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Their Own Democrats

Ed Kilgore makes an incredibly important point, drawing on Ruy Teixera"s analysis that shows the Democrats have an advantage on virtually every issue except for "credibility in fighting terror and the clarity of our overall message."

Ed points out that the "clarity of message" of the recent GOP, while perhaps key to its success, has also been its downfall:

You could make a good case that the current GOP meltdown is partly the result of an "our team" mentality that until recently has thwarted any real intra-party Republican debate, or any honest Republican discussion with the rest of the country. I"m perfectly happy to sacrifice a few points in polls on "message clarity" in order to keep my party from following this authoritarian pattern.

You could make a good case, indeed! This is absolutely true. As the Republican juggernaut of corruption falls apart, here"s my biggest worry: That through all the years of Republican dominance, many liberals/Democrats have taken away the conclusion that the key to political success is lock-step adherence to a single coherent ideological message. That may lead to success -- but becoming a parliamentary party is also, in the U.S., the path to catastrophic failure.

It doesn"t matter so much that voters know what Democrats stand for, writ large, as that they know what their own Democrats -- their congressional candidate, their governor, their Senator -- stands for. People like Tim Kaine win because voters in Virginia see Tim Kaine and like what they see. Bernie Sanders wins because people in Vermont see Bernie Sanders, who he is and the fact that he speaks for himself, and they like that. You could go on. As I pointed out in my recent article on why the Republican success in 1994 election is a bad model for 2006, when progressive Democrats have succeeded, as in 1974, it is because they have been exceptionally skilled individuals, brilliant at understanding their own constituents and not just following a national line. The result may be a congressional majority with some ideological differences, but that"s democracy. Whatever the result, the ideological differences will be far narrower than they were back when the Democratic majority included powerful Southern arch-conservatives. I"d rather have a party of brilliant constituent politicians who work for their states and districts than a bunch of talking-point robots echoing a national message for the sake of a misguided worship of the right-wing"s "message clarity."


Posted by Mark Schmitt on November 29, 2005 | Permalink


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Could we wait until we've won a few elections to criticize the parliamentary method and elevate the individualist model?

Posted by: Total | Nov 29, 2005 2:48:08 PM

...especially since we're looking at a likely troop stepdown and withdrawal plan for Iraq just in time for next year's mid-terms?

Posted by: Antiquated Tory | Nov 30, 2005 6:39:17 AM

Uh, I don't necessarily agree with Mark on this, but I think it's safe to day he's not longing for a return of nativist lynchings (if that's what you're getting at). I'm just as creeped out as anyone by the militiristic tendencies taking hold around the country, but I'm far from distraught.

Posted by: fnook | Nov 30, 2005 10:37:13 PM

Thanks Mark for your always thoughtful and stimulating posts.
I agree that a parliamentary party/message discipline model ill fits the present and future Democratic party. The issue that I struggle with is how to push back against Republican rhetoric that effectively defines the Democrats on a national level. Perhaps "brilliant constituent politicians" provide the talent necessary to grow national leaders, but once on the national stage those locally cultivated players are typically defined by what is effectively a parliamentary debate in which Republican message discipline has established terms favoring its continuing national electoral success. Those terms (Dems as elitist/big gov't/weak on national defense) have provided a series of small majority national Republican victories that reflect less an endorsement of the victors' policies than a rejection of the opponents they so effectively define as unacceptable.
Democrats' necessary efforts to define themselves more positively encourages a parliamentary distillation of many voices into a coherent and consistent national message. I doubt, however, that this model will work, Dems' rights-activists agendas tending against discipline (or is that only further evidence of how effectively Republicans have set the terms of debate?).
I defer to Mark's knowledge of the achievements of the class of '74, but from far away that seems a somewhat lost generation, from which I cannot define much national leadership (and who arguably in their--admittedly--late political maturity lost the congress in '94, not to mention five of the last eight presidential elections). I fear we recall '74 too fondly, as Republican corruption again finally defines our opponents negatively enough that perhaps a national victory is within reach. The pity is that such a victory may be as hollow as that of '74, with less achieved at a policy level than by the Republicans after '80, '94, '00, and '02.
Democrats lack a governance model they can champion--the one defined by the New Deal/Great Society has not been entirely discredited by Republican rhetoric, but what in heaven's name was that "bridge to the 21st century" anyway? Meek, vague, feel good rhetoric will win few votes (except when many of your opponents are under indictment), and worse will inspire little policy action that encourages re-election.
Will winning governance models emerge from parliamentery/message discipline exercises? Judging from the broken model deployed by the Republicans, I don't think so--the inevitable failure of lowering taxes while broadening governmental commitments is becoming plainer by the day.
The old Democratic Party anti-federal tradition provides greater hope, and I look to Democrats that govern locally, not legislate nationally, governors, not senators. If there is a silver lining to minority status in Washington, it is that we don't have to defend congressional action, which for generations defined the Democrats, and provided Reagan Republicans with the hoary anecdotes that defined Dems as favoring big, intrusive government.
The limits of acting locally disciplines our politicians, and our politics. The local and traditional will call to some minds specters of 'strange fruit' and nativism, but conversely, local work also enforces a sense of responsibility to the whole. At the national scale abstract debates dominate, and tend to identify national leadership as "out of touch". Successful mayors and governors will most likely establish our winning politics.

Posted by: bama wendell | Dec 2, 2005 11:09:38 AM