February 17, 2010


Obama and the State of Democrats: We ignore the lesson of 1931, 1948, 1984 and 1988 at our peril. (Vic Fingerhut, 2/17/10, In These Times)

Lost in the discussion about the unclear White House policy choices leading up to the State of the Union address was the fact that a weak White House response to the nation’s economic distress threatened the basis of Democratic electoral strength. For more than 70 years, pollsters have consistently found that the strength of the Democrats is that they represent working people, ordinary folks, the common man, middle-income Americans and so on.

Conversely, while scoring strong points on national defense, fighting terrorism and keeping taxes down, the greatest single negative for the Republicans among swing voters was that they represented Corporate America and the rich. And this sentiment is shared by 40 percent of self-identified Republicans!

In short, the strength of the Democratic Party is found in its “representational” character—in being seen as on the side of ordinary working and middle-income Americans. This may deflate the egos of the folks who staff liberal think tanks, but it is these “representational” factors—rather than perceived competence that undergird Democratic strength at the ballot box.

Thus, counter to the popular narrative, Gov. Thomas Dewey (R-N.Y.) was actually seen as more competent to be president—even by the late shifters who provided Harry Truman with his upset presidential victory in 1948. But these same voters saw Truman as the candidate of the party that represented ordinary folks, even if he was not especially skilled at governing. The result: Truman’s representational strength trumped Dewey’s perceived competence.

In 1988, 40 years later, a last-minute survey of swing voters convinced Democratic presidential candidate Mike Dukakis to jettison his disastrous “competence” message and move to a populist “which side are you on?” theme that triggered a 10-point Dukakis rally (for probably the least populist-appearing populist in the history of populism). This reduced Bush’s lead from 16 to six points, probably saving Democratic control of Congress that year.

If voters perceive that the Democratic Party is no longer representing ordinary people, it will lose not only particular elections, but its long-term underlying strength as a party. To millions of Americans, the huge bailout of the giant banks and other financial institutions contrasted sharply with what appeared to be Obama’s unclear, halting and lukewarm response to the plight of millions of economically distressed Americans. The perception that the Democrats no longer represented regular folks started to pick up steam. It didn’t help that, as late as December, when the media was daily reporting multi-billion dollar profits for these same financial institutions, the administration was advancing a plan to tax the benefits of those in the workforce fortunate enough to still have both good jobs and good health benefits.

...is demonstrate how estranged the values of the Party are from those of average Americans.

Posted by Orrin Judd at February 17, 2010 7:32 AM
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