Why do Democrats keep losing?


2:40 am - November 2nd 2008

by Sunny Hundal    


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The outcome may look inevitable going by the polls, but this election is still very much up in the air for the simple reason that while the Democrats have done much to deal with past mistakes – they haven’t gone far enough.

There is still enough anticipation and fear that the Republicans will try and spring a last minute surprise to snatch the election from the jaws of defeat. This betrays the real the real dynamic of American politics in my view: that Republicans will play dirty if necessary to win, while Democrats hope that they don’t do badly enough to lose.

The Obama campaign has pointedly tried to avoid making some of the mistakes of the past.

The first is logistics. The Democrat Achilles Heel has always been a mixture of low voter registration, low turnout and a lack of funds to compete with the Republican voter mobilisation machine. By raising an immense amount of money online and then using that to register new voters and establish field offices – this has finally been rectified. Already, plans are afoot to build the biggest GOTV (get-out-the-vote) programme in Democratic history. It doesn’t come cheap but for the Democrats its vital.

Across safe states such as California, Illinois and New York, thousands of volunteers make calls to neighbouring swing states such as Nevada, Colorado, Ohio, Pennsylvania to convince swing voters to vote for Obama, while constantly reminding supporters to go out and early vote. This weekend hundreds of Californians even drove to Nevada to knock on doors and offer information about local voting places. Unsurprisingly, early voting in these swing states has favoured Obama.

The money and ground-operations are only part of the jigsaw. The Democrats are also building a somewhat sophisticated database of potential supporters for the first time to catch up with what Karl Rove built years ago. It goes without saying that this vital voter information will be valuable to Democrats for decades to come and is being built only because they finally have the resources to build it.

The second is narrative building. One of Obama’s key successes has been to focus tightly on building a narrative about himself, set against his opponent, that the latter have found difficult to overcome. Hillary Clinton found herself cast as the establishment candidate before she realised what a danger that was, while McCain has done a fantastic job himself of lurching around with fake initiatives and painting himself as unsteady in times of crisis. While Obama’s message of tying McSame to Bush has remained consistently on target, McCain jumped around with different attack lines that have given out confusing signals.

Twice, danger did appear on the horizon. Obama was first threatened by Hillary when she pounced on the “elitist” tag (but was unable to translate that into big primary victories) and secondly by McCain when he was being painted as the “worldwide superstar” (which fell by the wayside when Palin was selected). Neither of his opponents have defined him in the way he has managed to define them.

For Democrats this is key because they have been obsessed by polls more than trying to build an enduring story about their candidacy. The only Democrat in recent times who got this was Bill Clinton, while it was the mistake that brought down John Kerry and Al Gore – being defined before they had the opportunity themselves.

The third is about aggression and this is where the Democrats still lag far behind. In the past months the Republicans have generated a huge amount of ‘Robo-call slime‘ that make outrageous and completely false insinuations – so much so that even Karl Rove admitted at one point that McCain had gone too far. This week in Indiana, where robo-calls are not allowed, around three dozen employees walked off their jobs than make lying calls attacking Obama.

For a whole host of reasons, articulated well by Ari Berman, outside organisations that were expected to launch brutal negative attacks on Obama have not yet materialised – forcing McCain go on the offensive himself. And now as really desperate times loom his campaign manager has indicated they will pull out the Reverend Wright card despite earlier saying it was off limits.

My point is simple: the Democratic Party has lost any sign of aggression to fight with the courage of its convictions, to the point that neither Gore nor Kerry did much to deflect the voting fraud or the ‘Swift-boat’ attacks. Similarly, Obama had to maintain his cool demeanour and not come across as the stereotypical Angry Black Man more than McCain did. But while Obama/Biden went out of their way not to personally attack Sarah Palin, the Republican ticket went overboard with comments such as “palling around with terrorists” without much justification.

If Republicans display mock outrage when attacked, Democrats retreat in haste and apologise. But Republicans will generate the most outrageous controversies (“lipstick on a pig”, twisting Biden’s comments, inflating Acorn’s impact) and Democrats have little to say other than hope the public doesn’t buy those charges.

It may be that Obama’s enduring argument – that America faces challenges too tough to be simply about so-called “domestic terrorists” and whether he has been lying about his birth certificate – will prevail in the end. And there’s no doubt if the economic crash hadn’t happened the polls would be much tighter.

But that still misses the point: why is it always Democrats scared about what Republicans will smear them with and not the other way around? What do you do when you call someone to get their vote and they scream down the phone that Obama wants to “kill little babies” without pausing to consider his stance on abortion?

Progressives / liberals / lefties may like to think that politics is simply about ideals and ideas. But Barack Obama has shown that the only way to win is by combining it with a strong dose of strategy. To seal the deal this time and in future elections they need that final element: aggression and passion. Without that, they will always end up fighting Republicans on their own turf and losing.

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About the author
Sunny Hundal is editor of LC. Also: on Twitter, at Pickled Politics and Guardian CIF.
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Story Filed Under: Blog ,Foreign affairs ,United States

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Reader comments


What do you do when you call someone to get their vote and they scream down the phone that Obama wants to “kill little babies” without pausing to consider his stance on abortion?

You hang up the phone and try another number?

So basically you’re saying Obama has got it right but his party hasn’t got the memo? Hmm, I’m not so sure. Reading the diaries on Daily Kos and the analysis on HuffPo seems to me that they are fighting hard this year. Think about all the Obama volunteers, phonebankers, GOTVers, and small-donors.

“For Democrats this is key because they have been obsessed by polls more than trying to build an enduring story about their candidacy” I think that is clearly not the case with Obama himself. And in hindsight, for more than just avoiding the tags of being “angry”, I think his decision to play it cool and not destroy his opponents when it would be so easy to do, has made him look much more presidential in the eyes of the American people.

http://www.thenation.com/doc/20081110/berman

“unlike the timid Kerry campaign (which didn’t initially hit back hard against SBVT), the Obama campaign has aggressively countered the attacks, urging TV stations not to run them, challenging the legality of certain organizations, debunking false charges on the website FightTheSmears.com and launching response ads of its own. Obama’s ability to shape the political landscape–through an unprecedented amount of money and a sophisticated organization–has forced the McCain campaign and the Republican National Committee to carry out the dirty work themselves, risking a significant public backlash.”

2000 was a slap in the face. 2004 was a kick while we were down. 2008…. to be determined. If Democrats are in any way complacent, I really believe that the republicans will win the election. Obama hasn’t been elected yet. There’s a danger in getting too caught up in all the press about it being a fait accompli. Unfortunately, Democrats have such a strong tendency to talk big and act little. If it happens again this time, well, that will be sad. But they only have one group to blame if it does: themselves.

2000 was a slap in the face. 2004 was a kick while we were down. 2008…. to be determined. If Democrats are in any way complacent, I really believe that the republicans will win the election. Obama hasn’t been elected yet. There’s a danger in getting too caught up in all the press about it being a fait accompli. Unfortunately, Democrats have such a strong tendency to talk big and act little. If it happens again this time, well, that will be sad. But they only have one group to blame if it does: themselves.

http://thetruthkills.wordpress.com/

I still think this analysis is fundamentally flawed as political strategy. A large part of the Republican strategy is to generate the sort of response that Sunny advocates. Your fighting fire with fire strategy misses the big thing the Dems have learnt – that so much of politics is about framing, and so much of the point of the Republican strategy is about goading the Democrats into fighting within their frame, and throwing as many news cycles as possible onto here today/gone tomorrow talking points (however trivial) with a cultural flavour, and off the Bush record and the economy. The Dems didn’t get sucked into fighting too much of 1992 or this election on the culture wars, and that was part of why the Republican attempt to do so was less successful than in 1988, 2000 or 2004. (The point of Palin was the biggest play of all to try to change the subject; the antidote was to ignore her, let the comedians and bloggers go for it, and let the voters decide for themselves on the evidence in front of their eyes, as they have).

Why do the Republicans win if the Democrats respond in the way you advocate?

Firstly, this allows a further escalation of the politics of personal destruction: after all, everybody is doing it. And there are structural reasons why the Republicans benefit from it (which doesn’t depend on the idea that they are nasty enough to do it properly). While the Republicans can suffer some blowback from potential supporters for negativity (as they are doing in this cycle), a gutter fight of that sort is more likely to put off prospective Dem voters than Rep voters (because they are more liberal; because it cuts off opportunities to eg engage younger demographics who will lean Democratic, but for whom ‘politics as usual’ is a major barrier).

But the much bigger reason is that the Republican right in particular is fundamentally interested in driving an anti-government, anti-politics message. If they can get the public into the position of thinking “I don’t like it, but they are all pretty much the same” then this serves their agenda much more than that of the progressive left, because it limits severely the possibilities of politics and government. EJ Dionne covered this well in “Why Americans Hate Politics” quite a while back. So progressives have an assymetric interest in keeping politics/government as legitimate and hopeful endeavours. The right much less so. You risk throwing that away.

I don’t anyway buy the idea that this is a winning electoral strategy. (It isn’t working so well for the right, and it suits them a lot better). If we look at the UK, the progressives have done well only at moments of hope and optimism (1906, 1945, 1966, 1997) and have always done worst in a pessimistic, angry moments or moods (1930s, 1980s). Much the same is true of the US. But, if it did work, it would make it much more difficult to govern effectively for progressive purposes, especially in a system like the US. It would lose in my view, but any victories would be pyhrric.

There is a legitimate politics (on both sides) of tough attacks and scrutiny. There is a legitimate progressive ‘fear’ politics – for example, demonstrating the consequences or implications of a particular policy or philosophical agenda for voters (eg social security, public spending). But fighting fire with fire simply destroys the possibilities of political change on which progressives depend.

(Your point that I agree with is in recognising that this sort of hyper-partisan commitment and anger is good to mobilise the base – which is very very very fired up; almost uniquely so – while candidates adopt a more inclusive strategy to build the broad coalitions needed … But that is good as long as we don’t make the category error of saying ‘why isn’t the party/the campaign as furious and fired up as the blogosphere and the 110% activists’ … there are quite different roles, which are potentially complementary IF that is recognised, and difficulties when it is not. So, yes, there is a necessary tension. But if that is recognised, the question has to be: what on earth is the problem with the Democrat campaign, the party, the movement of 2008?

… I don’t really understand the idea that the Dems could have had a different strategy to be in a fundamentally different or better place than the one they are in. It seems to me to be rooted in a ‘why doesn’t everybody agree with us’ instinct.

Sunder almost touches on the important point.

This analysis is flawed because it is based on the false premise that the parties exist in the same way as they do elsewhere.

Every presidential bid is essentially built from scratch and the party platform is hardly any more than a vehicle for certain interests in a similar way to which the Whigs and Tories were a couple of centuries ago in this country.

What is interesting is that electoral necessity is gradually forcing a restructuring of the party organisation into something more coherent which is starting to create practical political legacies, though I doubt we shall see the full membership model adopted any time hence.

What Sunder said

This is a good — and important — debate.
I think Sunder makes some good points about the dangers of not being careful about how one does what Sunny urges. BUT I think nevertheless that what Sunny urges is what is needed.
Sunder mentions the 1930s: Hang on a minute, progressives were pretty successful in the States in the 1930s! Remember the New Deal, anyone? … Roosevelt harnessed popular anger brilliantly. Check out the excerpts from Roosevelt’s speeches in Drew Westen’s THE POLITICAL BRAIN — the book that more than any other backs up Sunny’s analysis.
The same anger is needed now: anger against the injustice of socialism for the rich and barbarism for the poor; and anger at the Republicans’ smears and lies. Firm rebuttal, drawing attention to how this stains McCain – and THEN always switching the topic back to finance, the economy, the environment, etc.


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