Archive for Monday, October 17, 2005

Democratic fix is easier said than done

October 17, 2005


It's a lot easier to analyze the Democratic Party's problems than to solve them.

That's my conclusion from a new study by two of the party's smartest analysts.

They are Bill Galston, a one-time University of Texas professor, and Elaine Kamarck, both long active in party affairs.

Their 1989 study "The Politics of Evasion" accused Democrats of a "systematic denial of reality" that failed to recognize that most Americans believed them "inattentive to their economic interests, indifferent if not hostile to their moral sentiments and ineffective in defense of their national security."

They write that it "played a modest role" in helping Bill Clinton win the White House by promising changes in the party's traditional orthodoxy on welfare reform, trade and fiscal discipline.

In retrospect, they say Clinton's tenure helped "to improve the image of Democrats as able managers of the economy" but failed to overcome its problems on values issues and national security.

As a result, their analysis of the party's current state, "The Politics of Polarization," features a prescription bearing substantial similarity to the ideas they stressed in 1989.

They argue persuasively that Democrats "have fallen prey" to four myths of how to win: energizing their base to increase turnout; benefiting from demographic changes like the increase in Hispanics; overcoming issues deficits with more effective language; and stressing domestic issues over cultural and national security ones.

The reality, they note, is there are more conservatives to mobilize than liberals; the historic Democratic margin among Hispanics is declining; language doesn't overcome substance; and many voters are concerned about cultural and national security issues.

They say the country has not become more conservative, citing polls showing the percentage of self-identified liberals, conservatives and moderates has stayed the same for 30 years. But since there are far more self-identified conservatives than self-identified liberals, polarization has helped the conservative party, the GOP.

As a result, Galston and Kamarck conclude that Democrats must win a substantial majority of self-identified moderates to win national elections.

But several of their key prescriptions collide with the political realities of 2005:

"Confront the current myths of the Democratic Party," including the idea that mobilization is the key to success. But both Howard Dean, the party's national chairman, and some of the increasingly active liberal fundraising groups, buy that "myth."

"Stop hiding behind domestic policy and honestly confront the biggest issue of our time: national defense and especially the use of military force." But the biggest current defense issue is the war in Iraq, and increasing doubts about its wisdom are increasing pressure on top Democrats who backed the war, like Sens. Joseph Biden, D-Del., and Hillary Rodham Clinton, D-N.Y. How they maintain a pro-defense stance amid the pressure to get out of Iraq will be a major challenge.

"Show tolerance and common sense on hot-button social issues." They argue that, while maintaining support of abortion rights, Democrats should end "their intransigence on questions such as parental notification and partial-birth abortion." But powerful liberal groups indicated in opposing John G. Roberts Jr. they were not ready for such compromises.

"Support an economic policy that embraces global competition." But economic pressures on individual Democrats led many to oppose the latest pact aimed at expanding trade, the Central America Free Trade Agreement.

"Pay more attention to the very personal quality of elections, especially presidential elections, in the media age." That means nominating candidates whose strength, integrity and empathy attract a majority of Americans.

Unlike the wide-open race that permitted Bill Clinton to emerge and change the party in 1992, Democrats face a potentially polarizing 2008 presidential race because of Hillary Clinton's strong early position. Whether she can reshape her image to fit the Galston-Kamarck prescription may be a key to the 2008 campaign.

Their conclusions make a lot of sense. Getting Democrats to follow them will be a lot harder.

Carl P. Leubsdorf is Washington bureau chief of the Dallas Morning News.


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