In today's Washington Post, Mark Penn writes:
[W]hile the base is critical, it's not the whole picture. Behind all the rhetoric, the reality is that swing is still king. The two or three or 10 voters who are the quietest in focus groups, who never demonstrate and who belong to no political party, will be the ones who determine the political course of America.
Swing Is Still King. Of course, swing voters are critical to winning elections. But Penn's article could inadvertantly mislead people, too, in two ways. First, the Democratic base is not as reliable as it used to be. Ralph Nader's "spoiler" role in 2000 showed that some portion of Democratic voters can be siphoned off, with huge repercussions. And the base today is especially restive, unhappy with the leadership, and prone to defection. Democratic politicians who take the base for granted in 2006, and especially in 2008 when Bush will be out of the picture anyway, are making a grave error. Just as Republicans did in the 1960s and 1990s when they played to their conservative base, Democrats would be wise to pay attention to their liberal base today, or risk losing their energy, their money, and even their votes. As Penn writes, it's possible to appeal to both the base and the center, but when a choice must be made, a wise Democrat today will think hard before veering right.
Second, swing voters are not necessarily centrist voters. That's the main problem with the Democratic Leadership Council's calculus, and the reason why Democrats have lost control of Congress under the DLC's centrist reign of power: calculatingly centrist policies may appeal to people's minds, but can lose their hearts. Swing voters are looking for politicians they can believe in. For example, most of them are pro-choice, but they will vote for anti-choice Republicans. Why? Because at least those Republicans stand for something, and swing voters respect that. The best strategy for a Democrat courting the swing vote is to articulate different ideas, and show courage and clarity in promoting them. Whether swing voters agree with those particular ideas or not, they will nevertheless respect their proponent. And -- and I know this is a foreign idea to the current crop of Democrats -- it actually is possible, through force of conviction and clear, powerful rhetoric, to change people's minds. People who don't think the NSA surveillance program is a problem can be educated and convinced that it is. People who don't think that Democrats are strong on national security can be convinced that they are. But to bring people to our way of thinking, we need to be unabashed about saying what that is.
I'll end with something I've said before but that bears repeating until the Democratic leadership actually hears it:
The Republicans won complete control of government not by running to the center, but by running to the right and persuading the media and the American public to shift right with them. They don’t tolerate defections from the party line; they stick to centrally-distributed talking points and abide by rigid party discipline enforced by a man nicknamed “The Hammer.” They don’t fall silent when discourse turns discordant; they trot out the Big Lie and repeat it so often that it becomes Truth in the same way that big mountains create their own weather. They won by doing the exact opposite of what the DLC crowd preaches we need to do to win.
It’s as if the Democratic leadership doesn’t understand how mirrors work: the key to Republican success wasn’t in the fact that they ran to the right (and that we similarly must shift right if we want to win); it’s in the fact that they ran AWAY from the center -- became more extreme -- and in doing so earned both the support of their base and the trust of centrist voters, who respect people who can articulate and adhere to principles even if they don’t agree with all of them. Copying the Republican formula for success doesn’t mean becoming more conservative [or, I hasten to add, more dishonest], it means becoming more liberal and being proud of it. Articulating, and expecting some reasonable degree of adherence to, a unifying party platform is a good way to articulate principles and win elections, and if that means tossing one or two enablers like Lieberman overboard, good riddance; they're dead weight anyway.
But in addition to the above response, which I believe is true, I have a second reaction to the concern that attacking Vichy Democrats will cost us a potential majority: that until our “leaders” start listening to their constituents and acting like Democrats again, they (and we) don’t deserve to be in power. Until we have our act together and are prepared to govern in a coherent, articulate, unified way, we should stay the hell out of it.
Our nation is facing tremendous problems; only a drastic change in course can possibly reverse them. If we Democrats are not prepared to change America's course, however, then it’s better for the inexorable collapse to occur on the Republicans’ watch than on ours. My preferences, in this order, are: (1) a dialed-in, unified, energized, liberal Democratic Party in power, correcting American's course and restoring her fortunes; (2) a faltering, dissipating, weakening Republican Party in power, living or dying with the consequences of their past actions while real Democrats continue to rebuild our party in the wings; and (3) a faltering, dissipated, weak Democratic Party in power, demonstrating once again to voters that we aren’t ready for prime time and possibly being blamed for a nationwide economic, military and social collapse created by the Republicans but foisted on us.
A lot of intelligent, energetic grassroots activists are working to make sure that (1) above comes true. Most of the Democrats in Congress are working hard to see that (3) above comes true, even though they're too struck with Beltway Blindness to realize that's what they're doing. If they don’t catch a clue and start working with us, (2) above is going to occur again in November, and then either (2) or (3) will occur in 2008. And that’s simply not good enough. Democrats deserve better. America deserves better.
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