Saturday, October 08, 2005

The Third Way's Bitter Pill, Part II

In my last post I summarized what I thought was the most insightful line of argument in The Politics of Polarization: that the greater numbers of conservatives and religious people compared to liberals and secularists in this country make it necessary for Democrats to appeal strongly to moderates to win consistently. The main weakness of the paper is probably the authors' excessive reverence of Bill Clinton--the fact that he never managed to win a majority of the popular vote in spite of his widespread appeal goes unmentioned. In basing their recommendations on what worked for Clinton in the 90s, they open themselves up to criticisms of strategic obsolescence in today's radically different political landscape.

That said, many of the reactions from the left side of the blogosphere weren't quite as charitable as mine, and some were downright unfair or inaccurate. Before we get to those, let's start with the Post piece itself: it's a fairly good summary with two glaring exceptions, which just so happened to be the grafs that most of the angry bloggers fixated upon. First, the article asserts that "the authors argue that the rising numbers and influence of well-educated, socially liberal voters in the Democratic Party are pulling the party further from most Americans." Now this is true with regard to the party base--Galston and Kamarck do say that liberals have replaced New Democrats as the largest bloc of the Democratic base and that many liberal viewpoints are outside the mainstream, and they've got the stats to back up both of those assertions. But the paper also states that one of the party's biggest problems is that too many moderates can't figure out where its representatives stand. Moderates can't simultaneously consider elected Democrats too liberal and be confused about what they stand for, and the paper makes the latter argument. Thus the authors don't, in Armando from Kos's words, "blame Democratic losses on the Democratic base"; in fact, they go out of their way to emphasize that "it would be a Pyrrhic victory for either party if the mobilization of its ideological and partisan base came at the expense of its appeal to centrist and independent voters."

Armando cites a post by Political Animal's Kevin Drum that proves he didn't read the whole thing (in case you're wondering, I did--twice). Drum's summarizes his upshot thusly:
In other words, contra Galston and Kamarck, the liberal base is not really the problem a lot of people make it out to be. It's the Republican base that's far outside the mainstream.
But G & K never call liberals a 'problem,' and they marshal plenty of evidence that some liberal positions are indeed outside the mainstream. Besides, if liberals represent 19% of registered voters, and there are 50% more conservatives than liberals (=28.5%), which group would you say is closer to the mainstream?

The second misleading item in the WaPo article comes in the final sentence, which reads in its entirety:
[The authors] suggest that Democratic presidential candidates replicate Clinton's tactics in 1992, when he broke with the party's liberal base by approving the execution of a semi-retarded prisoner, by challenging liberal icon Jesse L. Jackson and by calling for an end to welfare "as we know it."
Everything after the phrase "when he broke . . ." is entirely accurate--Clinton did all the things listed as part of his 1992 campaign. But the whole sentence gives the impression that the paper holds up these particular actions as exemplars that current Dem candidates should follow, which it absolutely does not. At no point do the authors call for a "replication" of Clinton's strategies--they acknowledge that the new political environment we're living in now will require the best of what worked in the past along with redoubled efforts in such areas as national security and cultural liberty. The paragraph erects a strawman with strong editorial overtones, neither of which has any business in a straight news piece in one of the nation's preeminent newspapers.

Unfortunately, both Tom Tomorrow and Talkleft uncritically take the bait, perhaps because they felt threatened by the article's implications. Disagreement is all fine and good, but without hard stats to back it up, it's just so much hot air and wishful thinking.

Moving beyond the Post article, Marshall Wittman tries to take home from the Politics the message that fiscal responsibility is "critical" for future Democratic successes. But that's a 90s mindset--remember "It's the economy, stupid"?--that won't fly as long as more Americans consider homeland security and debates over "values" more important. In Galston and Kamarck's own words:
As early as 1996, the proportion of the electorate who voted primarily on economic issues had dropped dramatically, a harbinger of things to come. These voters remained a smaller portion of the electorate in both the 2000 and 2004 presidential elections. Thus, while Clinton had made significant progress on the economy, it was of little help to Democrats in an electorate whose priorities had changed.
Matt Yglesias rightly takes the Bull Moose to task for missing this point.

Much as it pains me to admit it, the conservatives are more correct in their commentary. Raleigh's own Betsy Newmark can accurately remark, "Well, that is all good advice for the Democrats . . ." because she just so happens to have the majority on her side. Insults Unpunished, the author of whom manages to be completely wrong on just about everything else, manages to nail this: "[Democrats a]re trying to win in a country that leans center-right and they’re center-left, so they have work to do." Again, sad but true. However, The Right wasn't all right, as Mister Snitch manages to make the same mistake as Armando in taking away this conclusion from the paper: "Stay clear of out-of-touch liberals" (cf. the quote at the end of the second paragraph of this post).

The moral of the story is this: always, always, always read the whole thing. And if you can't read the whole thing yourself, read people who have read the whole thing. Like me, for example.