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Lessons Learned, Part I

It's traditional at the end of the year to take stock of the previous twelve months and derive lessons learned. And when it comes to politics, we Democrats have been subjected to some tough schoolin.' So between now and New Year's Eve, I'll do a series of posts outlining what we've learned and what remains in the realm of debate and (sometimes) dissension. Perhaps the most surprising development of 2004 was the re-election of a president with a shaky record, a vague (at best) second-term agenda, and a strategy focused on ideological polarization and base mobilization. This is the first time since 1948 that such a strategy has worked for an incumbent president, and it's arguably only the second time (the other being 1988) since then that a presidential candidate has won while doing relatively little to reach out to swing voters and other "persuadables." Some Democrats have interpreted this development as a clear sign that we should do likewise, forgetting about swing voters and simply doing everything imaginable to get our own base excited. Of course, some of those same Democrats would favor that strategy no matter what the 2004 results indicated. Let's don't forget that people like Joe Trippi were arguing a year ago that the best model for Democrats was the Goldwater '64 approach of slow but steady movement-building around a hard-core oppositional message. There are several problems with this proposed "lesson learned." 1) Bush's polarization strategy worked in no small part because conservatives outnumber liberals by a three-to-two margin nationally, and by better than a two-to-one margin in some relatively competitive "red states." This means Democrats have to win moderates by a sizeable margin; Kerry won them by 11, and it wasn't enough. It's hard to see how a Democratic strategy of pure counter-mobilization will do anything other than reinforce the conservative advantage in a polarized electorate. 2) As Mark Gersh showed in his recent Blueprint analysis of three key battleground states, the Kerry campaign hit virtually all of its own "mobilization" targets for Democratic voters. For the foreseeable future, and for a variety of reasons, Democrats cannot expect to regain the advantage we had in get-out-the-vote efforts up through 2000. And while it's entirely possible to find fault with the Kerry campaign's difficulties in presenting a sharp, compelling critique of the Bush administration (its strange refusal to criticize the Republican Party as a whole being exhibit A), I don't think anybody could seriously argue that the Democratic base was poorly motivated in the end. Bush himself took care of that chore for us. 3) Despite its relative lack of attention to swing voters, the Bush campaign did indeed have a message for the country as a whole, and a strong, if often savage and dishonest, litany of abuse designed to raise doubts about Kerry as the alleged avatar of Northeastern Elitism and pre-Clinton liberalism. One way to "occupy the political center" is simply to push the other guy out by claiming he's more extreme. The Bushies did an excellent job of doing just that, and in the absence of a clear and compelling positive message from Democrats, it was enough to tilt a close election to a weak incumbent. 4) It took the conservative movement 16 years after Goldwater to take over the Republican Party; and another 14 years after that to take over Congress. And the 2002-2004 elections represent the very first signs that they have achieved a real national majority--an incredibly tiny and fragile majority at that. This doesn't strike me as an especially promising path for Democrats to take; we need to win immediately, not after some long period of ideologically rigid "movement-building," because the damage the GOP will do to this country if given even a short period of dominance is horrifying. For all these reasons, I think there's a growing consensus among Democrats today that (a) mobilization of partisans and ideologues is not enough; we need a persuasion strategy as well; (b) we're the out-party now, and no longer have any excuse for behaving as the Party of Government; (c) you just cannot win a presidential election without a clear, overarching message, defined as a theme or two that explain what you propose to do to organize public resources to address the needs and interests of the American people at home and abroad; and (d) that message must, for the foreseeable future, address the perceived weakness and incoherence of Democrats on national security issues; the perceived elitism and relativism of Democrats in terms of their understanding of the direction of American society and culture; and the perceived obsession of Democrats with a program-heavy, values-lite approach to economic and other domestic issues. There's plenty of room for argument about how to deal with all four of these lessons, but it's useful to keep reminding ourselves that all four are at least as important as, and perhaps much more important than, the money and mechanics that political pros tend to favor as the solution to every problem.