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Pottery Barn Rule

Assuming, for the moment, that Bush's lead in Ohio holds and is real, there's a lot to say about the election, and many weeks to say it. The fact that the result seemed to end up in almost exactly the same place as four years ago should not obscure how much has changed. It's easy to condemn the Democratic Party, but there is so much that is healthier about this party and its satellites than four years ago. The development of a real small donor and activist base, a sophisticated turnout mechanism, and fundamental unity of purpose are huge achievements. They didn't quite go far enough this time.

One important thing to remember: Now Bush is fully responsible for the consequences of his mistakes. He's responsible for Iraq, he's responsible for the budget, for Medicare, etc. What Colin Powell called the Pottery Barn Rule applies: He broke them, he owns them. That's not good news for the world, because Bush wasn't competent to deal with the situation of peace and prosperity handed to him in 2001; he certainly isn't be competent to handle a mess. The dangers are profound.

But politically, it at least avoids a situation where Kerry would have borne the responsibility and blame for Iraq or for raising taxes. All accountability now rests with Bush and his party. Everything that's been swept under the carpet until after the election will come creeping out. And the best use of all the resources of people, brains, money, and coordination that's been built this year, in addition to developing a stronger base of ideas, is to find ways to hold Bush, DeLay et. al. absolutely accountable for their choices. I really believe that this will be like Nixon's second term, and thus the seeds of a bigger long-term change than could have occurred just by Kerry winning the election.

This is not a look-at-the-bright-side comment. Just a thought about what comes next.

Posted by Mark Schmitt on November 3, 2004 | Permalink


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But how did Nixon's second term lead to any long-term change in favor of the Democrats? I was not born until Nixon's first term so do not remember his second; but it seems to me like it didn't do the trick.

Posted by: Jeremy Osner | Nov 3, 2004 9:02:06 AM

Dubya's next term might become a "catastrophic success."

It pains me to say that he will get his Supreme Court Justices, and his social issues such as abortion and gay marriage and guns and praying in schools will go his way.

However these wedge issues, once off the table, will no longer give the Republicans the advantage they have been used to for the last 20 years. Democrats in non-liberal areas will be able to push the issues aside, saying that as far as they're concerned the courts have decided them and it's "the law of the land".

This will mean that once again, the election will be about economic policy and military policy and not about "moral issues".

Posted by: InsultComicDog | Nov 3, 2004 9:05:46 AM

Mark, I'm hesitant to agree with you.
As we've just seen, things can get pretty bad,
and a majority of US voters will still
not hold Bush responsible.

How bad do things have to get before the GOP
*will* be held accountable?

Posted by: Barry | Nov 3, 2004 9:43:27 AM

If Bush wins, that's perhaps the only bright spot. Though I have to wonder if it will result with anybody being held responsible. I mean, all of this was already public knowledge, that Bush is incompetent and yet, the American public (possibly) voted him in. Despite everything that was done wrong. AND voted more Republicans into Congress, which, with DeLay in charge, is defintely not going to investigate anything.

Posted by: Nate | Nov 3, 2004 9:58:33 AM

Mark, I think you're right again, and I'm beginning to feel like a sycophant for saying this so often.

I always also come back to saying that not enough people are feeling economic pain. It's pretty clear that in the very near future new voters won't come out of the woodwork to give us a good national margin. People who are just getting by economically but not quite sold on Politics or liberalism or those Democrat folk can still think that things will get better in time. But years of more wage stagnation, reduced liberties from court appointments and troubles across the oceans will make an opposition case easier.

Posted by: Crab Nebula | Nov 3, 2004 11:04:29 AM

Mark, I quite agree. The Democratic Pary did a great deal right in this election. I think larger factors were at work than technical expertise. The inevitable introspection should now NOT focus on placing blame, or even asking "what went wrong?" It should ask: "What didn't we know? And, how can we now know it?"

Posted by: Brad Rourke | Nov 3, 2004 11:08:39 AM

There are definite dangers in the next four years with the Republicans holding the executive AND legislative branches. But Kerry's campaign accomplished a lot. As Bull Moose points out at www.bullmooseblog.com, the fact that Kerry came as close to winning as he did reflects well on his efforts and those of his campaign considering he was running against an incumbent in war time. Our charge is to take the good, improve upon it, and come out fighting in 2006 and 2008.

Posted by: Jon | Nov 3, 2004 11:32:58 AM

I agree that some good things were done in this campaign and that there are positive aspects of this result. I do wonder, with Barry, what it will take for there to be 'accountability' in this media environment. Crab Nebula may well be right: more pain. But that pain can also be used to fuel just more ugly stuff (racist, militaristic etc): it is very, very worrying. My basic thought is boringly, perhaps depressingly, simple: the Dems need a candidate who is more a 'regular guy' (or can play one on TV). More precisely: it's clear the Dems need to find a way to bring more blue collar and suburban whites into the party. And that's not going to be through a change in policy per se but through presentation of policy. That's why going with more right wing policy but through the mouth of someone who seems like he could be President of Harvard (Gore, Kerry) is exactly the wrong direction. (I must admit to feeling more acutely in touch with this reaction after waving my Kerry sign in front of way too many SUVs and pick-up trucks here in Florida yesterday.)
As a Brit, by the way, I have to say that this is definitely not going to help with your European vacations...

Posted by: Dan | Nov 3, 2004 11:43:45 AM

Kerry concedes

Posted by: Dave | Nov 3, 2004 11:46:05 AM

I want to suggest one final service that John Kerry can perform for the Democratic Party and progressives: he should pursue libel actions against the Swift Boat Veterans. In doing so, he can depose them; discover their financing and media connections; and (one hopes)win judgments against them. This might make future such operations difficult. (He may be able to file in Massachusetts.)

Posted by: Bill Farrell | Nov 3, 2004 11:52:18 AM

In response to what Dan said about finding candidates who are "regular guys," one of the things the right did was to build from the ground up. They started by supporting candidates for school committee, town counsel, etc, then state legislature and so on. That way they deepened their "talent" pool. This is one of the things I really like about Dean and Democracy for America. Whether he ends up as DNC Chair or not, I believe he will be a force for good in this regard.

Posted by: The Goatherder | Nov 3, 2004 1:42:06 PM

We bought W"s dept

Prior to the election the people of the country could distance itself from the errors of this administration. But now, in the eyes of the rest of the world, the entire contry can be held accountable for everything.

Posted by: Tomtech | Nov 3, 2004 1:52:42 PM

We need strong southern candidates. Edwards should be the man for 2008. We need to get the democratic party to clear the way for him.

Because of New Hampshire, the primary system gives too much advantage to northern candidates. These candidates don't play well in the south. Kerrey was certainly better than Dukakis, but the democrats haven't won since 1960 without nominating a southerner.

Clinton showed the power of "culturally southern" democrats.

I'm catholic, so I am sad to say that democrats have got to stop nominating catholics. Protestants, especially those who can professs a strong personal relationship with god, just do better in the south and mid-west.

As to Nixon, I don't see watergate as helping the democrats over the long term. The nixon era seems to the be last time that liberal ideas could get enacted as law. Smart ideas like enviromental protection laws and stupid ideas like price controls. I'd much rather have Nixon running things than Bush II. Watergate just added to the national pessimism that bit Carter in the ass.

Looking back over things, the vietnam war really messed things up for the democratic party. It caused Johnson to bow out in 1968. It produced an anti-military orientation and problemized "patriotism" for young democrats. It put liberals on the defensive to the "new left".

The liberation movements of the sixties (Minority rights, womens rights, and the seeds of the gay rights movement) have been remarkably successful. Too the extent that they have hurt the democrats in the south that is just too bad. The liberation movements have been too valuable for the country. What isn't OK is for the democrats to give up on a culturally southern style that could get them the support of the south again.

Posted by: joe o | Nov 3, 2004 1:59:52 PM

While the Ohio saga may linger for some days, it's abundantly clear that the Democrats have suffered a devastating defeat. Bush has his mandate, the GOP owns Congress and the governorships, and the Supreme Court is only a matter of time.

Let the recriminations begin. Progressives will no doubt cite a host of factors, from Kerry's wooden personality, the unshakable flip-flopper label, the Swift Boat slanders, "voted for it before I voted against it", among others. But these are questions of tactics, not strategy. At the end of the day, Democrats must realize their party is adrift in terms of ideology, policy and branding, and that is the source of Tuesday's calamity.

Democrats need to learn five lessons from this debacle, and learn them fast:

Restore credibility on national security.
Compete for white males.
Move beyond identity politics.
Understand intensity versus propensity in the culture wars.
Focus on branding and communications.

For more detail, see:

"The Donkey Gets Its Ass Kicked: Five Lessons for Democrats"

Posted by: Jon | Nov 3, 2004 2:29:06 PM

I too agree with the thrust of what mark wrote here. In fact, my biggest concern about a kerry win is that i think the trendlines are clear for 3 major disasters in the next 4 years: a crisis in iraq; a fiscal crisis; and another jihadist attack on america. were kerry in office, he would have been blamed for all of this by the right-wing chorus.

of course, bush won't be blamed; the enabling will continue. but still....

as for the future of the democratic party, mark is right: there is much to be said there and much more time to say it in. i will content myself with noting that, in fact, if the kerry-edwards team had simply spent zero time and money on florida and devoted all that effort instead to ohio, we'd have won.

so let's not jump to the wrong conclusions.

and i'll further note that when you consider how many bush suppporters are willfully blind to the facts in so many ways (my favorite? 44% of voters think that things are "going well" in iraq, and, unsurprisingly, 90% of those people voted for bush), the puzzle of how to win national elections grows ever more complicated.

Posted by: howard | Nov 3, 2004 2:31:47 PM

Yes, Kerry did a fair amount right but this was a winnable election for the Democrats (as evidenced by the close margin in several key states). I fear that the cost of losing this opportunity will be greater than the benefit of any embarassments in a second Bush term.

Nixon had a Democratic Congress ready to pounce when Watergate emerged. How egregious would circumstances have to be before a Republican House controlled by Delay does the same?

As for blame for Iraq and taxes, how bad does Iraq have to get. One more terrorist attack in the next four years and the repugs will paint the costs in Iraq as justified in the War on Terror. As for taxes, they are going to keep on cutting them, regardless of the consequences and it will take a Democrat to raise them again.

The Dems have to nominate someone from a red state and someone with a common touch. Either that or hope for untold disasters over the next four years. I can't bring myself to hope for the latter.

Posted by: Stuart | Nov 3, 2004 4:23:41 PM

Kerry helped us take patriotism back; in my view, that was necessary. I always felt that only he or Clark understood this. Now that there is precedent, we can better defend against the unpatriotic branding of Democrats in future WH races.

And the blogosphere has picked up on the one key thing missing from Kerry's campaign - an outward expression of moral grounding. Next time it will be explicit, not implicit.

Posted by: Crab Nebula | Nov 3, 2004 4:29:36 PM

This election came down to turnout, and it may be that the passion voters felt about banning gay marriage in Ohio and passing a parental notification law in Florida helped put Bush over the edge. As one colleague put it, it was the Old Testament vs. the New Testament, and this time the Old Testament won. On the other hand, the same exit polls that suggest "moral issues" are what brought out the voters also would lead you to conclude that Kerry won the popular vote, and in this case it seems you can't have it both ways.

Look how many Bush states have Democratic governors-- the idea that yesterday's results "prove" that the Democrats are no longer a national party is ridiculous. However, I do think many of those Democratic governors are going to have to get together with their Washington counterparts and talk about how to get people more comfortable voting for Democrats on the federal as well as the local level.

At the same time, conservative Democrats ought to think hard about whether or not they want to keep on making such a big to-do over divorcing themselves from their party. It may do them good in the short run but it makes the party as a whole look that much more irrelevant when (white) Southern and Midwestern Democrats are unwilling to claim their party identities.

John Edwards would make a wonderful, articulate head of the DNC but as a politician I think he's finished. Let's bear in mind that the man has only won one general election in his life. However, I think he could be a good role model as a person who could bridge that divide.

Posted by: Patience | Nov 3, 2004 5:43:26 PM

In four years, things promise to be very different (though I would have thought they were different already). Surely the chickens will come home to roost sometime?

Those who argue that the Democrats need the red states --- look at the electoral tallies, state by state. Most of the states that Bush carried, he carried by wide margins --- 60% or more. Kerry carried his states by much smaller margins. That's a problem that will be difficult to overcome.

However much "values" --- namely, the desire to force one's own values on others through law --- had an effect on this election, the Democrats may take some solace in the fact that young people agree with them on values issues. Young people were criticized today for not turning out --- but they did turn out, it's just that everyone else also turned out, so young people's share of the vote remained about the same.

Posted by: dm | Nov 3, 2004 6:08:14 PM

Nicholas Kristof is quite right in pointing out that the Republicans succeeded in persuading large numbers of Average Americans to vote against their own best interests. I do not believe, however, that the Democrats lost the election because John Kerry failed to communicate the fact that he embraces religious values that are important to most Americans. I would argue that they lost because they simply do not understand how Republican strategists use religious issues---and every other sort of issue---to win the only campaign that matters: the Image Campaign.

Republican strategists pulled off yet another big victory because they understand something that their Democratic counterparts do not: the state of mind of The Swing Voter. The typical Swing Voter knows that he does not understand the subtle details of the issues well enough to make a wise decision, so he relies on his “impressions” of the candidates. Is this candidate someone I can trust to rule over me? Understanding this, the Republicans focus all of their efforts on defining Democrats in the minds of the Swing Voter in a negative, vaguely threatening way. They do this by relying primarily on negative campaigning.

Republicans know that accusations and insinuations are persuasive to Swing Voters primarily because they are typically headline-readers and sound-byte-nibblers who do not seek out in-depth explanations of complex issues. If the media reports that a Republican has accused a Democrat of having a character flaw, the average Swing Voter will tend to believe it unless it is successfully answered. These attacks not only create a negative image of their opponents; they also implicitly suggest that Republicans are devoid of the character flaws they are attacking. It enables them to indirectly claim that they are noble & virtuous before the electorate.

Republicans understand precisely what they are doing when they speak disparagingly of “those Democrats.” It’s a variation of the “us vs. them” social comparisons that are so common among high school students. Throughout October, Swing Voters constantly saw video clips of George Bush standing in front of his adoring supporters, ridiculing John Kerry with his smirky smile. People do not tend---on a natural level---to want to be associated with those who are being ridiculed.

Average Americans who put Republican candidates into office with their votes do so because they are identifying with those whom they intuitively perceive to be social “winners.” They don’t understand all of the nuances of the issues, but they do have this impression that there is something “defective” with The Democrats. Once they’ve become invested in their identity with the Republican Party, they instinctively defend Republican policies even when those policies are likely to harm them. In order for the Democratic Party to win these Average Americans back, they must begin to fight fire with fire.

If they want to again become the majority party, Democrats need to define The Republican Politician as a DECEIVING, MANIPULATIVE, SCHEMING, MEAN-SPIRITED, CON-ARTIST who willfully and gleefully assassinates the character of any innocent victim that stands in the way of his rabid lust for power. They need to create an image of The Republican Politician in the minds of the Average American that is instinctively feared. In defining The Republican Politician as essentially manipulative, Democrats will also indirectly be defining themselves as The Protectors of the Average American.

Democrats tend not to want to participate in “character attacks” because they maintain an idealistic hope that a respectful debate of the issues of the day is possible in a civilized society, but they really have no choice. The Republicans have no such inhibitions re: the use of scorched earth tactics and character assassination. Every attack and accusation made by the Republicans must be used to define them as smiling, disingenuous weasels. In doing so, they must express both derision and wisdom and show an eagerness to explain what the Republicans are up to. They need to take the time to point out and explain in television commercials the misrepresentations, the deceptions, the intent, and the strategy of the Republican attacks.

It will also be important for Democrats to spend more and more time ridiculing the stupidity of Republican policies and---implicitly---those who embrace/defend them. This is necessary in order to socially isolate those who belong to the Republican Party (or to at least counteract the social pressure on Swing Voters that is created when Republicans ridicule Democrats). If the Democrats fail to do this, the Average American will not even listen to what they have to say re: “the issues.” If their image of Democrats is sufficiently negative, they won’t want to be persuaded because they’d want to protect an identity that had become very important to them.

James J. Kroeger

Posted by: James J. Kroeger | Nov 3, 2004 6:22:44 PM

North of the border we are already accountable. Hockey fans in Canada now routinely boo the Star Spangled Banner. (They're just jealous of our world's most expensive health care.) http://tinylink.com/?Yab2UKo51Z

Posted by: Two Dishes But to One Table | Nov 3, 2004 10:29:06 PM

Yes, I agree that it's not so much about embracing religion as understanding how religion 'plays' in the media. But, of course, ridicule and accusations of stupidity face the very serious danger of playing exactly into the hands of the Republicans (and the situation Kristof describes well in the NYT). Part of what the Dems need to do, on the values front, is actually just say more of the crashingly obvious. This is what drives many liberals, esp liberal intellectuals, nuts: Bin Laden is a bad man, I love my wife, values are important, etc. You want to say: "Yes, yes, get on with it!" But these establish an emotional connection that is the starting point for political communication. And Dems, so focussed on policy and getting all the facts and arguments out, reliably underestimate the importance of emotional connection. Their impatience with moral platitudes makes it easy to attribute intellectual snobbery -- or even a sign of *disagreement with* the platitudes.

Think of Mark's point about how Kerry "gets it" on terrorism the way Bush doesn't. The thing is: too many people didn't get it that Kerry gets it. Why? He didn't do enough in acknowledging the depth of people's moral anger at 9/11 and their fear for the future. This anger and fear is obvious and we all (almost all) feel it. But you have to say it, recognize it, show people that you feel it and that you get it. Only then will people stick around for the policy points. Otherwise, it's too easy to suggest that your policy is symptomatic of your not "getting it" emotionally.
The Dems of course also have to think of ways to turn liberal political philosophy into the conventional wisdom (think of how well the right has done with "it's your money"). But the emotional connection is key (which Clinton got so well).
I'm really, really tired -- I hope this makes some sense.

Posted by: Dan | Nov 3, 2004 10:39:37 PM

Clinton didn't win because he was from the south...he won because he's the most gifted politician of his generation. He also won on a positive campaign full of ideas, but he also fought back immediately when crap was thrown at him. I don't think it matters that much where a candidate is from...what matters is that he/she connect with the American people in a way that makes him/her believable. Clinton said he would fight for the middle class..he was believed and that's why he won.

Posted by: RAK | Nov 3, 2004 11:21:54 PM

It pains me to say that he will get his Supreme Court Justices, and his social issues such as abortion and gay marriage and guns and praying in schools will go his way.
However these wedge issues, once off the table, will no longer give the Republicans the advantage they have been used to for the last 20 years.

Oh no. Overturning Roe vz Wade will then be followed by a war to ban abortion outright, state by state. This will then be followed by a war to ban birth control, either federally or state by state. This will then be followed by work to repeal divorce legislation, in the name of 'preserving the family'.

The real issue in the abortion debate isn't stopping abortions -- it's about controlling women's sex lives and their ability to regulate when they have children. As so many have pointed out, the easiest way to stop abortions is to provide access to birth control and loads of information about it, along with legislation that will make it possible for single moms to raise kids. "Chastity" programs actually raise the teen birth rate. These guys aren't interested in stopping abortions, they just want to make certain that the pregnancy = shame equation is firmly established.

Ditto for gay marriage: do you really think that the "Adam and Eve not Adam and Steve" crowd are going to stop until they've re-criminalized gay sex, made discrimination legal and driven millions of gays and lesbians from their jobs, homes and families?

And prayer in schools will be the first stop on a long line of 'reforms' that will eventually lead to the churches running the schools and dictating what will be taught, by who and how. Like the Scopes Monkey Trials, only with the bad guys winning this time.

And then they'll start on all those godless Jews and Moslems and Buddists and Catholics.

Assuming that you can 'give them what they want and they'll stop' is like assuming that the shark that's eating you will stop with your foot.

Posted by: jo. | Nov 4, 2004 3:17:23 AM

http://nudism.presselibre.org/connecticut/ enduredprincessteenage

Posted by: happening | Sep 25, 2005 3:36:06 AM