kerry claimed to have supported the decision to go to war in Iraq, but opposed the way it was carried out--a reasonable formulation and one that opinion polls seem to suggest most Americans share. But here's where the Kerry campaign missed it: Americans, especially swing voters, don't necessarily vote for the guy that most closely tracks their views. They vote on image.

On election day, opinion polling suggests, tens of thousands of Americans who agreed with most of Kerry's position on the war and disagreed with Bush's, stepped into the booth and voted for Bush.
Kerry's mistake was first to have voted to authorize the president to start the war in the first place and then say, disastrously, that he would have made the same vote again.

Likewise Jimmy Carter and Walter Mondale lost to Ronald Reagan, even though the Republicans most popular president failed throughout his term to persuade a majority of Americans to agree with the specifics of his militaristic foreign policy.

The Democrats' prospects for 2006 and 2008 look daunting. Between then and now, we can expect activist right wing billionaires like Rupert Murdoch to only extend their control of news media and to even more brazenly bend coverage to suit their political tastes.

Even media outlets not directly owned by Republican supporters seem to be increasingly favoring right-wing talking heads while steering away from investigative reporting and systematic criticism of the widening failures in Iraq.

Meanwhile, Republican fund raising is almost certain to expand at the expense of Democrats as the party in power consolidates control over all branches of government and increases its margin in most state legislative bodies and governors' posts.

In 2008, the Republicans are likely to field a candidate who is a capable public speaker and has a record of success in private or public life and a less controversial adulthood than George W. Bush. W's fecklessness as a speaker and his long record of mediocrity in academia, the military and business did not help him beat Kerry. Alas, the Democrats can't dream of facing another Republican presidential candidate with Bush's level of vulnerability.

The Democrats, for their part, have some reasons to be hopeful for their election prospects, if not for their country. Iraq is still headed toward a widening, deepening conflict that will only cost the U.S. more lives and more money as time goes on. Nor is the economy likely to rebound in any thoroughgoing way by 2006 -- and may even worsen by 2008 -- as oil prices rise, the deficits deepen and interest rates are forced higher.

Popular support for the war itself is likely to wane, as its economic, geopolitical and human costs increase. Still, the Democrats cannot be assured of winning the allegiance of voters who turn against the war, since the party has yet to clearly establish itself as an opponent of the war with an alternative foreign policy prescription.

Recall that Richard Nixon was reelected in 1972, even as support for the Vietnam War seemed to be in a free fall as its costs escalated. In that war too, the Democrats never mounted a clear, principled, systematic opposition, and thusly ceded leadership on the issue to Republicans, despite that party's clear policy failures.

Then, as now, the Democrats needed leadership that understands the necessity of maintaining the courage of its convictions.

3 comments:

kingofpus said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
kingofpus said...

Two important points are made in this manifesto: (1) That most given cross sections would have agreed more with Kerry than Bush on the issue of America in Iraq; and (2) That your average swing voter is less inclined to track all the issues, more disposed to go with the stronger persona.

The Bush camp in the last election went after Kerry the man, weirding out voters with stories about how he saved old scabs and would never shower with the guys. Not exactly, but more or less. There were too many questions in the air...people still didn't have Kerry figured by election day...forget if you agreed with his policies, who's to say he wasn't going to pull a fast one, yank off his rubber mask Jan 21, turn out to be a French built robot after all.

It's worth looking at how the Bushes have waged their four election battles. The paradigm was already in place with the first, perhaps the best example: Bush Sr. Vs. Dukakis. It was a complicated time, 1988, lot of issues to talk about. Bush chose three: Willie Horton, Flag Burning, Boston Harbor. Not three subjects that had to do with foreign policy or the economy or even issues of import to the American people. Just three carefully chosen non-topics that would attack Dukakis on a personal level.

Willie Horton--Dukakis had favored a weekend parole program and one very dark black dude had used that to escape, rape then kill a white lady. Dukakis hated whites. Flag Burning--Dukakis had voted against an anti-flag burning amendment (probably because it was unconstitutional, but no matter.) Dukakis hated the flag. Boston Harbor--The governor's own shores were a cesspool. No one ever said other harbors weren't or that Dukakis went around peeing off the docks, but that was the implication.

Dukakis tried to talk about the issues. Too many, too complicated. Bush hit three things--Horton, flag burning, Harbor. Dukakis took the high ground and didn't retaliate. Horton, flag burning, Harbor. Dukakis finally came back and tried to get personal. He wasn't good at it and by now Dan Quayle was in place and this potatoe-head was such a lightning rod for personal jabs that no one ever got to Bush and he wasn't a wimp anymore and…Horton, flag burning, Harbor.

If you don't remember how that one turned out, the fact that Dukakis isn't exactly a household word should supply a clue. The honky-hating, flag-burning, pier-pee-er lost and the Bushes gained important insight into how to get elected--get personal.

The only time the Bushes ever surrendered the White House was the time the strategy failed because someone else made it about the issues. Bill Clinton did not change his message, but the Americans who weren't listening pre-Ross Perot suddenly heard him post-Ross Perot because the little Texan loud-mouth had such personality he shifted the focus away from the Bush camp's personal mocking points and back to the issues. Clinton then won by default, the results of this election actually proving the validity of the "get personal" tact rather qualifying it. Perot's message was heard even as his persona was destroyed. And Clinton was left flaming while the other two were scotched.

Here's the Bush plan for battle: as the enemy attacks with issues, plans and policies, hit back with focused personal attacks. Doesn't matter how valid the points you're assaulted with are, or how invalid the character assassination. Just keep firing at the same three spots.

Did Gore ever say he invented the internet? No. He tried a little too hard to link himself to this technology boom like he was the only champion it had and someone made a joke about it and you know what? It doesn't matter. People laughed. It made Big Al look stupid so you keep saying it. Did Howard Dean squeal like a geeky teen on his first beer, losing his lunch in front of his own fans? Not if you ask anyone who was at that rally. But when you hear it through the microphone you can convince people that that's what happened, especially if you JUST KEEP SAYING IT.

It's like this: Bunker B. Buster wants to run as the Democratic candidate against Jeb Bush in 2008. Someone gets a piece of footage of Bunker accidentally tripping over the cat dish as he leaves his home. Jeb jokes that this is typical--the cat was a hard working American. People laugh. Later in the campaign Bunker accuses Bush of penalizing the middle class with new tax "cuts" that only help the rich. Jeb retorts at least he's not kicking over cat dishes. They laughed once, they'll laugh again. At the debates, Bunker derides the current administration for Abu Ghaib. Jeb responds that a few cut throat killers may have been deprived their after dinner fruit cups, but at least George W doesn't kick cats. No one even remembers the actual incident. It doesn't matter. Limbaugh calls Bunker the "catter buster" on his show and ditto heads everywhere take up the call and there are t-shirts with Bunker shooting innocent kitties with nail guns. Guess what? Bunker loses the cat vote.

Bottom line: when the smoke clears most of your swing voters are going to back the candidate whose character is most in tact. And for the last 20 years it's been easier to convince a swing that a Republican is a good American (at heart) than a Democrat.

However...that might be changing...

While Democrats could long be accused of being something else in a patriot's clothing (i.e. gay tree-hugging anarchist liberal commies), now there's something that the general public is starting to doubt about Republicans--their commitment to America's interests and values over money in their own bank accounts. Sure, politics and graft was always a given, but the Bush administration has defined a new generation of greed, corruption and profiteering…A brand new basis for questioning the integrity of the next Republican candidate has been established. Is this guy really a fat, phony, cheap-illegal-wage-earner-loving, war-profit-mongering, coke-snorting middle-class-hating elitist Yalie in patriots’ clothing…?

Not sure, but I despise that guy already, don’t you? No doubt there are millions of swing voters ready to vote against him, no matter what the issues. So, Democrats, you've got your work cut out for you...

McDaddyo said...

Excellent analysis Kingo P. You're analysis of the GOP formula for winning elections is a bullseye, but your mistake is to believe that the Democrats can mimic that success, even if they wanted to.

The Dems have no Rush Limbaugh and no Fox News or Sinclair Broadcasting etc. and probably never will. In fact, by 2008 right-wing ownership of the media could well be DOUBLE what it is today. The right-wing mudball machine works only because of the massive media echo chamber that bounces their bumper sticker ideas from the RNC "Talking Points Memo" to Rush, to Fox to CNN and, eventually to the network news anchors.

Once the RNC talking points have bounced around the Rush-Fox-CNN echo chamber a while, the major metropolitan dailies essentially have no choice but to report that John Kerry is suffering under the Swift Boat allegations, for example. Why do you think the flimsy as cardboard Swift Boat story stuck on Kerry, whereas the plain history that Bush ducked out of the Vietnam war slid right off the president's draft-dodging back?

The Dems tried everything imaginable to make the National Guard ne'er do well label stick to Bush, but the right has too firm a grip on the media echo chamber.

Nor will the Democrats ever have a candidate more susceptible to character assassination than Bush, a demonstrably lazy, slow-thinking, hypocritical puppet of plutocrats and religious extremists.

The man was a president's son who never filled out a job application, dodged the draft, snorted cocaine, got popped for drunk driving, failed at his father's business then got out of his own before it failed and had a sensationally mediocre academic career. If the Democrats couldn't make a kick me sign stick on this guy's back, how in the world can they expect to punk a Bill Frist, let alone a John McCain or a Rudy Giuliani?

No, I fear the Democrats are another election loss away from a rebirth. The war in Iraq and increasing right-wing control of the media are a very powerful combination.

The war in Iraq will have to get a lot worse SIMULTANEOUSLY with a
economic decline for the Democrats to have any hope. If the war gets better but the economy goes south, the GOP propaganda machine will keep the focus on the war, keep people scared or maybe even start another war in Syria, Iran or Sudan.

If the war gets worse, but economic growth picks up, the GOP will have no problem getting the mainstream media to keep a Bushonomics Miracle Revival story on the front page, pushing the war and its casualties back to page 17b under the fold. (Remember Reagan's "miracle economic boom.'' By almost every economic indicator, the economy performed worse under Reagan than under any other post World War II administration.

It's not that I find the high road so much more appealing, it's just that I think sticking to the issues and being tougher within the party about making people take courageous stands is the only realistic option.

That's definitely a long term strategy, versus the hope that we can do to their next guy what they did to Kerry, but it's success would be longer lasting as well.