Intention and Accidents

At the Lunch Buffet, I noted that Molly Ball of The Atlantic had done another one of the periodic efforts to contrast Republican “rebranding” or “renewal” discussions with those Democrats went through in the 80s and 90s (though some would start earlier, particularly those tuned in to the role of the Washington Monthly and other intellectual and media elites in that process). I didn’t make too big a deal over Ball’s piece because it’s a familiar story, and one that I wrote up myself back in November.

But at TAP Paul Waldman came at the issue from a different and very useful perspective, one that would probably be congenial to all those political scientists who think us gabbers and ideologues invariably overemphasize the role of words and ideas in politics. A sample:

I think the degree to which political success comes from the public agreeing with you on issues is being dramatically overstated. If you look at the ups and downs of the parties over the last 20 years, a couple of other factors—timing, and what your opponents do—matter a whole lot more.

Let’s quickly run over this history, starting with the Democrats’ first revival, with the election of Bill Clinton in 1992. Was it important that Clinton was a centrist Democrat who sought to neutralize the party’s electoral problems on being seen by white voters as too solicitous of black people and too soft on crime? Sure. But had the country not been in a recession in 1992, that wouldn’t have been enough. And if that was a Democratic revival that went beyond one guy getting elected, it didn’t last very long; two years later, Republicans took over both houses of Congress.

That brings us to the opposition factor. After the Gingrich Revolution, voters got to see the new version of the Republican party, and they were completely turned off. In 1996, Clinton ran one ad after another featuring pictures of Bob Dole and Newt Gingrich together to taint Dole with the stain of the unpopular House Speaker. But what got him re-elected, more than anything else, was the humming economy. We could argue about how much credit he deserved for it, but the importance it had was undeniable, and it wasn’t a judgment voters were making about his New Democrat philosophy that got him a second term.

Then four years later, despite all that New Democrat repositioning, George W. Bush gets elected and the Democratic Party is back in the toilet. And what brought them back? Was it yet another repositioning? Nope. It was George W. Bush. The abysmal failure of his presidency was what allowed Democrats to win back both houses of Congress in 2006. Then in 2008, Barack Obama got elected because of both a continued rejection of Bush and the economic meltdown.

Now I would agree with a lot of this analysis, though I don’t think those who appreciate “party renewal” efforts can much be accused of ignoring the opposition; in a two-party system any sort of deliberate course of action is inherently dialectical, and seeks to exploit and even promote weaknesses in the other party. That’s what strategy is all about. I’d also warn against treating external conditions that affect politics–economic trends and wars, for example–as bolts from the blue. The general economic conditions of the country, and arguably the housing and financial meltdowns, in 2008 were predictable consequences of conservative policies, as were the events in Iraq and in New Orleans, to cite two factors often identified as key contributors to the collapse of support for George W. Bush. And maybe Bill Clinton or New Democrats didn’t deserve overwhelming credit for the economic boom of the late 1990s, but they certainly didn’t do anything to get in its way.

Beyond that, though, of course political party strategists have to deal with circumstances beyond their control and understand the limitations of ideology, rhetoric or even discrete public policies in changing election outcomes. But the area where intentions matter, however small, is precisely where it’s important to get things right. For a long time Democrats implicitly believed that it was true risky to try anything new to win voters that might unsettle the New Deal Coalition; better to wait for the right year and the right candidate for president and then get back to governing, which is what progressives did best anyway. The same psychology is at work among Republicans today, which is why they are forever blaming everything other than their governing philosophy for electoral setbacks.

A lot of them might well agree with one of Waldman’s arguments for underplaying “issues:”

Right now the Republicans are indeed grossly out of step with the public on issues. But they were just as out of step in 2010, when they won a huge victory in the midterm elections.

There were, of course, reasons for that which weren’t just accidents. To cite one that I talk about all the time: Over the latter part of the last decade, Republicans became very closely aligned with the views, fears and aspirations of older white voters, who have always been significantly more likely to show up for midterm elections. 2010 was going to be a better year for the GOP than 2008 no matter what happened in the interval, just as 2012 was going to be a better year than 2010 for Democrats whether or not Republicans “overinterpreted” their midterm victory or nominated a bad presidential candidate.

Now if you are a political strategist, you can treat phenomena like midterm and presidential turnout patterns as external conditions no one can do anything about, and just keep on keeping on until the stars align, or you can try to influence them or at least intelligently operate within them to maximize the odds of success.

There is not, therefore, some simple choice between believing a party renewal effort can solve every political problem, and gritting one’s teeth and refusing to change anything until victory finally occurs. Progressives have an easier time accepting the need for constant renewal; that, after all, is part of what it means to be “progressive.” And today’s conservatives, who are increasingly wedded to a rigid, timeless concept of “correct” policies and even cultural values, have to try harder. I don’t think they’re serious about it just yet (with a few honorable if politically weak exceptions), and the odds of a pretty good midterm outcome in 2014 will probably delay renewal even longer.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.