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How to Build a Majority

You might summarize the key difference in political practice between Democrats and Republicans as follows: Democrats take majority positions and build minority support; Republicans take minority positions and build majority support. Or, to put it a bit more precisely; Democrats generally hold majority positions but emphasize minority aspects of those positions which leads to minority support; Republicans generally hold minority positions, but emphasize majority aspects of those positions which helps them build majority support.

Paul Starr provides some examples of this dynamic in his important op-ed in Wednesday's New York Times, "Winning Cases, Losing Voters". Starr dwells in particular on three social issues that have caused difficulties for Democrats: gay rights; abortion rights; and affirmative action.

Rebuilding a national political majority will mean distinguishing between positions that contribute to a majority and those that detract from it. As last year's disastrous crusade for gay marriage illustrated, Democrats cannot allow their constituencies to draw them into political terrain that can't be defended at election time. Dissatisfied with compromise legislation on civil unions and partner benefits, gay organizations thought they could get from judges, beginning with those on the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court, what the electorate was not yet ready to give. The result: bans on same-sex marriage passing in 11 states and an energized conservative voting base.

Public support for abortion rights is far greater than for gay marriage, but compromise may be equally imperative - especially if a reshaped Supreme Court reverses Roe v. Wade by finding that there is no constitutional right to abortion and throws the issue back to the states. Some savvy Democrats are already thinking along these lines, as Hillary Clinton showed this week when she urged liberals to find "common ground" with those who have misgivings about abortion.

And if a new Supreme Court overturns affirmative-action laws, Democrats will need to pursue equality in ways that avoid treating whites and blacks differently. Some liberals have long been calling for an emphasis on "race neutral" economic policies to recover support among working-class and middle-income white voters. Legal and political necessity may now drive all Democrats in that direction.

In each of these areas--gay rights, abortion rights and affirmative action--Democrats hold a general view that has strong public support (pro-tolerance and anti-discrimination, keeping abortion safe and legal and promoting opportunity for the disadvantaged). These are majority positions. But gay marriage, no restrictions on abortion and racial preferences are not and Democrats have suffered, as Starr points out, from becoming more identified with those minority views than with the broad majority positions the public supports.

This dynamic is a big problem and it prevents Democrats from realizing the potentially big political payoff from the fact that independent voters, as the new Pew Research Center study shows, are now generally much closer to Democrats than Republicans on a wide range of issues. But Democrats' insistence on leading with their chin on many issues has allowed the GOP to escape serious punishment from these voters. (In 2004, for example, Kerry carried independent voters by only a single point, despite the trend just alluded to; if Kerry had carried these voters by 5 points or more, it would have been a different election with a different result.)

The Democrats' goal should be to have these voters punish the GOP severely for their minority positions on many of these same issues. To do this, Democrats need to practice the basic approach recommended by Starr above: "Rebuilding a national political majority will mean distinguishing between positions that contribute to a majority and those that detract from it."

Easy to say, harder to do. But very, very necessary.