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Strategy Notes:
John Belisarius

Democratic Unity is More Important than Yesterday’s Debates

An opinion piece in Tuesday’s Washington Post -- written by Mark Penn, the leading pollster of the “new Democratic” or centrist wing of the Democratic Party -- raises a critical long-term issue – one that must be faced now, even in the midst of the presidential campaign.

The question is whether, after the election, the Dems are going to fall back into the bitter internal warfare that divided the party from 2000-2003 or whether they will be able to preserve the remarkable level of unity that has been achieved during this election. Penn’s article does not directly address this question, but it inescapably arises from the ideas he presents.

Penn essentially argues that swing voters remain the irreplaceable key to any Democratic victory. In his view, these voters can still be accurately visualized as middle aged white women -- “Soccer Moms” as new Democrats used to portray them during the Clinton years. In consequence, Penn asserts that Dems should “learn a lesson from Bill Clinton” and update many of the centrist strategies Clinton employed in the 1992 and 1996 elections.

These two opinions, by themselves, are more a restatement of long-standing New Democratic perspectives than an invitation to controversy. But Penn’s article also strongly suggests two additional ideas – that Dems have to make an either/or choice between strategies to energize the base versus those that reach out to swing voters and that Kerry’s September shift to an energetic attack on the administration’s policies in Iraq was, at best, a very risky departure from a consistently centrist strategy.

One can almost visualize populist/progressive Democrats charging up to the well-worn ramparts where they fought the intellectual battles of 2000-2003 as they finish Penn’s piece and one can almost hear the rhetorical questions beginning to be fired across the ideological divide: “Hasn’t Kerry’s rebound in recent weeks proved that he needed to aggressively take Bush on about Iraq?”, “Didn’t the elections of 2002 prove Democrats have to offer clear alternatives and not come across as ‘Republicans-Lite?’ ”

These are excellent questions, and, like Penn’s initial propositions themselves, they deserve serious and thoughtful discussion after the election is over.

But before Democrats from both wings of the party reflexively sink back into the polarized atmosphere and dialog of 2000-2003, it is vital that both recognize and acknowledge the extraordinary accomplishment that the current Democratic unity represents and the overwhelming common interest that both sides have in maintaining it after November. Democratic unity was only achieved with substantial effort and compromise – Kerry was not, after all, the first choice of either the centrist or progressive wings of the party – and it represents the most important achievement of this campaign season for the future of the party in the coming years.

And, ironically, one of the clearest demonstrations of how far today’s Democratic unity has allowed the party to progress actually comes directly from the work of Penn himself and his direct counterparts on the populist/progressive wing of the Democratic community. It can be seen by comparing the opinion surveys and strategy papers prepared under Penn’s direction for the Democratic Leadership Council and the New Democratic Network in recent months with those produced by the populist/progressive Democracy Corps, headed by Stanley Greenberg and James Carville.

After the 2000 election strategy papers by these two polling and strategy groups often appeared almost systematically crafted as mirror opposites – from their initial assumptions to empirical findings. Since January of 2004, in contrast, this is emphatically no longer the case. Rather, strategy papers prepared by Penn for the New Democratic Network in recent months and those produced by Democracy Corps exhibit three distinct patterns or tiers of agreement and disagreement.

First, on many basic issues, there are now actually large areas of agreement. This is particularly notable in the areas of core Democratic values and policy preferences. Second, there are a number of areas where disagreements of fact exist, but not of basic perspective. They are the kinds of disputes that further examination of existing data and new surveys using more focused follow-up questions can in principle resolve. Finally, there remain some areas where basic disagreements do indeed exist because the research methodologies and approaches chosen reflect underlying differences in political and moral outlook.

This hierarchy of agreement and disagreement between the two wings of the Democratic Party clearly suggests a framework for how both sides can best learn to coexist after the election is over.

First, in the areas where there is already underlying agreement, these common views need to be clearly defined and formalized. These are the ideas, principles and strategies that can provide the glue to hold the party together in the coming years.

Second, in areas where there is disagreement about facts, new institutions and forums need to be created within the Democratic community where Democrats from both wings of the party can meet and work in a spirit of collaboration rather than conflict to examine these areas of disagreement and figure out how to minimize or eliminate them entirely.

Finally, in areas where there are inescapable differences based on principles and values, centrists and populist/progressives need to define certain basic standards of civility and mutual respect that both wings agree to follow and uphold.

It is by following a three-tiered approach of this kind, rather then by allowing a return to the intra-party warfare of recent years, that the Democratic Party can convert today’s hard-won unity into the foundation for long-term development and growth.

But it is vital that the vicious cycle of intra-party fratricide be broken now, before it can once again take hold. The habit of conducting internal warfare is deeply ingrained within the Democratic Party and debates about ideas will quickly spiral into bitter antagonisms after the election if a conscious effort is not made to avoid that outcome. Dems must break the mental habit of seeing debates over political strategy as inevitably representing a clash between positions that are either totally right or wrong.

The relative importance of mobilizing base voters and reaching out to swing voters, for example, may be difficult to quantify, but it is ultimately an empirical issue and not a theological one. Equally, while many Democrats may feel that challenging Bush on Iraq was the right thing to do on moral and social grounds, whether or not it will prove the best political strategy will remain a reasonable and legitimate question even after the election, one that should not be confused with the moral arguments about the war itself.

More generally, Dems must keep in mind that this election cycle has created a renewed and reinvigorated Democratic party with two candidates virtually all Democrats – and most independent voters as well - perceive as vastly superior in intellect, character, ethics and competence to the current administration. These attractive candidates are undergirded by new and powerful grass-roots mechanisms for fundraising, voter mobilization and internet-based organizing. In the long run there is no question that the preservation of the unity which made all these advances possible will be more important to the Dems future success then any potential benefits from renewed conflicts over the issues that divided the party in the recent past.

Comments

My take:
We don't have the same amount of cash as the fat cat party (GOP) so we need to have a message. A populist message that is clearly distinct from GOP's economic elitism. DNC should be the party of joy, of optimism, of choice, of equality. We must also focus on teaching the public how Democratic multilateral strategies makes the world safer than cowboyish go-it-alone. Strength, and intelligence.

I say centrism is dead, it really should be. Centrism lost us the 2002 elections. When we are Republican-lite, the real Republican will outspend us 2 to 1 and thereby sweep home all elections.

If your goal is Democratic electoral dominance, then sustaining Democratic unity would seem to be the paramount issue at hand. But that's not what's motivating the various sides of the party, though it is of course representing the various polling firms (strictly winning, as opposed to political change, is of course their goal). The Bush doctrine is so extreme that a failure to unite in some fashion represents self-immolation, whether you are centrist or not. The various component pieces of the Democratic Party are united, and will probably stay united, until the criminal elements of the GOP are pushed away from the table and can no longer threaten our interests (more here: http://www.bopnews.com/archives/001811.html).

But this notion that the fight is between 'centrists' and 'liberals' is redolent of past history more than anything else. It is a direct result of two fundraising bases, not two policy regimes: direct mail for issue groups versus corporate donations for centrists, with top-down media strategies for both. The internet has thrown both of these groups for a loop, and injected thousands of people outside of DC into the party formulation process. These people are going to want a different type of party, something only tangentially related to the Iraq war.

The policy demands are relatively similar, though this may change as liberalism undergoes a radical modernization over the next few years. It's the grassroots organizing versus the media people that will dominate the fighting.

Ruy,
A well thought-out piece.
When I first read the Penn article my reaction was that it was generally quite sensible, _except_ for the "either/or" implication. There's no need to choose between centrism and populism; the need is to articulate both so that their common ground becomes evident.
Bush has made it easy; he is so far to the right in his actual policies, and so inept at the same time, that people are learning to see through his protestations of "compassion" and being a "uniter." Centrists and even some of the more level-headed conservatives can see that in contrast "Massachusetts liberalism" isn't so far off center after all.
As for Iraq, I think Kerry's approach is exactly right - not to embrace anything that can be taken for pacifism or antimilitarism, but to focus on the misleading justifications given for _this_ war at _this_ time, the inept planning, the continuing casualties, the lack of an exit strategy, the role of Haliburton... Polls just before the war started show that there were really three positions, not two: maybe a third of the public (meaning somewhere between 30-40%) was gung ho about the war no matter what, a third was totally against under any conditions, and a third was in favor if the UN approved and if it was generally done right. The minute the war started the last-mentioned third joined the first out of patriotism, support for the troops etc; but as the problems with the war emerged, so did their original reservations. Kerry, with help from Bush, has brought together the antis and the yes-buts. _Keeping_ them together after the election, however it comes out, will be the next challenge. Same on the economy - don't attack the market economy per se, just point to the excesses of the current plutocracy, the need for regulation, the need for the government to see to at least _some_ things in the public interest that the Republicans don't want to deal with.

Note:
I complimented Ruy on the article and then realized it was by someone else. Good piece, John.

I agree basically with Joe B.

The problem is, we have to have a clear positioning principle, be it populist or progressive or blended to some degree. In a nation with 240 million adults & that rewards lack of engagement, one needs to create a sense either of passion or consumer need.

There aren't that many people who are passionate about moderation. Which leaves the consumer-products marketing approach. You get to market a pragmatic approach (we get people back to work, thump the deficit), which can work as long as the opposition is not passionate about anything; as soon as their passion sweeps up a swath of your voters temporarily, you dip under the event horizon.

It's intrinsically a very difficult model to maintain over time. If you have someone who inspires passion even though their policies don't create widespread passion-inspiration but sensible agreement, someone like Bill Clinton, you can carry the day. But take the same positions and insert Joltless Joe Lieberman, or Grey "Grey" Davis, and it becomes extremely difficult to sustain the coalition. (this argument is in line with the work of Trout/Ries' book Positioning, a super book worth reading for anyone with political or electoral ambition).

So here's a complementary suggestion I think is worth thinkin' about. Stress the unnatural coalition that is the GOP. The Religious/Secular Fundamentalist wing and the Enron/WSJ wing are not natural allies. They each make some concessions to the other to keep the unnatural coalition hang together. But it's actually less naturally cohesive than ours. Part of our coalition-building strategy needs to be a targeted exploitation of issues that would tend to fracture their coalition (stem-cell research is one -- an absolutist opposition on one side, a many-faceted profit opportunity on the other).

The crowd that runs the Executive and Legislative branches right now is a narrow cult supported by a fragile coalition of hangers-on who each, to some degree, get something out of it.

It will be easier to fracture their fragile coalition, I think, than to build a sustainable, marketable one on our side. I think we have to fracture them first because it's easiest, then figure out what we can do that makes sense for both Demo approaches.

Ruy, I don't share your assessment of Penn's piece. Far from suggesting a unitary basis for political regeneration, Penn is preparing new divisions. The signal failure of his perspective lies here: Kerry's main problem was that he did vote for the war. To say, as PDB does, that no "hint of pacifism" can transpire from a Democratic platform is pure insanity: the anti-war movement has been proven right in each of its contentions, in fact much beyond its expectations. Even the naive charge that this was a "war for oil" was essentially too generous, as it attributed to the administration a capacity for strategic ratiocination that it simply doesn't have.

I find it absurd that the outcome of the efforts of so many people that have bravely stemmed the flow could be ignored (win or lose in November). The problems the anti-war movement has highlighted have never been more urgent; people like Penn have been riding it piggy back.

I applaud John Belisarius's strategy notes of 10/8/04 and wish to add two additional suggestions: To survive politically and govern effectively . . .
1) The Kerry administration and the Democratic Party leadership will have to be prepared to respond quickly to Right Wing and Republican attacks and slanders and, at the same time, counterattack and present alternative visions (paradigms/plans) for domestic and foreign policy.
2) They must work not only to maintain contact with and reinforce their grassroots base but also attempt to establish and nourish centrist-liberal "think tanks" in order to influence future policy debates, media perceptions, and the attentive public.

The Dem party's unifying theme must be "opportunity", e.g. the opportunity society. The Dems CANNOT use race and ethnic politics to cobble coalitions any more; that is the road to ruin. People of all race/creed must view a vote for the Dems as a vote for educational and economic opportunity.

Dems should also cast support for the environment as an opportunity issue, e.g. opportunity for our kids to experience the heritage we enjoyed.

Finally, Dems should coopt traditional Republican values like opposition to abortion, WHILE KEEPING ABORTION LEGAL. Simply put, women should have the opportunity to choose abortion, but Dems should sponsor all kinds of high-profile programs to prevent unwanted pregnancy and support mothers who choose to carry to term. Make it a real front and center issue. Dividing the right-to-life vote would go a long way toward breaking the far-right domination of the Republican party.

Discussing labels like 'centrist' and 'progressive' is not meaningful.....and will only degenerate into assertions or arguments about base vs. swing and the like. But really,base and swing are not mutually exclusive.

What really is meaningful is discussing policy priorities, communication strategy and political & public coalition strategies. And agreeing to civility. The author is right.

I really don't foresee the return of intraparty fighting like in the 60s, 70s, or 80s. We've learned from those battles....and GOP battles are about to begin after Bush loses (which I expect). I do think Dem identity politics is dead for good. Underneath the seeming lack of focus -- we're only beginning the long Big Message project, after all -- is a wide base of agreement (we need health care, we need energy policy, etc).

Take me as a single point of data if you wish... a little dot in the Democratic grassroots. But I have a feeling I represent others who feel the same.

On the war vote, many leaders in this party betrayed us. Some did so in sincere bad judgement. Others -- and it is impossible to say which -- did so from cynical political calculation. If Kerry wins he will get a pass because he drove out the Great Demagogue. But others will not. The progressive movement will be feeling its oats and the anger will return. The anger is not just at the war vote, but at the weak and accomodationist posture many leaders of this party took when facing the Bush machine. There will be some bloodletting in the 2006 primaries.

If Kerry loses, on the other hand, it will be blamed on his ambiguous position on the war -- the battle might well be fiercer.

I hope no energy is sapped from worthwhile initiatives, but the unity we're enjoying today is totally artificial. I don't relish conflict, but some housecleaning is in order in the Democratic Party.

I think we overestimate the importance of policy differences when it comes to electing public officials. A well articulated position from a trustworthy candidate is the most important factor in an election. Paul Wellstone ran sucessfully in a so-called swing state. The progessive message can resonate with a majority of the electorate. Let's not compromise on this.

Here is the issue I have: it seems that over the last 20-25 years we have turned over both the reins and objectives of our government to large corporate organizations, primarily profit-making joint-stock corporations. These organizations have proceeded to erode liberties, use criminal law for their own profit, eliminate competition via laws and prosecution (e.g. RIAA; Microsoft vs. Open Source(tm)), and in general socialize losses while privitizing profits. To an extent that would astound Alexander Hamilton.

OK, I am going to vote for Kerry, and do whatever it takes to defeat Bush, because I truely believe that Bush is the Worst President Ever (tm) and must be defeated for the good of my children.

As I said, I am going to vote for Kerry. But who is going to take on corporacracy? Who is going to speak for me as a Citizen and not a "consumer"? I dont' see Kerry or anyone at the DLC doing this. Just the opposite in fact - the demos are quite comfortable in their K Street offices as well.

Can anyone throw me a bone here?

Cranky

"We might all learn a lesson from Bill Clinton in 1992. He won by making the Persian Gulf War irrelevant to the election."

Umm... in 1992, the mission actually had been accomplished.

But, seriously, I don't see the Democratic Party as being truly united. We haven't moved past our differences to form a cohesive body. We've just decided that we hate Dubaya enough to leave the other side alone long enough to get rid of him - an enemy of my enemy and such.

It is possible to govern to all wings of the party - and the current faux unity would make it easier for Kerry to do so. Unless he balances that tightrope, however, by '06 we'll be back to full on infighting. If Kerry doesn't win, the gloves come of 11/3.

I'm generally a very optimistic person, but the truth of our coalition is that we have a fundamental disagreement that trascends all policy matters. Is it more important to win or be right? The right has clearly made their choice, the left hasn't.

My vote, by the way, is for being right.

I agree with the general idea here. Particularly, the process of dividing up topics into areas of agreement, factual questions, and philosophical discussion is an excellent one - and would be well applied elsewhere.

However. As long as any, er, individual with a Rolodex and the phone number of a reporter for the Times or the Post can call themselves a "senior Democratic strategist" and proceed to throw dungballs at the party, without consequence, I don't think much is going to change. There are too many folks whose central concern is their own income. They're not Democrats, they're just unRepubicans. But somehow they've gotten themselves into positions where they can claim to speak for Democrats. It's in their self-interest to sow chaos and fear, because that motivates candidates to hire them.

People out here in the not-DC part of the country have given extraordinary support to the Democratic Party this election. We are going to want something in return for that, and to my mind, the number one priority is accountability. We don't work for the party leadership, the party leadership works for US. I hope they get that.

My concern is that a victory in November will simply prompt the most egregious forms or stonewalling and opposition from the GOP which will certainly still control the House, and very possibly the Senate.

That means, despite our BEST efforts, years of American deaths and massive red ink in the budget. If Kerry is just Bush-lite, it's hard to see what Kerry's claim on a second term will be. It will be up to Kerry to draw clear contrasts between us and them, at least in terms of values and priorities, because it's unlikely he'll be able to get any genuine reforms in place.

Frankly, I've always been a bit suspicious of Penn's analyses, and this time is no different.

I mean there's honestly just no evidence that the populist message scares anybody except dyed-in-the-wool Republicans, whose votes we won't get anyway.

And frankly, Iraq as it currently stands is a failed enterprise, undertaken for the wrong reasons. To not say so would be disingenuous, and would play into the Republicans' hands (they would accuse trhe Democrats of aping them). Penn's mistake, I believe, is in thinking that there is no issue in which the public might prefer a liberal-leaning alternative. But public opinion speaks for itself. If the public wants a change on the Iraq policy, then it wants a change. Willing it away won't make it so.

There will be one of two possible obvious outcomes to the election.
If John Kerry wins, the whole party must unite behind him and loyally support all of his positions exactly. Not because we worship him as a dear leader (as the incumbent party worships the person in the White House). Not because Kerry is a genius who is always right. But because he will face enormous opposition and a four-year smear campaign. And because he will be the best vehicle for achieving our economic, cultural, environmental, and diplomatic goals. Kerry's "straddling" is a successful strategy of bringing out party together, and we must continue it.
If John Kerry loses, we must remain united in our basic policy goals -- enforcement of constitutional liberties; defense of the equality and dignity of all human beings; preservation of the ecological balance of our planet; ensurance that every American share in the bounty that only free markets under the rule of law can provide; leadership by the United States of the community of democracies in concert against tyranny and theocracy.
We must continue to push for all these things in the Congress, in the courts, in the streets. We will take comfort in that all those who voted for John Kerry, plus all those who voted for the minor parties (Naderite, Libertarian, Constitution, and Green) will have all voted against the incumbent's Iraq war policy.
A majority will have voted anti-war, regardless of who wins! Let Anne Coulter denounce 50.0001 % of Americans as traitors!

This faux Democratic unity will never take. What we have now is a one-party system - the corporate party - with a Democratic wing and a Republican wing. No amount of pleading or cajoling is going to make the progressive movement go away.

We will unify to get rid of Bush, but then our long-term agenda will take over, and that is to get rid of the Corporate Party and create the Democratic Party in the image of the people.