Thursday, August 31, 2006

A few suggestions for the "gloom and doom" party

The national Democrats are fond of saying these days that they’re more united than ever. In terms of their shared antipathy toward President Bush, that’s certainly true. But harmony does not reign otherwise. There are still substantive intramural tensions, not just on issues, but on the best way to communicate those issues. And I’m not even talking about the ongoing party debate over whether it’s politically smart to push for a troop withdrawal timetable in Iraq.

Take, for instance, the party’s checkered efforts to court the average middle-class voter.

It’s a basic truism in national politics that whoever wins the white middle-class electorate wins the election. Care to guess which party has been losing lately?

Two Democratic camps in recent years have often squabbled, at times acrimoniously, about the best way to woo the white middle class: the liberal wing has argued that the party needs to craft a populist message that stands up for the little guy who is getting screwed by the rich and the special interests (big oil, big pharmaceuticals, big corporations that send our jobs overseas); however, moderate and pro-business Democrats have been arguing since the mid-‘80s that such a message is too gloomy and too combative, that most middle-class voters actually aspire to be rich, and that a more sunny, upbeat message will work best with that key electoral cohort.

The last two Democratic presidential candidates tried to straddle these two camps, without much success. Al Gore tried a populist message in 2000 (“the people versus the powerful”), and while it worked with wavering labor voters, it was basically phony, because (as I wrote at the time) Gore himself was hardly a working-class hero. By mid-summer that year, he had raised $30 million from the special-interest sector that he was publicly railing against.

As for John Kerry, he also tried a populist message, claiming that dark economic forces were threatening the middle class, and assailing “Benedict Arnold CEOs” who shipped jobs overseas. But this was somewhat phony too, because (as I also wrote at the time), Kerry had voted in the Senate for free trade agreements such as NAFTA, and he had also taken campaign money from “Benedict Arnold” firms and executives.

So, to review: The last two Democratic nominees adopted populist language that didn’t really suit them...and didn’t attract the white middle-class anyway. The stats say it all: In 2000, George W. Bush beat Gore among white middle-class voters by 15 points; that same year, with those same voters, Republican congressional candidates beat their Democratic opponents by 14 points. In 2004, Bush beat Kerry among those voters by 22 points, and congressional Republicans won them by 19 points.

Hence, the internal Democratic debate about how to woo the middle class is still very much alive. The latest salvo was launched this week by a trio of Democratic activists who believe that something is fundamentally wrong when the party that styles itself as the champion of the middle class can’t even win over white voters who make between $30,000 and $75,000 a year. (And that's quite a non-achievement, considering the fact that, as the polls indicate, the Republicans are still widely viewed as the party of the rich.)

Writing in a new publication, The Democratic Strategist, the authors, all of whom have ties to a new group called Third Way (which bills itself as “a strategy center for progressives”), lowered the boom on the party’s penchant for populist rhetoric:

“Democrats must first realize that they have a problem -- no, actually a crisis -- with the middle class....(In 2000 and 2004) we got slaughtered among the white middle class....Folks, if bashing rich people, the oil industry, and the drug companies were an effective political strategy, jets would be landing at Michael Dukakis National Airport in Washington.”

Anne Kim, Adam Solomon, and Jim Kessler are basically contending that the Democrats should quit their rhetoric about powerful forces threatening the little guy, because, they say, the little guy is actually an optimist by nature, and tend to respond more favorably to a sunny, aspirational message. The kind of message that the GOP has virtually trademarked since Ronald Reagan.

They write: “Whether it's the ‘people versus the powerful’...or John Kerry's ‘Benedict Arnold companies’ where American workers see their factories ‘unbolted, crated up, and shipped thousands of miles away,’ the Democratic economic message is pervasively pessimistic. Democrats see the American Dream fading, the middle class being squeezed, jobs disappearing, schools crumbling, and wages stagnating. That is not the way middle-class Americans view their own lives.” Basically, they say that modest wage earners aren’t motivated by resentment against the rich; rather, these earners want to BE rich.

The Kim-Solomon-Kessler argument is bound to enrage many Democratic liberals who would prefer to draw sharp contrasts between the parties and avoid any rhetoric that might sound like me-too Republicanese (such as a sunny Reaganesque message)....although I was somewhat surprised this morning to see a semi-friendly critique on the Daily Kos website.

During the runup to the ‘08 Democratic primaries, we will see this debate play out among the candidates. John Edwards’ “two Americas” message, for instance, appears more populist than Evan Bayh’s middle-class aspirational talk. But the bottom line, for now, is that the Third Way activists have at least defined one of the Democratic party’s core challenges, going forward.