BIG IDEAS….As you may have heard elsewhere, Rick Perlstein has a new pamphlet out called “The Stock Ticker and the Superjumbo,” currently available from Prickly Paradigm Press (or from Amazon). In it, he argues that Democrats need to stop their relentless effort to fine tune every campaign in an effort to attract swing voters (a stock ticker approach), and instead pick some big ideas and stick with them (a superjumbo approach). As my readers know, I’m a big fan of his biography of Barry Goldwater, Before the Storm, so I invited him to post an excerpt on the blog in order to give us a taste of what he has to say.
Here it is. I’ve edited it lightly to add first names to some of the people he quotes.
“The Stock Ticker and the Superjumbo,” by Rick Perlstein.
The Congressional losses of 1994 touched Bill Clinton’s deepest anxieties, and made him willing to weaken the institution that made him, for personal survival. Dick Morris did it the way a corporate raider would. By showing indifference to any stakeholder but the swing voter, he gladly risked the loyalty of those who had been willing to stick with the institution through thick and thin. “The fact that it would anger Democrats was not a drawback but a bonus,” George Stephanopoulos recalls of Morris’s strategy ? just as angering long-term stakeholders is a bonus for a corporate manager looking to prove to Wall Street his macho bona fides. It gives the stock a goose. The only risk being, of course, the long-term health of the institution.
Political scientists, having established that party identification is the best predictor of voting behavior, need to study how many party identifiers the Democrats lost specifically as a result of this kind of thinking. They need to measure the opportunity cost of doing what Dick Morris said needed to be done to win the 1996 election and the opportunity cost of the Morris-like habits that currently saturate Bill Clinton’s party. Now that Dick Morris has been disgraced, it’s easy to laugh at him. But we all know what happens to those who laugh imperiously in parables. He lost the battle. But did his legacy of stock-ticker thinking also lose Democrats the war?
Some of the evidence is close at hand. It’s hard to identify with a party when you don’t know what it stands for or how it differs from its opponent. According to exit polls taken during the 2002 congressional elections, only 34 percent of voters thought the two parties differed on the one issue the Democratic leaders Dick Gephardt and Tom Daschle made the core of the congressional campaigns: providing prescription drugs under Medicare. Meanwhile, on another issue of widespread voter concern ? the economy, encompassing both the recent corporate scandals and mounting unemployment ? the leadership offered no coherent ideas at all. So it was that voters who rated the economy their most important issue voted Republican in House elections 52 percent to 48 percent at a time when the president presiding over the faltering economy was a Republican.
I have noted that many voters no longer remember the Democratic Party’s reputation as the institutional embodiment of the worst excesses of the 1960s. But there’s something else they don’t remember: that the Democrats were once the clear and obvious institutional embodiment of their own economic interests.
How do we know this? John Judis and Ruy Teixeira make a fascinating observation about the increasing number of voters who refuse to identify with a party: “When the new independent vote is broken down, it reveals a trend towards the Democrats in the 1990s and a clear and substantial Democratic partisan advantage. . . . once these independents are assigned the party they are closer to, Democrats enjoy a 13 percent advantage over Republicans.” They add that among the 15 most independent-rich states, ten belong to the Democrats ? big ones like Connecticut, Illinois, Michigan, and Virginia. Two of them swing. The other three are tiny.
Here’s a riddle: what is a swing voter? More and more, it is an American who thinks like a Democrat but refuses to identify as one.
…If it is true that party identification ? which, as Stan Greenberg argues, is a form of social identity that endures over the long term ? is the best predictor of voter behavior, isn’t getting this selfsame public to identify with the Democratic Party much, much more than half the solution?
So how to do it? Democrats must stop looking leaderless, fumbling, unfocused, disorganized, and confused. They must give voters something to identify with. They must no longer judge themselves sophisticated when they cancel all the old long-term dreams. They need new long-term dreams.
Ronald Reagan used to say that there are no easy answers but there are simple answers. The answer to this problem is simple, and not easy. The Democrats need to make commitments, or a network of commitments, that do not waver from election to election. If you are trying to build an institution that commands respect and power unto generations ? that can reproduce itself ? wise superjumbo projects have intrinsic value, whatever their precise content, whether they end up failing or succeeding. The investments pay off, not in immediate profit, but in the equity that comes from sweat. Because they require patience, they build fortitude. Because they require their stakeholders to take risks, they inspire an evangelical commitment to redeeming the risk. Even if they don’t succeed, they leave something behind: an institutional infrastructure, a rich network of stakeholders at multiple levels of commitment and intensity ? an institutional soul.