Saturday, July 16, 2011

Seizing Difference or Having Difference Thrust Upon Him: President Obama and Democratic Strategy

For SC and NEP
I'm not an Obama hater, but this from Krugman was so startlingly true it made me laugh: "It looks from here as if the president’s idea of how to bargain is to start by negotiating with himself, making pre-emptive concessions, then pursue a second round of negotiation with the G.O.P., leading to further concessions."
Since the early 1990s (at least), the Democratic leadership has had some success in stealing Republican initiatives and making them their own. For President Clinton, it was welfare reform. Currently, President Obama seems to be trying to take deficit reduction and spending cuts from the Tea Party. There's no doubting the political advantage to stealing an issue that has galvanized your opposition. However, snatching the rug out from under your opponents and making it your cape is not the only strategy. In fact, I would say it is best as a short-term strategy and what the Dems lack is a long-term one. Hence, they lost their majority in the blink of an eye. (Let's not forget, the Democrats--fractured though they were by region--controlled the Congress from the 1950s to the Gingrich-led revolution of 1992. Why do Congressional majorities shift so frequently now?)
Think back to 2004. Remember all the excitement around Howard Dean before the infamous post-primary press conference where he somehow mixed "Yeah," "Yee-haw," and "Ow" in an over-inflated show of optimism? The excitement Dean generated came from the clear alternative he offered to the sitting President--one who, we should remember, won the office by the narrowest of margins (and that's a generous interpretation). As the Democrats struggled to find a military candidate to steal President Bush's war mantle, they eventually settled on John Kerry. Most of us recall him--with some help from late-night television--as a dry and boring senator. However, what I would say was most boring about him was not his demeanor but his political unoriginality. 
I remember watching one of the debates and hearing Kerry say, repeatedly "President Bush is right..." or "I agree with the President..." My question, at that point, was simple: Then why should I vote for you to replace him? It's difficult enough to unseat an incumbent; drawing only faint contrasts can't improve the odds. (Kindly correct me if a candidate has ever taken an office by vowing to do the same things as an opponent who is still living).
Kerry's copycat strategy had appeared before in 2000 when candidate Gore said that he supports the death penalty despite the fact that its application is notoriously  in thrall to racist fear, the capacity to buy an excellent defense team, and judicial caprice.  Krugman's point above helps us to see the unnecessary "pre-emptive concessions" made by politicians who seem to have taken themselves hostage. It makes me laugh, but then it makes me want to tear my hair out.
The problem for the Democrats is that over the last two decades, they have lost their distinction. Sure, maybe you lose in 2004 running Howard Dean (let's pretend he didn't let out that barbaric yawp). But they are in a much stronger position when everything starts going to hell during Bush's second term: Katrina and its aftermath, the war casualties, the economy. As it is, yes, they made strides in gaining seats in 2006 and '08, but the House majorities disappeared as quickly as they came. Waiting for the other team to screw up while being too timid to do anything that might make your team stand out: its the mode of contemporary Dem strategy, but I can't say it seems all that effective.
Candidate Obama, I would venture, leapt to prominence precisely because of how different people thought he would be from President Bush or--for that matter--from a second president from the Clinton family. Even though he started to moderate his opposition to the Iraq War, his stance on gay marriage, and his commitment to social justice, there was still the hope that the freshman senator from Illinois was still, underneath it all, the man who voted against the Iraq War, calling it "a stupid war." 
What the Democrats have lost at an alarming rate since 2008 (2007, really) is their distinctiveness, the sense that voters know what they will get from Democrats and know that it will be different from what the Republicans offer. And this was the real cause of 2010's "enthusiasm gap" between Dems and Repubs. Most of the President's largest constituencies thought of him as timid, ineffective, or (at worst) dishonest. There may have been mitigating factors (certainly he could not have done everything we wished). But he let the distinctiveness of his public image wilt. He didn't project the fire of an FDR or even Clinton's ability to get out in front of nearly every issue. He allowed himself to look, suddenly, like everybody else. And the penalty for that was sure to be greater for the first (self-identified) black President on whom very high hopes rested.
Occasionally, stark differences lose elections. Had an election been held immediately after 9/11, Republicans would have cleaned up behind a popular wartime President. But, in the long run, hewing close to certain core principles makes a party a recognizable and appealing alternative when a clear contrast can be drawn with the party currently in power.

It seems to me that, in their own strange way, the Republicans have done just that. As extreme as some think the Tea Party is, they do have a clear set of principles. And when public opinion turned against President Obama and the Democratic majorities in Congress, they were there to reap the benefits. Can you imagine them offering to compromise on the matter of cuts to social services? Military spending? Christian values? The Sanctity of Marriage between one man and one woman?  
The Democrats could learn something from this. As the Mormon commercial used to extol: Being different is being great. 
Voting is about perceiving differences. And when there aren't any, then people will invent them to help them make a choice. So, candidates and parties are going to be distinguished from one another. The question is whether or not the Dems will take some leadership in defining how they differ or they will simply allow opponents or arbitrary time to thrust difference upon them.

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