Advice Overload for the Democrats
A Step-by-Step Guide for Democrats

By Michael Grunwald
Sunday, June 11, 2006

These are dark days for the Republican Party. Voters are angry at the government over the war in Iraq, the price of gas, Capitol Hill corruption, out-of-control spending, the Dubai port deal -- and Republicans control the government. They failed to deliver Social Security reform or ethics reform, and now they're failing to deliver immigration reform. After Katrina and Haditha, NSA wiretapping and CIA bungling, President Bush's approval ratings have sunk to Jimmy Carter levels. As the Jack Abramoff lobbying scandal spreads, the GOP congressional leadership's ratings are approaching O.J. Simpson levels. And now the Fed is warning that the economy may tank.

So the political pundits, as always, want to know: What's wrong with the Democrats?

It may seem like an odd question, now that polls show voters trust Democrats more than Republicans on every major issue -- including national security. But even Democrats -- especially Democrats -- seem to think their party is uniquely capable of snatching defeat from the jaws of victory this fall. And all around the Beltway and the blogosphere, every self-flagellating Democratic expert seems to know why.

The problem with Democrats is that they're too liberal. Or not liberal enough. They talk too much (or not enough) about abortion or torture or gun control. They're too condescending, too cosmopolitan, too secular, too wonkish, too weak. They've been captured by their interest groups, their contributors, their pollsters, their consultants. They're on the wrong side of a demographic revolution. Joe Sixpack doesn't want to have a beer with them. They should think strategically instead of tactically, or they should forget about strategy and speak from the heart. They aren't catering to values voters, heartland voters, exurban voters. They aren't motivating their base. They don't have a unified national message, or they're too worried about a unified national message. They need to do more than criticize Bush, or stop rolling over for Bush. They're too disconnected to understand what voters want to hear, or too cowardly to say things voters don't want to hear. They should imitate the Republican intellectual infrastructure that produces the conservative movement's big ideas, or imitate the Republican anti-intellectual attitude that doesn't worry about big ideas. Or they should stop imitating Republicans.

It can seem confusing, all this contradictory advice. But most of it reveals more about the biases of the advice-givers than it reveals about the party's prospects of regaining power.

Today's Republican Party is a mishmash of schisms -- between social conservatives and moderates, foreign-policy interventionists and realists, Wall Street and Main Street and K Street. Today's Democratic Party has just one basic schism, between liberals and centrists. But that schism -- reflected in an avalanche of recent books, articles and blogs -- helps explain most of the party's soul-searching: Liberals want the party to be more liberal. Centrists want the party to be more centrist. And those biases tend to translate into diagnoses of the party's ailments, and prescriptions for cures.

For example, liberal analysts usually argue that Democrats need to tack left to fire up their base, instead of blindly following the centrist Democratic Leadership Council. Markos Moulitsas, the proprietor of the Daily Kos blog and coauthor of "Crashing the Gate," is more pragmatic than his critics suggest, but he generally argues that Democrats should do more to distinguish themselves from Republicans, that their core supporters have been discouraged by me-too DLC types who supported Bush's tax cuts and the Iraq war. In "Hostile Takeover," former congressional aide David Sirota goes even further, accusing DLC free-traders of ruining the party by selling out to corporate donors, "even as polls show Americans want Democrats to start standing up for people's economic rights."

Predictably, centrist analysts usually argue that Democrats need to tack right to reach out to swing voters. In their book "Take It Back," James Carville and Paul Begala urge Democrats to moderate or at least play down their support for abortion, gay rights and gun control; they also tell the party's liberal interest groups -- civil rights advocates, labor unions, environmentalists -- to "back off a bit." Jeffrey Goldberg recently suggested similar strategies in a New Yorker article highlighting moderate red-state Democrats complaining about their tone-deaf, anti-gun, pro-abortion party establishment. Karl Rove may win elections with a base strategy, but as Goldberg notes, the Democratic base of liberals, one-fifth of the country, is a lot smaller than the Republican base of conservatives, one-third of the country. A recent DLC study called "Growing the Vote" suggests that as traditionally liberal urban cores lose population, Democrats need to reshape their messages to appeal to fast-growing (and more conservative) exurbs.

Most internal Democratic debates are disguised variations on that center-left theme. On national security, for example, moderate analysts urge Democrats to convince Americans that they're patriotic, that they support the military, that they'll win the fight against terrorism. To the extent that they want to hear about Iraq, they urge Democrats to call for "competence" and "victory," not retreat. "The American electorate will not turn over national leadership to a party it does not trust to defend the country and lead our military," the DLC's think tank warned in "With All Our Might," a series of muscle-flexing essays with a stern-looking Uncle Sam on the cover. The red-state Democrats made similar points to Goldberg, complaining that Democrats sound like they hate America when they attack domestic surveillance or the prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. "We make a mistake if we think that just because people are fed up with George Bush they want George McGovern," one centrist said.

But progressives believe McGovern was right about the war in Vietnam, and they point out that most Americans now oppose the war in Iraq, including some of the pundit-hawks who warned that opposing the war would doom Democrats in 2004. (They're especially irked at New Republic columnist Peter Beinart, who admits in "The Good Fight" that he was wrong to support the invasion, but still warns that knee-jerk antiwar sentiment in an age of jihad could doom Democrats.) The left says America is yearning for "straight talk" about the quagmire unfolding in Iraq -- attacks on the war's rationale, and plans for swift withdrawal. They argue that the reluctance of leading Democrats to condemn the war is symptomatic of their general reluctance to say what they really believe, a reluctance that ultimately gets punished at the polls.

Similarly, lefties argue that Democrats should stop soft-pedaling their opposition to conservative Republicans on issues such as gay marriage, school prayer, immigration and especially the economy. They call for a new Democratic populism -- promoted by author Thomas Frank in his best-selling book "What's the Matter With Kansas?" -- that would win back working-class and middle-class voters with unapologetic appeals to their economic interests. They say Democrats have pulled punches to avoid being accused of "class warfare," even though Republicans started the class war by cutting taxes for the rich and showering subsidies on corporations. Democratic consultant Robert Shrum is the best-known purveyor of this theme, famously framing races as clashes of "the people vs. the powerful."

There is something comical about liberal assumptions that centrist Democrats must be hiding their true beliefs for political reasons, but many centrists do see class-war populism as a recipe for political disaster. They argue that Americans respond to optimistic we're-all-in-this-together messages, not old-fashioned rich-bashing. And they don't think anything is wrong with Kansas; their problem is city-slicker Democrats who see evangelicals as rubes, gun owners as Neanderthals and the heartland as flyover country. If Kansans don't like elitist Democrats who don't respect rural values, that's the party's fault.

This is the main conceit of Goldberg's article; it starts with Teresa Heinz Kerry urging a group of Missouri farmers to go organic. "It's a tone thing," Missouri U.S. Senate candidate Claire McCaskill (D) told Goldberg. "It's the 'We know better' thing." Another centrist complained that Democrats try to persuade New Hampshire voters to support income taxes, instead of recognizing that they hate income taxes and campaigning accordingly. Then again, one man's condescension is another man's leadership; centrists loved it when Bill Clinton criticized rapper Sister Souljah in front of a black audience. They didn't attack Clinton for disrespecting black values. And liberals didn't praise his "straight talk."

Democrats don't always provide ideologically self-serving advice; for example, liberal Michael Tomasky's recent American Prospect article urging Democrats to adopt a "common good" philosophy echoed some centrist frustration with single-issue interest groups. But it's usually moderates who want Democrats to be less elitist, less negative, more respectful of red-state values, more . . . moderate. It's usually liberals who want Democrats to be less apologetic, less wishy-washy, more willing to speak truth to power, more . . . liberal.

There's a telling example in Joe Klein's new book "Politics Lost," which skewers consultants in general and Shrum in particular. Klein hates the way consultants drain the humanity out of their candidates, forcing them to repeat poll-tested platitudes; Klein, a journalist, assumes voters share his journalistic aversion to hearing the same pablum over and over. He especially hates Shrum's "the people vs. the powerful" riff; the centrist Klein assumes voters share his centrist aversion to class-war politics.

Instead, he yearns for a more spontaneous politics, and he thinks America does, too. His most prominent example is Al Gore's passionate make-out session with his wife before his convention speech in 2000: "It said to the world that maybe Al Gore wasn't such a stiff after all." Klein notes that Gore's poll ratings quickly shot up 12 to 17 points, and quotes a Shrum rival attributing the bounce to the kiss.

It makes sense to be skeptical of Shrum's influence on the Democratic Party; he has an unblemished record of advising failed presidential candidates, and making buckets of money doing so. But though Klein rejects the notion, it's possible that voters may have noticed the content of Gore's speech as well as the smooch that preceded it.

Its main theme: the people vs. the powerful.

It's understandable that moderate pundits want moderate policies, liberal pundits want liberal policies, and Democratic candidates find it hard to choose. In a nation evenly split along partisan lines, anything they do to mobilize their base could alienate the center, and vice versa. But Republicans face the same quandary. And they're the ones in trouble.

So here's a radical thought: Maybe there's nothing wrong with the Democrats, politically speaking.

They've won the popular vote in three of the past four presidential elections. Their one outright loser was Sen. John F. Kerry, who had the liberal voting record that moderates warn about and the inability to take a stand that liberals warn about. Voters -- even his supporters -- told pollsters they didn't like him. But they weren't turned off by his entire party; Democrats won Senate races in red states such as Colorado and Arkansas in 2004, and ran far ahead of Kerry in South Dakota and Kentucky.

So how did Kerry become the party's standard-bearer? Democrats in Iowa and New Hampshire, liberal and moderate, thought a military veteran had the best chance to beat Bush. They analyzed the political landscape, tried to imagine what the American people wanted in a president and voted accordingly. Their analysis just happened to be wrong.

They voted, in other words, like pundits.

Maybe that's what's wrong with the Democrats.

Michael Grunwald is a Washington Post staff writer.

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company