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Lessons Learned in 2010, Part 2: Managing a Big Tent Party Against a Small Tent Opponent

This item by Ed Kilgore was originally published on January 5, 2011.

If the "fundamentals"--turnout patterns, the political landscape, and a bad economy--made big Democratic losses in 2010 inevitable, what could Democrats have done to minimize the damage?

The answer to that question is obviously one that different observers will answer differently. There are three challenges faced by Democrats in 2010 that I think most progressives would agree represented major problem areas: (1) Intraparty and inter-institutional divisions; (2) an intransigent and unified opposition; and (3) difficulties in formulating and conveying an effective message.

Intraparty divisions extended in two directions, with progressives expressing periodic dissatisfaction with the White House and congressional (especially Senate) leaders on both message and policy, especially with respect to relations with Wall Street, "bipartisanship," health care reform, civil liberties, Afghanistan, and the late-session tax deal, while deficit hawks and Blue Dogs (categories which overlapped) demanded more bipartisanship, less ambitiously progressive legislation, and "cover" for Democratic candidates in vulnerable seats. Democrats from various parts of the party often expressed frustration with the White House for perceived disorganization, passivity, and insufficient focus on the economy, and there's little question that House and Senate leaders and the president's team had trouble coordinating with each other.

The sources of progressive unhappiness with the White House are pretty obvious, and go back to expectations raised during and immediately after the 2008 campaign for an aggressive administration that would reverse the policies of the Bush administration, redeem longstanding progressive goals on a wide range of issues, and reengineer the Obama campaign organization into an ongoing grassroots movement bent on practical achievements. The economic circumstances faced by the new administration in late 2008 made an immediate hash of many of these expectations, and the decision that avoidance of a global depression required major subsidies for, and cooperation with, the battered financial sector tainted Obama's image among progressives along with other elements of the electorate.

Subsequently the struggle to secure enough Republican (and in the case of health reform, conservative Democratic and industry) support for the administration's agenda became an ongoing source of friction between the White House and party progressives, particularly when such efforts seemed to secure diminishing returns. Yet conservative Democrats (in office, at any rate; grassroots self-identified conservative Democrats, like their progressive counterparts, remained much more supportive of the president than their putative spokesmen) increasingly shared the Republican charge that the administration had overreached in pursuing health reform and climate change legislation, and in seeking more progressive income tax rates.

It's entirely unclear that Democratic defections in the electorate had much to do with the midterm results (as noted in the last post, the relatively low turnout of self-identified Democrats was largely attributable to demographic turnout patterns of long standing rather than conscious dissatisfaction), but the disgruntlement of activists and elected officials has an indirect impact on campaigns and a direct impact on messaging and legislative strategy.

One principle all Democrats should be able to agree on is that entirely legitimate efforts to influence Democratic leaders (from the president on down) and seek leverage should not stray over the line into threats, insults, or open opposition. Progressive charges of "betrayal" against the president on this or that issue had no constructive impact other than as an exercise in venting. Blue Dog efforts in Congress or on the campaign trail to distance themselves from the rest of the party and/or to form unilateral coalitions with Republicans were equally destructive. By the same token, occasional outbursts against "the Left" from the president or the White House staff carried the unsavory aroma of triangulation.

While there is no question that Democratic congressional leaders need to exercise party discipline (perhaps more than they have done in the past) on key votes, ultimately Democratic primary voters are the only arbiters of the boundaries of the Big Tent. With respect to self-proclaimed Democratic voices who are not exposed to the discipline of Democratic voters--pundits, former officeholders, and "experts"--the habit of unfriendly criticism and the echoing of Republican talking points (particularly from cozy sinecures in conservative media outlets) should be considered disqualifying, regardless of claims to represent Democratic principles or traditions.

Now I acknowledge there are some progressives who sincerely belief a Big Tent Party is incapable of competing successfully with an ideologically driven and unified Small Tent Party like today's GOP, largely based on the vague, but to some self-evident, theory that politics is about noise, and the most harmoniously noisy voices win all debates. A parallel theory that focuses more on the content of party messages than on their unanimity and volume holds that political success is based on maximum party differentiation and conflict. These issues invariably lead to the second challenge that faced Democrats in 2010, the consummation of the movement conservative conquest of the GOP.

It's important to begin with the observation that the latest rightward lurch of the GOP is by conventional standards an astonishing phenomenon. It occurred after two straight bad election cycles, a development which typically leads political parties to seek a move towards the political and ideological center. This counter-intuitive GOP shift, which first gained steam in 2006, was the product of two forces: decades of movement conservative arguments that excessive moderation was costing Republicans general elections (an argument that helped propel George W. Bush to the Republican presidential nomination over John McCain in 2000); and the particular need in 2008 and afterwards to disassociate the GOP from the Bush administration's policy failures and unpopularity by describing them as betrayals of conservative principle. Towards the end of the 2008 general election campaign, Republicans began to embrace radically conservative messages that harkened back to right-wing positioning in decades long past, from agitation about "welfare" to accusations against Democrats of socialism and anti-American subversion.

As the president's (and congressional Democrats') approval ratings sank towards the end of 2009, conservative extremism intensified and was increasingly celebrated, by Republicans and by pundits, as politically potent, as reflected in the vast and largely admiring media attention afforded to the Tea Party Movement, the latest incarnation of the GOP's angry conservative base.

And that produced major strategic divisions in the Democratic ranks. Many "centrists" characteristically interpreted Republican extremism as an opportunity for Democrats to "seize the center" by expressing a willingness to compromise (which in many cases they assumed Republicans would spurn) and reaching out to voter and interest groups normally sympathetic to the GOP. Many progressives reacted in the opposite direction, deploring bipartisan gestures as craven and championing ideological warfare on issues where public opinion might be galvanized against conservative policy positions and associations.

The persistent controversy over Obama's rhetoric of bipartisanship has often confused style with substance. With the emergence of a de facto 60-vote requirement for the enactment of legislation in the Senate, compounded by the ability of Republicans to hold their ranks in opposition to Democratic initiatives, the White House and the Democratic congressional leadership were forced to choose between a "short game" of outreach to Republicans and (even more importantly) the small band of Democratic senators who demanded concessions to Republicans and to allied interest groups, or a "long game" of delaying legislative accomplishments until public opinion or election results changed the political landscape. They chose the "short game," most conspicuously on the economic stimulus legislation and health reform. Perhaps that was a mistake, or perhaps Democrats should have tried to change the legislative calculus by an all-out drive for filibuster reform (against, unfortunately, the wishes of a sizable number of Democratic senators). But that's not the same as a naïve or cowardly desire to value bipartisanship and compromise more than progressive principles, the charge so often made against them.

A similar case can be made about the dynamics of the late-session tax deal that outraged many progressive activists, and very nearly produced a revolt against the White House among House Democrats, including their leadership. Did Obama agree to Republican demands to extend top-rate Bush tax cuts and gut the estate tax out of terror at the midterm results, simple weakness in the face of GOP attacks, or a fundamental lack of commitment to progressive values? Or did he, as TDS Co-Editor Ruy Teixeira and others have argued, cut the deal as the only feasible way to secure stimulus for the economy prior to 2012?

The midterm results virtually guaranteed that bipartisan rhetoric will continue to come from the White House; no legislative initiative would be credible otherwise. But the real key will be the ability of Obama and other Democrats to use both carrots and sticks to expose the radicalism of the GOP, and on occasion to produce splits in their ranks over such obvious dilemmas as the choice between further high-end or corporate tax cuts and deficit reductions, or strong if submerged differences of opinion over the extent to which defense spending should be exempt from spending limits. This strategy could satisfy both the centrist desire to position the Democratic Party in "the center" and the progressive desire to confront the GOP when, as will increasingly be the case, it goes after core progressive commitments and New Deal/Great Society accomplishments.

This is obviously a somewhat complex strategy, whose execution will require significant improvements in the ability of Democrats to forge and deliver a coordinated message keyed to long-term political and policy objectives.

As James Vega and Andrew Sabl have argued in these pages, the single biggest messaging problem facing Democrats at present is confusion over the roles of different players, most notably the president himself. This is another topic on which the expectations raised by Obama up until the moment of his inauguration are a part of the problem, since he effectively exercised multiple roles--visionary, tactician, organizer, and spokesman--for progressives during the 2008 campaign.

But while the need for a more limited role for Obama as president, constrained by both his legislative agenda and the necessity of serving as the leader of an ostensibly united country, should be easy to understand, there is also no question that the president's decisions can damage Democratic prospects more than any single factor other than a worsening state of objective conditions in the country. One can sympathize with the financial and economic situation Obama faced even before he took office, and accept his decision to cooperate in TARP and other corporate "rescue efforts" as necessary to avoid a global meltdown and a genuine Great Depression. But the combination of these policy decisions with a habit of pro-business rhetoric, acceptance of big bonuses for financial sector malefactors, and the ubiquity of people with Wall Street backgrounds in high-ranking administration positions, helped create the anomalous situation where Republicans (who were fighting any serious regulatory response to the 2008 meltdown) were able to label Democrats as the Wall Street Party. This line of attack was tangibly damaging to the Democratic ticket in 2010, particular among the non-college-educated white voters whose support levels for the party had already reached a dangerously low level. And it can be largely laid at the door of a White House that never quite figured out how appearances of favoritism to Wall Street looked to the country.

Moving forward, as the administration continues to depend on minimally good relations with the business community in order to revive the economy, the White House must at all costs avoid the trap of appearing simultaneously as the handmaiden and the punching bag of corporate America.

More generally, Democratic messaging must utilize a more careful and methodical division of labor, letting the president be president, and letting progressive activist forces keep up the pressure on Congress and the administration without ruptures and insults. Clearly, Republican efforts to undo not just the accomplishments of this president, but those of presidents from both parties dating back to FDR and even Woodrow Wilson, will increasingly supply the focal point for Democratic messaging, enabling Democrats to do what they could not for a variety of reasons do during the 2010 cycle: present a clear and unmistakable choice between two very different directions for the country.