November 4, 2004


What Happened? (New Dem Daily, 11/04/04)

The dynamics of this campaign have confirmed beyond a shadow of a doubt that Democrats suffer from three persistent "trust gaps" in our message.

The first "trust gap" was on national security, which became a crucial issue after 9/11, and will remain so for the foreseeable future. Kerry tried very hard to close this gap, and refused to accept the advice of those who suggested he simply concede the issue to Bush (which would have expanded the gap to catastrophic dimensions). But while he convinced Americans we would be smarter on national security, he could not overcome the party's reputation for being weaker, and that was a deal-breaker for many voters who didn't want to take any chances with their security. In other words, Bush didn't pay the ultimate price for his foreign policy failures because we couldn't put to rest doubts about Democrats.

The second obvious problem for Democrats was a "reform gap." Having lost control of every nook and cranny of the federal government during the last two elections, Democrats were perfectly positioned to run as bold, outsider, insurgent reformers determined to change Washington, and the public was ready to embrace such a message and agenda. While Democrats did made a strong negative case against Bush, we never conveyed a positive agenda for reform. Indeed, Democrats often reinforced the idea that the GOP was the "reform" party by trying to scare voters about every bad or deceptive Republican idea for changing government programs, instead of offering our own alternatives for reform. In the end, we relied on mobilizing voters who were hostile to Bush instead of persuading voters who were ambivalent about both parties, and about government. Since Republicans did have a simple, understandable message, it was an uneven contest: message plus mobilization will beat mobilization alone every time.

The third "trust gap" that hurt Democrats was another hardy perennial: values and culture. And here the evidence of a Democratic handicap is overwhelming. As every exit poll has shown, "moral values" was the number one concern of voters on November 2 -- more than terrorism, Iraq, the economy, health care, education, or anything else. And among voters citing "moral values" as their top concern, Democrats got clobbered.

It'll surely seem like crocodile tears, but one would very much like for the Democrats to have a serious Third Way agenda and have at least a wing of the party that could be counted on to serve the nation rather than a narrow partisan agenda. The DLC was supposed to be the epicenter of such a sensible Democratic politics and when they got Bill Clinton elected it seemed they might even succeed. They were betrayed though on Hillary Care and gays in the military and then Al Gore completely turned his back on these roots and ran Left.

As for this election, it's obvious that you can't believe in such a centrist/Third way politics and support a John Kerry for president. Yet their daily mailing relentlessly criticized the President and supported the Senator's every whim and utterance, which made it awfully hard to take them seriously. Now, just one day after it ended, they inform us that their party and its nominee in this election are wrong on National Security, Entitlements, and Social Issues. What keeps them Democrats then?

Posted by Orrin Judd at November 4, 2004 7:47 PM

Well, that's the problem with being the minority party isn't it? If you're even close to "the middle" it's in your best interest to join the majority. That leaves the more ideological wing of the party in more control, which scares away more moderates, and on and on in a vicious cycle. And then you're in the cold until you reshape either the party or the nation.

Posted by: brian at November 4, 2004 8:46 PM

While Bill Clinton was a far better campaigner than John Kerry, one of the factors in his victory was that by 1992, the far left of the Democratic Party was so hungry for a win they were willing to shut up through virtually the entire campaign, and said not a peep of protest when Clinton delivered his "Sister Souljah" smackdown of Jesse Jackson. That left all the crazy uncle stories to focus on H. Ross Perot, whose behavior also helped make the Democratic nominee and those around him look calm and rational by comparison.

The question today is will it take the Democrats one more election for their lunatic fringe to clam up for an entire campaign? My guess is as long as people like Howard Dean are out there, and those like Michael Moore still don't think they're part of the party's problem, whoever emerges as the nominee in 2008 will have to deal with the ranting of the perpetually angry wing of the coalition throughout that election cycle (though if it's Hillary, I can imaging some private detective type visiting Mr. Moore in the middle of the night and persurading him not to talk by stuffing his stomach down his throat, or something else of like manner).

Posted by: John at November 4, 2004 9:37 PM

For more than just a few "Blue Dogs" to move across the aisle, they need a leader. Zell is retiring, Ben Nelson seems a bit like Mr. Peepers, and the others (Harold Ford, Bill Nelson, etc.) have ties that run deep.

If the GOP could persuade Barack to switch, though, that would be of earthquake proportions.

Posted by: jim hamlen at November 4, 2004 9:52 PM

They also need to stop using terms like "foreign policy failures" and "deceptive Republican idea" when talking about ideas and policies other than their own. Stop telling me that the other guys are bad, but why (and how) you are good. Better yet, just drop the perjorative adjectives entirely from your vocabulary for a while to force yourselves to stop thinking that way.

Posted by: Raoul Ortega at November 4, 2004 10:03 PM

When I ask Democrats what they want, they seem to fall into two categories: they hold either an unspecific desire to have power for the sake of power itself because right wing people are 'bad'(which was what Clinton's terms ended up being, and what the 'anybody but Bush' mantra essentially was), or else have a delusional and grandiose list of policies that are despised by the majority of American people - gay marriage, signing the Kyoto treaty, allowing US defense to be controlled by the UN, abolishing corporations, harvestiing toddlers for stem cells, and on and on. And yet these same left-people claim have labelled themselves the 'reality based community'.

Posted by: carter at November 4, 2004 10:52 PM

The Democrats are so dependent on insider contributions that any attempt to run as a 'reform' party is laughable, infinitely funnier than a Margaret Cho or Whoppi Goldberg performance.

Posted by: Bart at November 5, 2004 6:42 AM