The Language of a Democratic Realignment: What Kind of People Are Democrats?
The New York Times this morning offers an interesting bit of poll analysis:
Among registered voters, 33 percent said they planned to support for Republicans, and 52 percent said they would vote for Democrats. . . .
Coming at the conclusion of a contentious midterm campaign, voters said that neither Democrats nor Republican had offered a plan for governing should they win on Tuesday, the poll found. Yet Americans have some clear notions of how government might change if Democrats win control of Congress: Beyond a quicker exit from Iraq, respondents said they thought a Democratic Congress would be more likely to increase the minimum wage, hold down rapidly rising health and prescription drugs costs, improve the economy and — as Republicans have said frequently in these closing days of the campaign — raise taxes.
. . . Nearly 75 percent of respondents — including 67 percent of Republicans and 92 percent of Democrats — said they expected American troops would be taken out of Iraq more swiftly under a Democratic Congress.
Well, so much for that "no one knows what Democrats stand for" meme, huh? And to think that the voters polled by the NYT figured this out all by themselves, without any great help from the corporate media.
But as the manufactured controversy surrounding John Kerry over the last couple of days has shown, the Democrats' overall image problems are far from solved — even if next Tuesday's elections go as well as we all hope. When I began writing about "the language of a Democratic realignment" a month and a half ago, I quoted Paul Waldman:
If there's one thing Republicans have understood and Democrats haven't, it is that politics is not about issues. Politics is about identity. The candidates and parties that win are not those aligning their positions most precisely with a majority of the electorate. The winners are those who form a positive image in the public mind of who they are (and a negative image of who their opponents are).
So, if you're wondering why the GOP seemed to be running against John Kerry all of a sudden, just look at this loathsome Republican Party web ad and you'll see exactly what Waldman is talking about.
The unspoken, but obvious message of the ad is that Republicans are the kind of people who love and honor our nation's soldiers, while Democrats are the kind of people who sneer and make jokes about them. Forget the issues — which kind of people do you want running this country?
This is the identity-based appeal that the GOP has polished over the past few decades… and despite their momentary success in conveying the policy changes they would make if they take back Congress in 2006, it's the gap Democrats need to fill if they want not just to win an election, but to begin a genuine political realignment.
I've done my share of writing here and elsewhere on exactly what kind of distinction I think Democrats should draw: that Republicans are the kind of people who betray fundamental trusts, while Democrats are the kind of people with enough common sense to recognize the moral duty of solving real problems. It's not just a matter of the "closing message" for the last week of the election campaign, but the kind of issues Democrats choose to set the agenda if they regain control of one or both houses of Congress.
What actions would restore the fundamental breaches of faith wrought by the GOP? What legislation would truly represent doing the people's business, rather than pursuing a partisan agenda? As I noted in the latter post:
If you think of Jimmy Stewart in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, you've got exactly the kind of identity that Democrats should be projecting — not ideologues wanting to revolutionize the world with grandiose schemes, but honest, morally centered men and women who want to do the right thing and are smart and determined enough to get it done.
Granted, the ad for Ned Lamont at the top of this post (via My Left Nutmeg) might… umm… be taking this advice a little too literally. But at least it's thinking in the right direction.