How The Democrats Could Win

At the risk of helping the opposition, it is an interesting thought experiment to see what I’d do if I were advising the Democrats for 2004. (First thing I’d do – start drinking heavily…) The situation for the Democrats is dire. There’s no clear frontrunner. There’s little consensus on anything but the need to win. There’s no clear vision for the party. More succinctly, the Dems are in trouble.

So, if the goal is to make the Democrats a contender in 2004, what can be done?

1. Make "Bush" a four-letter word
No Democratic candidate will be allowed to mention the words "Bush" or "George W. Bush". If he must be mentioned, it will be as "the President". This isn’t just for respect, but also because it makes him an abstraction. People vote for other people, not abstractions. Furthermore, it means that the Democrats can’t run on being against his agenda. They have to stand for something else, or they’ll lose – badly. Which leads us to:

2. It’s the economy stupid – unless it isn’t
The Democrats are running on Bush’s mishandling of the economic record, which is a charge that plays well to the Democratic base and some potential Democratic voters. However, they cannot depend on the economy being bad in 2004. It could well be, but if it isn’t, campaign issue #1 goes out the window. That’s why there needs to be a wide variety of economic issues that the Democrats can use as their own.

Running against the tax cuts is suicide, plain and simple. Any candidate dumb enough to propose a cut in Bush’s current cuts, or raise the issue of tax increases is a candidate that is sure to lose. (See Mondale, Walter.) Instead, it’s better to talk about "shifting" the tax cuts. Argue that a Democratic tax plan would lower taxes on the "working class". At the same time, Democrats need to aggressively court small businesses with an economic package that appeals to them. Small business is the lifeblood of America’s economy, and Democrats need to listen more closely to their needs.

3. Go with the flow on national security
The Iraq war is over. There’s no point in dredging it up anymore. Over half of the American people don’t care if WMDs are found or not. (According to a USA Today/CNN poll released this week.) Even among those who do, few of them believe that Bush decieved anyone about Iraq’s threat. Those who do think Bush is a liar are strongly likely to vote Democratic anyway. Any recall of the war is going to boost Bush’s numbers, which is why Clinton avoided foreign affairs like the plague in 1992. He knew that he couldn’t defeat Bush 41 on foreign issues, so he attacked where he was weakest.

The Democrats would be best to hope that the war on terrorism works, and that terrorism recedes as a major fear in the American electorate’s consciousness. If terrorism becomes the key issue, Democrats lose.

Democrats should talk about the need for international consensus and strengthening homeland security by empowering local agencies (which they have done). Otherwise, it’s best to simply let the issue sit for as long as possible.

4. Play to the center
The Democrats have learned the wrong lessons from 2000 and 2002. They didn’t lose those elections because they were insufficiently liberal. They lost because they failed to capture the center. As I have always stated, the voters are in the center. The people who lean Democratic and are going to be swayed by a member of the "Democratic wing of the Democratic Party" are going to vote Democratic regardless. Meanwhile, every member of the independent wing of the Democratic Party or the (relatively) conservative wing of the Democratic Party will either jump ship to Bush or stay home.

Liberals do not win elections. Centrists do.

A centrist Democrat doesn’t have to abandon liberal principles (as much as I’d like them to). Instead, they have to sell liberal principles to the general public. Bush managed to sell "compassionate conservativism" to the public – now the Democrats have to sell "responsible liberalism". Politics is often like a game of chess, those who capture the center control the game. The Democrats must capture the center, or the fight will be over largely before it started.

5. Find a vision.
The Democrats have no vision for 2004. There’s no key Democratic issue that doesn’t involve invoking the dreaded B-word. That doesn’t win you elections. The Democrats need to start carving out issues now, or the Bush machine will steamroll them out of the gate. The Bush Administration has lost momentum on education, on Social Security, and on Medicare. The Democrats need to take those issues now. The Democrats need to return Social Security as a major issue, as that’s one of the few balls that have been dropped. Gephardt’s health care plan is one of the few examples of Democrats seizing the initiative and acting like a responsible opposition party. (Even though Gephardt’s plan was a bad one, the mere presence and touting of a plan can work for political purposes.)

Elections are primarily about two things: appearances and ideas. As much as it pains Democrats to admit, Bush appears to be affable and dependable to a majority of voters. The Democrats cannot hope to win by demonizing the President. Instead they have to build their own image as being even more affable, even more dependable, and they have to do this to sell an agenda with substance. If they fail at any of these, they will be unlikely to win the election. Even if they suceed, they may still lose by the small margin, but at least they’ll have mounted a real challenge to Bush.

2 thoughts on “How The Democrats Could Win

  1. “At the risk of helping the opposition, it is an interesting thought experiment to see what I’d do if I were advising the Democrats for 2004”

    Have no fear. They won’t (or can’t) make that many changes in time. Their leftward momentum has been building up for too long; their psychopathic hatred for all things Bush can’t be cured in time. They are in denial about both of these two self-destructive elements, fueled as they are by Hollywood and the major media, whom they believe represent popular opinion. Did I hear someone say “Dynasty”?

  2. You make a couple reasonable points. The Dems only chance to win is by fielding a candidate perceived as a “moderate.” A moderate head of state is always preferable to an ideologue. Although I personally admire Paul Wellstone and Ralph Nader and am eternally grateful for their desperately-needed presence in the political system, I would prefer a President from the Bill Clinton cloth who can operate from the center where less damage is likely to be done. With that said, the fringe right can do more damage in four years than the fringe left could in 40 years, as the Bush regime proves everyday.

    The economy could very well improve by next year, but keep in mind the job market (which is the last place a bad economy sees improvement) is still likely to be shedding jobs in November 2004 even if the economic growth indicators start going up tomorrow. The 1990-91 recession was statistically over at this point in 1991, but 18 months later, Clinton was still able to make the bad economy a winning issue because the upturn was not yet felt on Main Street. Furthermore, Bush 43’s method of “stimulus” is likely to be an even worse approach than his dad’s doing nothing. There is no chance that his latest tax giveaway in its present package will contribute to any economic stimulus. It can only stymie a recovery in the works by forcing otherwise unnecessary interest rate hikes.

    Ideally, the media (and the gracious contributions of administration hacks like Paul Wolfowitz) will make the Dems job of exposing Bush as the traitorous liar he is by keeping the heat on the manufactured evidence he used to justify war. As shallow and the American public is, a consistent spotlight on a President lying to justify starting a war will eventually get to some people. But you’re right that the Dems won’t be able to get away with the finger-pointing themselves.

    Similarly, the tax cut issue is also likely to resonate with a few more people in 2004 than 1984 because the consequences of 1984 are hard to dispute. Bush’s attempts to replicate those ruinous years are not playing very well, with only 32 percent of Americans favoring current tax cuts. With these tax cuts geared almost exclusively to millionaire investors, the Dems could have a shot at calling for their revokation with the budget being what it is and so few people seeing anything personally from their childrens’ money being doled out.

    As for the Gephardt health plan, it has its flaws but is considerably more conducive to a better America than anything Bush is proposing. In fact, revoking the tax cut and funneling the money into corporate tax breaks designated for health care funding seems to be a twofold recipe for long-term economic solvency. It makes universal health care ultimately free to business interests, and it lifts the ever-increasing health care cost burden off of business, a current cost of business that is fast spiraling out of control and showing no signs of retreat. Just like the deficit, Republicans are content to ignore the rising costs of health care and how it, and perennial deficits, threaten to bankrupt the country long before Social Security gets the chance to.

    Ultimately, any proactive agenda the Dems embrace must include revokation of budget-busting tax cuts. Politically popular or not, the country is handcuffed under current tax policy, which is exactly the way George Bush wants it. It wouldn’t hurt for the Dems to spell that out to Americans as well….his attempts to tax cut and military-spend the country bankrupt isn’t the product of numerical and strategical incompetence, it’s a calculated plot to bankrupt all the social spending that they, their children, their neighbors, and their parents depend upon. The politics of fear often sells, and when going up against ruthless slime of this caliber, rightfully so.

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