Steven Den Beste has another long but valuable overview of the American electoral process and why it doesn’t bode well for the Democrats in 2004. Indeed, as I’ve mentioned many, many times, I’m a big believer of Anthony Downs, who formally theorized and analyzed that the party that best captured the center of the electorate is the party that will likely win any given election.
Den Beste uses a Downsian analysis to examine the political climate and comes to this conclusion:
So 2004 will be the nadir for the Democrats. Barring extraordinary events, in 2004 the Democrats will crash and burn, and then many in the Democratic party will finally start asking whether the “Democratic Wing of the Democratic Party” is actually a liability rather than an asset, something to be isolated and frozen out instead of pandered to. Given that they, like the religious right, have nowhere else to go, it’s not even clear that the Democrats actually need to pander to them. If that happens, the Democrats may again become viable in the US.
The Republicans eventually did that to the Falwell-Robertson religious right, and that’s part of how they regained viability. But the practical effect of that was for the overall party ideology to move closer to the uncommitted American center. It wasn’t just a cosmetic change, an attempt to find a new way to deliver the same old message.
If the Democrats eventually marginalize the Tranzis, they too will move closer to the American center, from the "opposite side". If a disaster in 2004 doesn’t bring that about, they’ll suffer further disasters in 2006 and 2008 (and 2010…), and eventually they’ll make that change, and once again become competitive out of narrow self interest. For in the long run, not even leftists like being ideologically-pure losers. There’s no substitute for victory.
Indeed, having been involved in grass-roots GOP politics for years, I can attest to the fact that the religious right is still a factor, but they’re not in the driver’s seat of the party. The Republicans realized that the religious right was an electoral liability.
As Den Beste notes, the Democrats haven’t come to the same epiphany when it comes to the radical left. As much as Democrats would like to spin Howard Dean and Wesley Clark as "moderates" they are anything but. The party line of the Democratic Party is that we should never have gotten rid of Saddam Hussein, a position that instantly puts them in the minority. They argue that the US should kowtow to the UN in foreign policy – a position that is also a minority position in this country. Their economic plan is more tax and spend liberalism. Their trade policies are based on rejecting the advances in world trade made under the Clinton Administration.
In short, the Democrats appeal solely to the people who believe Bush is Hitler, John Ashcroft is the secular antichrist, the war on terror would be better served through preemptive surrender, and the way to fix the economy is by having the government run everything. In short, those are all the positions that the Democratic faithful like, but does nothing for the rest of the electorate.
Making this problem worse is the fact that the Democrats can’t elucidate alternatives to the current policy. They can call Bush "a miserable failure" but they have no plan for Iraq, for the economy, or for the war on terrorism. As I like to put it, the Democrats have a policy of petulance, and that’s all.
Negative campaigning doesn’t win elections – as Gray Davis just found out. Negative campaigning can be an effective tool, but only after a candidate has an established message and can present a positive alternative.
Democrats will argue that this is all playing to the base for the primaries, and there’s an element of truth to that argument. However, unlike prior elections, the Democrats can’t hope that what they say in the primary season will be forgotten by the general election. In an age of pervasive decentralized media, everything they say and do is a matter of easily-accessible public record.
In order to win in 2004, the Democrats would have to radically change their entire platform – which would allow the Republicans to paint them as wafflers on the issues. See what’s happening to Wesley Clark right now who’s waffled the other way to run as a Democrat for an example of this effect in action. Either the Democrats run as radicals and lose, or run as false centrists and get politically hammered.
Unless Iraq gets significantly worse (which is unlikely) or the econonmy crashes (which is even more unlikely) it seems that President Bush will get a second term, barring some kind of massive change of fortune. It is possible that he may lose of course, but the probability of that is small at this point. The Democrats are heading for electoral irrelevance in 2004, and 2002 and the California recall are harbingers of this effect.
Of course the Democrats will once again embrace the center, as parties naturally do when they go off to ideological extremes. However, given that the current Democratic platform is antithetical to the needs of the war on terrorism, the Democrats should not be surprised when they lose in 2004. Unless the Democrats come up with a candidate that can credibly claim the center, they are already marginalizing themselves with the American electorate. Given the radicalized nature of the Democratic Party, the chances of that seem slim indeed.