galston and kamarck, revisited

GALSTON AND KAMARCK, REVISITED….Last week, Kevin posted a tough critique of the Galston/Kamarck paper on polarization, and was, predictably, chastised for not being tough enough. In response, he wrote another item that defended the paper without actually saying so. You can read a more straight-forwardly positive take on Galston/Kamarck in David Broder’s column this morning. And I’d like to offer a quick defense of my own to one of the most common complaints about their analysis.

When Galston and Kamarck are derided for allegedly trying to move the Democratic Party to the center (or even, some seem to charge, the far-right), what their critics are referring to is this particular Democratic delusion the two attack: “The myth of prescription drugs is shorthand for the theory that the Party can win national elections by avoiding cultural issues, downplaying national security, and changing the subject to domestic issues such as health care, education, and job security in the post-9/11 world.”

It’s important to note that they do not–nor do most Democratic critics–suggest that the party should forget about domestic issues, nor do they deny that Democratic positions on these issues closely match voter concerns. What they identify and acknowledge, however, is that that doesn’t seem to be enough. That’s not a guess; it’s the result of election after election in which Democrats focus almost exclusively on health care, jobs, and the environment…and then lose.

The conclusion in many liberal circles seems to be: We just need to talk about those issues more. Voters don’t seem to realize what our positions are. No, voters know damn well what you stand for. They simply aren’t listening to you because you haven’t satisfied their initial conditions: credibility on national security and on culture. It doesn’t matter that you’d prefer to talk about domestic issues. If you can’t pass the threshold of convincing them that you can be trusted on those other two fronts, they’re not going to listen to a word you say about the other stuff.

This doesn’t mean Democrats have to make their campaigns all about national security and culture. Far from it. But they do need to suck it up and accept something Republicans realized a long time ago: You can’t tell Americans they must care about what you want to discuss; you must discuss what they care about. Now, within those broad areas (national security, culture, domestic policy), it’s possible to direct voters toward the specific issues you want high on the agenda, and Republicans have done this brilliantly. But that only works if you have some credibility and have proven that you understand they’re rattled about whether the country is safe and how the culture affects them. Satisfy conditions A and B and then you get to talk about issue C until the cows come home.