What the Democrats Must Do to Take the White House

Considering the backlash against the Republican Party manifested in the 2006 midterm election, it would seem that the White House is the Democrats’ to lose. But lose it they might, if they squander the momentum and opportunity they have.

Dictate the Discourse
Since the election of 1994 when the Republicans swept out a decades-long Congressional reign by Democrats, Republicans, or more specifically “conservatives,” have dictated the discourse. In order not to be considered the alternative party, Democrats need to be the ones deciding what real people, the media, and Washington say, right down to the words they use. One of the strongest forces the Republicans took advantage of in determining the conversation was their polarizing radio personalities (read Shawn Hannity & Rush Limbaugh). The left has not been able to replicate an opposing force—I like to think it’s because liberals and progressives are too thoughtful and well-informed to fall for the pandering demagoguery, but I could be wrong.

However it’s done, Democrats have to take back the vocabulary of politics. “Liberal” needs to return to its meaning as one who is willing to change, take risks, find solutions where they lie, even if it’s outside the smoking lounge of the club. “Entitlements” should be saved to describe the benefits congressmen vote to retain every time lobbying reform hits the fan. Programs to aid the needy should be called such. We’re the most philanthropic nation on earth; we know it’s OK to give help to those who need it, even if they’re in our own country. But calling these “entitlements” is immediately prejudicing voters and congressmen against useful and necessary programs.

Another important point is that Democrats need to stop sounding guilty that America is the world’s superpower. Although the U.S. perpetrates a lot of economic and political abuses on the world, we also do a lot of good and can do more if the right leaders are elected. The objective is not to run away from being the biggest/richest/strongest, but to embrace it and use that size/wealth/strength to do good for other countries and to set an example in areas such as environmental protection, human rights, etc. We are a city on a hill; let’s use that visibility (which is two-way) for good.

Deal with the War in Iraq
The backpedaling has already begun. Democrats who were fiercely against the war in Iraq and calling for immediate draw-downs during the campaign are now beginning to speak more moderately about solutions, mostly because they know they don’t have the numbers in Congress to force the President’s hand. There are too many Democrats, including the oft proclaimed front-runner for the ’08 presidential candidacy, Hillary Clinton and former V.P. candidate Joseph Lieberman, who still support the war effort and eschew immediate withdrawals of troops.

The best hope for the Democrats is to embrace the Baker-Hamilton Iraq Study Group’s conclusions with oversight. This way, they show 1) they can be cooperative and bipartisan, and 2) they respect the opinions of the specialists. And, cynically, they can blame the President, who commissioned the study, if the guidelines laid out in the report don’t pan out.

An immediate withdrawal, although often discussed, is not as popular, I think, as we may be led to believe. I think most of us feel a sense of responsibility for the mess and think it’s only right that we fix it, even if we don’t want to and can’t generate any confidence in our leadership being able to actually pull it off. Elected Democrats need to understand this sentiment of obligation.

Investigate and Oversee
Democrats are frothing at the mouth at the prospect of investigating many of the decisions the Bush administration has made and extending oversight to many programs and processes that the Republican-led Congress has winked at over the past six years. However, they must take care in this endeavor; the only thing worse than a sore loser is a sore winner. Democrats should choose four or five of the best issues to pursue—those on which they are sure to win, get good political traction with the Democratic base and the independents that voted them into power in November, are value-based (wrong vs. right, not left vs. right) in order to further undermine the Republican claim to values voters, make the Republicans look incompetent and corrupt (in other words, keep in the voters’ minds those things that made the country want to “throw the bums out” in the mid-term election), and contribute to the perception of presidential potential of the party.

Leaders must take care, however, not to put their potential presidential candidates in the line of fire in these investigations and oversight hearings so as not to make them a (more) hated target of the still-numerous Hannity/Limbaugh base.

Get Things Done
Where the presidential hopefuls need to shine and the party needs to act in order to take the White House and keep its oh-so-slim majority in the two houses of Congress is in the sponsoring and passing of new, traditionally-Democratic legislation. Education, healthcare, poverty assistance (minimum wage increases and welfare reform—but not in the Gingrich sense), environmental protection, immigration reform, etc. are the bread-and-butter of the Democratic Party. We all fall into watching the war on terror on TV, but when the chips are down, our immediate concerns are our immediate needs, the problems we see on our own streets, in our own houses and families.

Genuine legislative activity will require bipartisanship, but it’s very possible. If, in Utah, the reddest state in the nation, the voters overwhelmingly vote for tax increases to fund education and infrastructure, it shouldn’t be hard to get votes from across the aisle on real human issues where the Democrats are strongest.

President Bush will threaten vetoes, but if he follows through, he will be the face a stonewalling, partisan Republican Party, sacrificing the needs of the people for politics.

In November 2008, Democrats want to have a list of real accomplishments (or attempted accomplishments that the Republican President vetoed) that matter to the center, not just to the left-wing base.

Stay in the Center
Despite their best efforts to understand the their defeat of ’06, Republicans still come up with the wrong answer: the fact that they weren’t conservative enough. Shawn Hannity, the day after the election said that the Republicans suffered losses because they had become “little Democrats.” James Dobson, founder and chairman of Focus on the Family, a conservative evangelical activist group, said in a letter to the editor of U.S. News and World Report, “The lesson of Election ’06 is that [Republicans] can’t win when they abandon conservative principles and run as Democrats.” Well, the Democrats did OK running as Democrats.

Exit polls show voters 18-30 years old voted 50% to 35% Dems vs. GOP. If Democrats can hold onto this demographic and keep them voting, the party can solidify incumbency for a long time to come (I just got scared writing that!).

The issues that ignite a fire in the bellies of “the party faithful” on both extremes are not as important to the majority of voters. Democrats in Connecticut found this out when they nominated Ned Lamont over Joe Lieberman in the Democratic primaries, then lost to him as an independent in the general election. The “majority” (what wins elections) for the most part wants a reasonable, trustworthy person in office, not an extremist or a single-issue firebrand. Democrats (or Republicans for that matter) can continue to win if they take ownership of the center.

Select the Right Candidate
I’ll get it out of the way—I really like Barak Obama. There, I said it. But that’s for another entry. Moving right along . . . the two successful strategies that have been employed recently to win presidential elections are the broad approach of Bill Clinton and the deep approach of Karl Rove. Clinton appealed to a wide spectrum of voters, including moderates and centrists. Rove, on the other hand, targeted George W. Bush’s campaigns at the Republican/conservative party-faithful and at anyone who was really angry with Bill Clinton.

The Democratic base is too fractious to pull off the Rove approach. Therefore, the candidate selected must appeal to the broad spectrum from left to middle-right (and all the Bush-haters out there). The Republicans already have center-leaning, high profile candidates in Sen. John McCain and former New York City mayor Rudy Giuliani. Unfortunately for the Republican Party, the base of the party will not allow one of these potential winners the nomination. They will instead nominate someone much farther right—and they will lose because of it.

The right Democratic candidate will be reasonable, open to ideas, personable, a consensus-builder. S/he will broker power through respect and dialogue, not through coercion, will serve the people, not disinform the people. In other words, the perfect candidate will be the anti-W. And if Bush continues in the stream he’s swimming, that may be enough for the Democrats.

The only possible wrench in the works would be if the Democrats are foolish enough to nominate a left winger. Then we could see the first viable third-party or independent candidate for President in a very long time.


Mike W. says:

Regarding the debate and how the conservatives have intentionally and effectively controlled the framing of the debate over the last 50 years, you would be interested in a book by George Lakoff entitled “don’t think of an elephant.” He describes how by so doing, conservatives have taken over the middle very effectively and have portrayed the Democrats as “whacko liberals.” The book is very interesting so far (I haven’t finished it).

Regarding the term “entitlements,” I agree it is pejorative, but what it effectively describes is a culture that has grown out of huge governmental programs that remove any motivation to make personal changes. As an idealist, I hope that Americans could take care of each other, but our dedication to acting out of self-interest and the market ideals of conservatives keep us, as a whole, from helping each other more. The federal government, however, is not effective in caring for the poor, or the sick. Programs that you discuss as being traditionally Democratic issues are issues that are also traditionally (and experientially) better taken care of at the state or even more local levels. Once we federalize the solutions, they become non-solutions because the local needs vary so widely. If the Democrats want to be truly effective, they will find a way to give power and control back to the states regarding education, healthcare, and poverty relief. This is hard for political parties and politicians to give up control of things, but only through getting smaller will government actually be able to function.

During the fall campaign, we had the pleasure of having a states-rights Democrat in our home for a cottage meeting. It was refreshing to hear a voice of compassion understand that the solutions are not going to come at a federal level.

Centrist says:

Mike, thanks for your comment. I agree that “programs for the needy” reforms must be administered locally. But I think the debate has to be pushed out from high-profile, nationally-recognized and powerful mouthpieces. All the effective changes will take place locally, but the debate needs to be a national one in order to ensure a sense of importance. Maybe some unfunded mandates would work :)?

Mike W. says:

The likelihood of having a high-profile, nationally-recognized, powerful mouthpiece state that the efforts don’t need to be made on a national level is next to zero. Rarely is one with control over a program willing to give up that control. This would have to come from a Democrat. Who can you imagine saying “We as Democrats recognize that poverty relief, health care relief, and unemployment relief need to be taken care of at the state and local level. Therefore, we are proposing to ‘end welfare as we know it’ and eiliminate the Medicare and Medicaid plans, and terminate Social Security as soon as the states have adequate programs up and running.” This action would be exceptionally noble; however it is seen as often as, well, as a politician giving up power.

I don’t see it coming from the national Democratic party. Coming from the Republicans it would be seen as heartless. Only if there were a widely-loved and respected Democratic president who would see the importance of such a move would it fly. Now is Obama that guy? I don’t think he could see that those programs belong out of the national government.

I guess a national debate is possible, but only if the national Democrats lead out; othewise it will go nowhere.

Centrist says:

Mike, thanks for the bath of cold water. I guess it will have to move the same way all the environmental progress has come out of California and the health care changes have come out of Mass. and other states (which are still being monitored for effectiveness before being adopted by most states).

The other problem is that states will be reluctant to see the Medicare/Medicaid/Social Security funding safety net disappear, even if they like and have confidence in their local programs.

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