The Democrats’ Thirty Year Plus Idea Drought

From the WAPO:

“Doug Hattaway, a Democratic communications consultant who worked for Al Gore’s presidential campaign in 2000, recalled a moment of epiphany during a focus group of Democratic operatives and marketing professionals he attended last year. The participants were asked to say what Democratic accomplishments they were most proud of. Their responses filled several pages on a flip chart set up in the focus group facility. “We all realized there was nothing there within the past 30 years,” Hattaway said.

Many Democratic politicians are still tied to past glory and what worries some of the progressives trying to generate new ideas is that elected officials are divorced from what is a lively debate-in-the-making on national security and domestic challenges. “Somehow or another this conversation does not really make its way to Democratic politicians very much,” said Michael Tomasky, editor of the liberal American Prospect.

The lone exception he cited was Bill Clinton and his presidency.

Baer offered a sharper critique of the politicians, criticizing as poll-driven and uninspired the 2006 campaign agenda issued by congressional Democrats. “You could go through it line by line and write the poll questions that generated each line,” he said.

The people in the middle of the Democrats’ idea week seem to agree on another point, which is that the two-decade-old battle between party centrists and liberals may have run its course. “I think the old centrist-liberal debate in the party is to some extent dead,” Teixeira said. “I think people have lost interest in that.”

The Democrats have lots of ideas. The problem is that their ideas aren’t popular. You want to know the ideas that are near and dear to the heart of the Democrats? Just listen to them regularly and look at the issues that they talk about with a lot of passion.

They want to cut and run in Iraq. They want to impeach Bush for whatever they think will fly. They want to roll back Bush’s tax cuts. They want to sign on to the Kyoto Treaty or create something similar, which would do major damage to America’s economy. They want to socialize our health care.

So why don’t they talk about those issues? Because the American people don’t want any of those things. So, as Baer referenced, they came up with a bloodless, poll-tested agenda full of items that they thought might appeal to the voters instead. But, we’re not talking about issues that really move them.

That’s why these efforts to come up with “new ideas” keep failing — because as Teixeira said, “The old centrist-liberal debate in the party is to some extent dead.” What Teixeira didn’t say is that the reason that debate isn’t as hot is because the centrists lost. There isn’t a free spirited debate about ideas happening on the left. Instead, what you find is a lot of Bush bashing and debate about how to beat Republicans. In the minds of most people on the left, the ideas are set — the only question is, “How do we foist these ideas on a public that doesn’t currently want them?” To do that, they’ve encouraged activism among judges and they consistently lie about the things they really care about in hopes of being able to do a bait-and-switch on the American people when they get into office.

Tomasky was right about Bill Clinton though. He did have a new idea, courtesy of Dick Morris: triangulation. In other words, his new idea was to go along with some big Republican ideas in hopes of being able to get in office and stay in office long enough to implement a few liberal ideas. The problem with that was that when Clinton strayed to the left too much, right at the beginning of his presidency, it helped lead to a Republican landslide in 1994. That, along with all the scandals, helped keep him from being able to implement a lot of Democratic ideas nearer and dearer to his heart, like Hillarycare. So in the end, Clinton’s biggest accomplishments, NAFTA, Welfare Reform, DOMA, and balancing the budget, all turned out to be things that were nearer and dearer to conservative hearts than liberal ones.

Long-term, there are only three plausible ways out of this mess for the Democrats. They can hope the Republicans completely collapse and put the Democrats in power basically by default. So far? It hasn’t happened, although Bush and the Republicans haven’t done themselves any favors this election cycle.

Another option would be to convince the American people that liberal ideas are really better than conservative ideas. The left is forever trying to do this and they’ve had successes in some areas, but overall, they’ve failed. This is why a liberal who admits his liberalism can’t get elected President while Republican candidates always call themselves conservatives, even if they don’t really qualify for the label.

The last option would be for the centrists to actually defeat the liberals and move the party more to the middle. That would be the best strategy for the Democrats to pursue, but the liberals have the passion, the purse strings, and the power in the party and they’ve used those factors to dominate the debate.

For the moment? The libs are just going to keep treading water and if anything, will probably feel validated by the gains they’re likely to make in 2006, which, if they happen, will have much more to do with Republican failures than Democratic successes. That means the complacency will continue and the real pressure to come up with ideas just won’t be there.

Hat tip to Betsy’s Page for the story.

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