Dem Sacred Cows

Politics in process is usually about induction. Politics in hindsight is usually about deduction. When a candidate runs for office, he gets a sense of his district and uses that sense to build a general platform – induction. After a candidate wins or loses, the candidate looks back and assesses the general campaign message and looks then to specific factors or areas to see why the candidate won or lost – deduction.

[T]he Democratic party . . . tends to treat every issue as a sacred cow.

The Democrats are in the process now of deducing why Kerry lost: did Bush cheat, did the GOP GOTV efforts overwhelm the Democrats, was it Kerry, or was it the Democrats. Once they find out the reason, they can start going in to regions, assessing issues, and building a general platform based on the specific needs and issues of various regions. Unfortunately, the Democrats tend to poll for ideas instead of listening to non-special interest voters and then polling for the right way to phrase their message. Let’s offer some basic help.

To the extent John Kerry failed by being a horrible candidate, he also failed because he was a Democrat. Had it just been Kerry, the Democrats would most likely not have been crushed across the board in national politics (they actually did well in local elections with local political messages). Message matters and the Democrats had both a bad message and a bad messenger.

Political consultants like to start candidates out with a message grid. The message grid develops what the candidate will say about himself and his opponent in addition to some deduction of what the opponent will say about himself and the candidate. For example, in the 2004 campaign Bush went in to the campaign saying he was a leader and Kerry was not. Bush very ably deduced that Kerry, to minimize that portion of Bush’s message, would trumpet his Vietnam service and hit Bush over Bush’s perceived failures to lead. The problem for Kerry was that his Vietnam service was the only consistent part of his message and it was the weakest part, given his anti-war activities and the grudges grown between Kerry and those with whom he served. Shrum is probably too much of a consultant to have ever bought in to the message grid, and it showed.

We know now that voters did not know where Kerry stood on issues. They did not know what he would do in Iraq, for the economy, or in the war on terror. Kerry was never able to consistently convey his leadership abilities. The net result was voters who might have been willing to toss Bush decided they could not because Kerry was too much of an unknown. Likewise, voters did not know or like the Democrat stand on issues and chose to expand the Republican power in Washington, DC. Having consistent ideas consistently talked about generally wins elections (provided the voters like the ideas).

In 1994, the Republicans swept control of Congress with a consistent message built through the Contract With America. There was a unified set of ideas that transcended local politics. The ideas were based on regional surveys of voters to build a general platform of specific ideas. The way the ideas were phrased was poll tested to make sure the best possible talking point would be developed [I’m speculating here, but from everything I’ve read and heard, this is how it happened on a general level]. The result of the consistent, unified message was a Republican takeover of Congress. The Democrats have nothing like that to offer.

A parallel to the Democrats would be what happened to the GOP in Colorado. Writing in the Weekly Standard, John Andrew, the outgoing President of the Colorado Senate, said Republicans there ran to get re-elected while the Democrats ran on issues. The result?

Colorado was the only state to suffer a bicameral switch of legislative control in the last election. Democrats won seven seats in the Colorado House, and one in the state Senate, to grab a majority in both chambers for the first time since 1960.

Democrats nationally need to find a core set of issues to sell to the American voters on a national level. The problem is that the Democratic party is made of many factions and therefore, unlike the Republicans, tends to treat every issue as a sacred cow. Republicans, for example, can discuss education reform in a meaningful way because no group in the party is vested in the educational status quo. Same with labor reforms. Same with free trade. Same with taxes. Same with social security. Same with healthcare. About the only issue on which the Democrats are fighting the status quo is gay rights, and there the Republicans are wedded to the status quo along with the vast majority of the nation.

Democrats are going to have to figure out which of their cows are really sacred and try to deal with those that are not in a meaningful way. If they find that impossible, they better get use to the minority. Across the country voters want real reform in schools, real reform of social security, and real reform of health care. Voters are equally skeptical of higher taxes and socialized medicine. From specifics from voters across the nation, Democrats better deduce from the last election that they have no message, and apply their inductive reasoning skills to come up with a sellable national platform.

One word of caution too. The Republicans did quite well on a national level, but they should be somewhat concerned on a state by state level. The Dems did well with consistent messages and the farm team the Republicans built during the 1990’s needs to be restocked. Republicans in Colorado, Minnesota, and across the nation better start, on a state level, coming up with messages that resonate with voters.

Cross posted at Red State.

About the author

Erick Erickson

View all posts

1 Comment