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Labor Day Memo to Democrats: Don’t Get Small

Rahm Emanuel, the spiritual heir to... ... Steve Martin??

On the day that marks the traditional start of election races, the New York Times tells us this morning:

After a year of political turmoil, Republicans enter the fall campaign with their control of the House in serious jeopardy, the possibility of major losses in the Senate, and a national mood so unsettled that districts once considered safely Republican are now competitive, analysts and strategists in both parties say.

. . . Two independent political analysts have, in recent weeks, forecast a narrow Democratic takeover of the House, if current political conditions persist. Stuart Rothenberg, who had predicted Democratic gains of 8 to 12 seats in the House, now projects 15 to 20. Democrats need 15 to regain the majority. Charles Cook, the other analyst, said: “If nothing changes, I think the House will turn. The key is, if nothing changes.

Uh-oh, cue the Darth Vader theme music.  The empire is preparing to strike back. 

Republican leaders are determined to change things. Unlike the Democrats of 1994, caught off guard and astonished when they lost control of the Senate and the House that year, the Republicans have had ample warning of the gathering storm.

. . . The strategic imperative facing the Republicans, many analysts say, is clear: transform each competitive race from a national referendum on Mr. Bush and one-party Republican rule into a choice between two individuals — and define the Democratic challengers as unacceptable.

“Democrats are trying to indict an entire class of people, who happen to be called Republican candidates for Congress,” said Glen Bolger, a Republican pollster handling dozens of House races. “We have to bring individual indictments with different cases and different pieces of evidence.

Mr. Bolger added, “If you like positive campaigns, you’re going to be let down.

Let’s talk a little bit about the shape these "indictments" are likely to take, and what Democrats can do to maximize their current advantage in the polls. 

In a separate article on Darth Turdblossom himself yesterday, the NYT said:

Mr. Rove . . . has settled on a narrow strategy to try to minimize Congressional losses while tending to Mr. Bush’s political strength. The White House will reprise the two T’s of its successful campaign strategy since 2002: terrorism and turnout.

They have determined that control of Congress is likely to be settled in as few as six states and have decided to focus most of the party’s resources there. . . . The Republican National Committee expects to spend over $60 million, which would be a record, for the midterm elections. Officials say half of that would pay for get-out-the-vote operations in the targeted states.

We’ve already seen the "terrorism" part of the equation in the Shrub-in-Chief’s increasingly hysterical series of speeches on Iraq, with overwrought predictions of the horrible fate that will befall Americans if we keep following abandon Dubya’s policies. 

And even though the War on Terror™ fearmongering has become harder for the Bushites to sell, with reality from Iraq stepping on their message just about every day, the fact is that it’s still a vivid, easily understood narrative — a flag of sorts that can be seen waving above the smoke and chaos of a campaign battlefield, keeping the authoritarian Republican base focused and motivated.  Combined with $60 million in negative ads and GOTV efforts, that kind of well-defined narrative (however distant from reality it is) could still make the difference in the November elections.

Which is why the worst thing that Democrats could do over the next two months is try to combat the GOP barrage with tone-deaf messages like those delivered by party hacks Rahm Emanuel and Bruce Reed in (caution: choking hazard) The Plan: Big Ideas for America.  The best, most concise obituary I’ve seen for this dead-on-arrival tome was delivered by Ezra Klein:

I’ve flipped through The Plan a bit, and I doubt I’ve ever seen a book with a subtitle so deeply misleading. This is warmed over, second term Clintonism at its most incrementialist. I’m one of six people in this country who get excited over policy papers and even I wanted to cry. The typical chapter would mention an awesome Big Idea, then decide it’s politically unfeasible, and promise to push 1/10th the policy but with More! Awesome! Market! Mechanisms!

For an example, here’s how a more positive review praises the book: 

Perhaps the most arresting part of the Plan concerns national security, the Democrats’ perennial weak spot. Again echoing Senator Clinton, he wants 100,000 more soldiers for America’s overstretched army. He also wants an elite agency to fight domestic terrorism, like Britain’s MI5. . . . Most radically, he wants all Americans aged 18-25 to undergo three months of compulsory disaster-training.

If there’s anyone out there impressed by that, could you please explain to me how any of these represent "bigger ideas" than what John Kerry endorsed in 2004?  And how did that turn out in terms of erasing the poor Democratic brand image on national security?

I don’t mean to be unduly pessimistic; perhaps the Republicans’ colossal and extensively demonstrated incompetence will be enough to hand Democrats both houses of Congress all by itself in November.  But their legendary "closing ability" in past elections suggests that isn’t the case — instead, they manage to pull through on the strength of a stronger narrative, a theme that remains visible even as the airwaves are filled with a million contradictory, confusing campaign ads.

What will that theme be for Democrats?   Can’t it be more than just "Bush sucks, and… um, we’re not Bush"?  Rather than repackaging the same old small-bore policies under a bright "Big Ideas" banner and hoping no one notices, why not a simple theme which tells Americans not only that we’ll change the country, but the direction in which we’ll change it?

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Swopa has been sharing prescient, if somewhat anal-retentive, analysis and garden-variety mockery with Internet readers since 1995 or so, when he began debunking the fantasies of Clinton-scandal aficionados on Usenet. He is currently esconced as the primary poster at Needlenose (