The SanityPrompt

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Friday, July 01, 2005

The Challenge Facing Democrats

The conventional “inside the Beltway” wisdom is that the Republicans are self-destructing politically and that all Democrats have to do is stand by and wait for the public to turn to us as an alternative in 2006. The conventional “inside the Beltway” wisdom is that Democrats are now an “opposition party” and that we need to be uniform and “stick together” in our fights against the Republicans. However the latest Democracy Corps poll has some bad news for Democrats. That strategy ain’t going to cut it.

While some of the numbers are good -- Bush’s approval rating is lower than the disapproval rating, people are more inclined to vote for a Democrat than a Republican next November (48-43), the issues of most concern to voters are traditional Democratic issues like health care and pensions or issues Republicans have squandered like fiscal responsibility, and finally, almost 50% of voters strongly want to country to go in a different direction from the one George Bush is taking us.

Now for the bad news. Despite everything that has happened in the last year – over-reaching on Terry Schiavo, the debate over the nuclear option, the disastrous effort on Social Security, Iraq, and the neglect of core economic issues, Republicans are still viewed more favorably than Democrats. Their average level of support is 49.8% while for Democrats it is 48.9. Of more concern, only 38% of voters view Democrats favorably while 43% of voters view Republicans favorably. While both sides have seen drops in their approval ratings, the Democrats have fallen further faster. Stan Greenberg who ran the survey attributes the decline to voters feeling that Democrats have no core set of convictions or point of view (Christian Science Monitor 6/29/05). Now with Sandra Day O’Connor retiring, attention will shift to a big Court fight which will only further alienate voters from Washington, and cement their suspicion that Democrats are out of touch.

In addition, the country remains firmly in the conservative camp. More than twice as many voters consider themselves conservative as liberal. While some components of the Democratic message resonate with voters, the poll also shows that many of the likely Republican strategies in 2006 continue to prove powerful to voters. A Democratic message about Republican over reaching and partisanship, combined with economic populism generates a “much more likely” voter inclination to vote Democrat of between 34 and 37%. But more bland messages generate percentages around 30%. For instance, respondents were read the following: ‘Republicans are for more of the same in Washington. Democrats are for change’ and only 28% said this would make them much more inclined to vote Democratic. In another example “Republicans have done nothing about health care. Democrats will get moving on health care.” This argument led only 31% of respondents to indicate they were much more likely to vote Democratic. Voters are unlikely to be persuaded by bland generic phrases filled with empty promises. Unless they begin to offer some specifics, voters are unlikely to see the Democratic alternative as viable. Republican arguments that Democrats are for bigger government and higher taxes continue to resonate with voters. 37% indicated this would make them much more likely to vote Republican. A Republican promise to protect the sanctity of marriage from gay marriage proposals of Democrats garnered 41% much more likely to vote Republican. And for all those anti-war Dems, 37% of respondents were much more likely to vote Republican after hearing the message: “The Democrats are now calling for a retreat and withdrawal of our troops from Iraq. The Republicans say we can not leave without finishing the job.”

My big fear is that the leadership in Washington will remain silent in the face of this evidence and go into the 2006 election cycle with a bland message of opposition, confident that the Republicans will generate sufficient disgust that Democrats will look appealing. If public doubts about the Party, its leadership and its willingness to stand for principles and new ideas are left unmet, then public willingness to turn to Democrats will fade. 2004 showed us a weakened incumbent who trailed through most of the year, but who still managed to retain his office.

Articulating not a message but an agenda is the central challenge facing the Party. Doing this will require Party members to debate the issues and perhaps expose rifts in the Party. Doing this may require some Party members to agree to abide by the decisions of the majority. Doing this may put the Democrats in the position of assuming unpopular positions. Doing this may require that Democrats face serious issues like trade, taxes, the deficit, and health care that play to people’s worst suspicions about the Party. But these risks are smaller, in the long run, than doing nothing. Democrats can take a page from George Bush who remains personally popular in part because he has said he won’t follow the polls in doing what is right in Iraq (right being what he thinks is right) or in pushing parts of his domestic agenda like stem cells. If Democrats express their core convictions in articulating their agenda, then even if a majority opposes their position, winning a majority of votes becomes attainable because Democrats indicate that they have what voters care more about – a willingness to stand on their values and fight for them.


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