How can Democrats combat the "Enthusiasm Gap" that threatens to cause severe Democratic losses this fall? The first step is to ask the right question --- why is Republican enthusiasm so high this year rather than why is Democratic enthusiasm so low.
Almost all the discussions of the "enthusiasm gap" in recent weeks have tended to define the problem as the low level of enthusiasm among Democrats - a perspective that tends to suggest that "disappointment" with Obama is probably the major cause. From this perspective the most direct response would appear to be for Democratic strategists to try to challenge and refute this perception - to argue, in effect, that "Obama is really better than many Democrats seem to think he is".
But, in fact, Democratic enthusiasm only appears as dramatically low as it does in this non-presidential election year (when turnout is far below election years in any case) because it is being compared with the unusually high level of Republican enthusiasm. This alternate way of viewing the issue leads to a very different set of conclusions about the strategy Democrats should use to combat the problem.
The key fact is that Republicans and conservatives do not see this race as anything like a normal off-year election. Instead, it is for them a decisive battle in a life-or-death existential struggle -- a no-holds-barred campaign to bring down Obama and reverse the 2008 election. It is a vision of politics as a bitter ideological and social war and conservatives as an army on the march with a vast overarching objective -- to "take back our country" from the forces that have literally stolen it from its rightful owners.
At the heart of the current conservative/Republican coalition is a powerfully energized conservative social movement - one with very strong and widely shared military and paramilitary overtones. This generates a high level of what in military terms is called "morale" - a powerful mixture of passion, commitment, élan, fighting spirit, camaraderie and group cohesion.
Among the core conservative activists themselves this high level of morale has developed in the course of work and collaboration. During the last year and a half friendships were formed, afternoons and weekends were spent working together on projects, successes and failures were shared, all of which built team spirit, optimism and a shared vision of heroic struggle against a uniquely evil, dedicated foe. This energy and enthusiasm was then propagated out into the comment threads of conservative blogs, the discussion groups on Tea Party websites and through e-mail chain letters passed virally among families and social circles. This process has established and disseminated an essentially warlike and combative tone to the 2010 Republican campaign that easily meshes with the similarly combative programming of Fox news and talk radio. The resulting mixture has then been transmitted again and again to a large portion of the Republican electorate.
There is simply nothing comparable to this psychology on the Democratic side. Large numbers of the voters who comprised the Obama coalition in 2008 simply do not see the 2010 elections as a vast do-or-die battle between two contending political armies struggling for control of the country and the future of America. They see it as a conventional off-year election where a patchwork variety of opposing candidates with different philosophies compete for office. As a result they simply do not have the high morale and fighting spirit of conservatives and Republicans. The broad and unifying "yes we can" spirit that was created during the 2008 campaign dissipated soon after the election. The massive Obama for America online organization sharply narrowed its focus to building support for specific elements of Obama's agenda while other progressives redirected their efforts to promoting specific progressive issues and causes - a focus that frequently brought them into conflict with the administration. Both of these trends substantially diluted and dampened the broad "yes we can" unity and enthusiasm of the 2008 campaign.
The inevitable result was lowered morale, a literal demoralization of the Democratic base that is expressed in three distinct narratives
• That Obama has been a disappointment to his supporters and that not bothering to vote is therefore a logical reaction.
• That the Democratic candidate in a particular district is insufficiently progressive or otherwise unappealing and that not voting for him or her is therefore a reasonable reaction.
• That Washington politics is hopeless and that there is consequently no reason to participate in a useless exercise.
All of these reactions reflect a shared mental model of 2010 as a typical election and not a major and coordinated conservative assault on Democrats in a bitter ideological war. It is this notion of "2010 as just a normal election" that Democratic strategy must first and foremost challenge.
The DNC, OFA and other Democratic campaign organizations are now refining their message to define the coming election as a stark choice between two vastly different alternative futures rather than a referendum on Obama's first year and a half in office and to suggest that a wide range of distasteful policies will be pursued if the Republicans win control of the House of Representatives.
This is fine as far as it goes but it does not bring into focus the distinct, very aggressive threat that the militarized and hyper-ideological "take back our country" campaign poses to Democrats across the country.
The key message that needs to be communicated to "stay at home" Democrats is this: 2010 is not a typical election. It is a bitter nationwide conservative political offensive that is aimed directly and specifically at "people like you"
If the Republicans win control of the House of Representatives it is not a loose collection of conservative candidates who will declare victory but an organized and militant conservative movement. This movement will take complete credit for the victory, assert that the results provide complete vindication for its views and argue that it demonstrates complete majority support for its agenda. The movement will redouble its efforts, increase its pressure, seek new targets and intensify its activities.
There will be three very dramatic consequences:
First, there will be a congressionally based attack on the White House similar to what occurred during the Clinton years - a blizzard of subpoenas regarding phony scandals like Whitewater, the "murder" of Vince Foster, "drug dealing" in Arkansas and so on. This is already in preparation. As an article in Politico notes:
"if Rep. Darell Issa becomes Chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee in 2011, he is making plans to hire dozens of subpoena-wielding investigators...Issa wants to be to the Obama administration what Rep. Dan Burton (R-Ind.) was to the Clinton administration -- a subpoena machine in search of White House scandals. "
Second, there will be a vastly increased range of attacks against liberal and progressive organizations modeled on the attacks on ACORN. One can get some flavor of the coming attacks from a Playboy article written by one conservative political operative.
...a large number of people in our group have military backgrounds. Their catchphrase is "remember guys, the enemy is to the left"
...The ACORN blood tasted good.
...we've acquired Service Employees International Union tea shirts to wear at Tea Party rallies...
...there will be more stings. If you are part of a large organization with a vested interest in the Obama administration, be afraid.
Third, many issues and policies that are now considered "extremist" will gain credibility and move toward the mainstream. Initiatives that have been launched by individual congressmen or enacted in particular states, school districts or organizations will be promoted nationally. For example:
• Requiring all elementary and middle school teachers to report suspected illegal aliens to the INS
• Opening congressional investigations into the research of climate and environmental scientists whose work has been challenged by conservatives with the goal of damaging their academic reputations and "defunding" their research.
• Radically downgrading the role and stature of Thomas Jefferson in American history curriculums nationwide and revising textbooks to deny that the founding fathers supported the separation of church and state.
• Revising the Civil Rights act to allow private businesses to discriminate against blacks and other minorities (Of course, only for the most completely noble and altruistic reasons of libertarian ethical philosophy).
• Encouraging the "open carry" of guns in public places across the nation, and especially at political events.
• Opening impeachment proceedings against Obama on grounds of his ineligibility for office or his conduct as president.
It is the strong likelihood of these "extremist" results of a Republican re-conquest of the House of Representatives and others like them that need to be communicated to the current "unenthusiastic" Democratic voters. It is probably impossible to convince many Democrats not to feel disappointed that Obama has not been able to accomplish more than he has, but it should be entirely possible to convince them that -- to put it colloquially -- "they better get off their asses and vote" if they don't want to face far worse consequences in the future.
Here is one example of the way such a message can be framed:
Why "disappointed" Democrats should still get out and vote
This election is not about Obama or Washington or anybody on the ballot - it's about you
When the Republicans say they want to "take back our country" in November, they mean that they want to take it away from people like you.
When Sarah Palin says her "mama grizzlies" and "pit bulls" are getting ready to snarl and bite, the people she's threatening are people like you
When John Boehner gives a speech with the refrain "hell no you can't", he's talking directly to people like you.
You see, the Republicans think they know what makes a "real" American -- and that they're the only ones who qualify. They think anyone who thinks or acts differently -- like you - just isn't quite as "real" an American as they are. And they think that gives them the right to try and make you live and think and behave the way that they think you ought to.
This election isn't about stuff going on far away in Washington. It's about things that are going to start happening right next door. It's about whether you let a conservative coalition get into power because of low off-year turnout that is going to tell you that this isn't really your country, that your opinions don't count and that "hell no you can't" have any of the things that you and a majority of other Americans voted for two years ago.
If you don't vote to stop them now, you'll meet them soon enough when they start showing up at your front door. They won't stop trying to take back what they call "their" country from you and people like you until enough Americans stand up and say "Alright, damn it. That's enough. I'm an American too, every bit as American as you are."
This November will be your one big chance to send them that message - and if you don't vote, the only message you'll be sending is that they can go right ahead and do whatever the hell they want -- to you, to your family and to all the people you care about -- because you won't lift a finger to stop them.