The Road Back, Part II

The Road Back, Part II…We wrote Off Center to try and understand not just why the GOP has risen to power, but also why a very conservative elite has been able to advance its radical agenda while so effectively evading political accountability.

(Note that we say ?advance a radical agenda,? not fulfill it. As we will explain in our next post, we think that Republicans have gotten considerably further than Kevin suggests below. But the puzzling fact isn?t that Republicans have achieved every element of a ?movement conservative? agenda. It?s that they have gotten as far as they have, given the contours of public opinion and the slimness of their margins.)

We won?t hide that our own politics are progressive. Yet our book is aimed at small ?d? democrats rather than capital ?D? Democrats. Wanting a government that, at least in broad terms, responds to the concerns and aspirations of the vast middle of the American electorate is simply not a partisan position.

But the book is partisan in one clear sense. We think the severe erosion of accountability in American politics is closely associated with Republican rule. An emphatic defeat for today?s governing party is a prerequisite for healing American democracy.

(Rather than crowd the page with a long discussion, we?ve chosen to put the rest of this post ?below the fold.? Please do read on.)

The dream of Democrats is to watch the GOP experience what happened to them in 1994. Two years of unified Democratic control, combined with some highly visible political failures, mobilized opponents, demoralized supporters, and swept the GOP into office. In a reversal that casts in stark relief today?s ?leave-no-incumbent-behind? elections, the Democrats lost 54 seats in the House, 8 in the Senate?and control of both chambers.

We?ve argued that the path for Democrats is more rocky now?even though the GOP has a highly vulnerable record and there?s abundant evidence that their governing priorities have been out of step with public opinion. In addition to factors already mentioned, it must be remembered that 1994 was the year in which time finally caught up with many Democrats who found themselves in highly vulnerable seats as a result of the long, slow realignment of the South (see Kevin’s good post on this). In 1994, there was a lot of low-hanging fruit. Leaving aside the Rick Santorums, the fruit isn?t hanging as low for Democrats today.

But 1994 still provides an important lesson. A crucial factor in 1994 was that the elections became nationalized. Many Democrats had long survived by following Tip O?Neil?s old dictum of keeping politics local. When the 1994 election became a referendum on the governing party, dozens of them lost. If voters are deciding how much they like their own representatives, incumbents remain heavily advantaged. If they are deciding how they feel about what the current GOP-dominated government is doing, Republican incumbents are in trouble. Democrats need to do everything possible to make sure people are asking the latter question?to nationalize the election, and to nationalize it on terms that replicate the uneven mobilization that occurred in 1994.

Much of this is genuinely beyond Democrats? control, and again, the GOP retains a significantly greater capacity to set the agenda. But there are at least three things that Democrats can do.

First, stay together. We?re well aware of the fissures within the Democratic Party, but to nationalize the election, Democrats have to put aside their differences in pursuit of a common goal. After all, even the lowest common denominator of their collective aims stands absolutely no chance of becoming reality unless Republicans lose power.

Second, stay on the offensive. There?s an old adage in political science that democracy is a system in which parties lose elections. Governing parties lose when voters become dissatisfied with the direction of governance and ?throw the bums out.? This does not mean, however, that opposition parties can?t help governing parties find their way to the exit. Indeed, particularly in our fragmented political structure, relentless, repetitive highlighting of the mistakes and misdeeds of governing parties is essential.

Which leads to the third and final point: stay on a (simple) message. Democrats are desperately searching for ?new ideas,? and this is useful, indeed indispensable, if they?re to govern effectively. But policy blueprints aren?t the core of what?s needed; the core is a straightforward line of attack.

The 1994 analogy may confuse more than it helps here. In Republican mythology, Gingrich?s Contract with America was the key to the 1994 nationalization. It wasn?t. Most voters had never heard of it, and there?s scant evidence that the Contract played a major role in the 1994 outcome. The election swung because conservatives were aroused, while Democrats were divided, demoralized, and stayed home. What got Republicans into office was Democratic missteps, Republican unity, and a simple strategy of criticizing Democrats, blocking their policy agenda, and calling for a new course.

The Social Security fight suggests that Democrats can do the same. United and on the offensive, they should drive home a simple triumvirate of charges: corruption, incompetence, and unresponsiveness to the concerns of the great American middle.

Of course, this will ultimately mean some degree of agreement on a positive alternative?on a shared vision of what America is and what American government should be doing to make America better. We?re not in a position to lay out the policy specifics of that vision here, and, as we have said, we don?t think a policy blueprint is what?s needed. But it seems clear to us that one part of this vision has to be an evocative argument on pocketbook issues. (One of us, Jacob, is working on developing such an argument?providing economic security to expand economic opportunity?but we?ll leave the policy discussion to other forums.)

Now, we’ll get cracking on responding to Kevin?s thoughtful challenge.