Issue November 17, 2010

What Democrats can learn

In 2008, the Republican Party was pronounced all but dead. The party had taken years of hits from all sides. We all remember the names: Jack Abramoff, Randy “Duke” Cunningham, Tom DeLay, Bob Ney, George Allen, Trent Lott, Mark Foley … the list goes on. A man even apologizes to Dick Cheney after Cheney shoots him in the face on a hunting trip.

OK, the Cheney thing really wasn’t malfeasance. I just think it’s one of the greatest examples of gangsterism we’ve seen — shoot a man in the face and make him apologize. Cheney is a bad mutha … shut yo mouth!

The point is, by 2008, the GOP had to lose ground — and they did. After losses during the 2006 midterms, by 2008 they relinquished control of the House, Senate and presidency. By Inauguration Day 2009, just over 20 percent of registered voters identified themselves as Republicans, the GOP’s long-effective “Southern strategy” seemed to be dead, and the most popular Republican politician in the country was Sarah Palin — a woman not only of questionable political acumen, but who seemed loopy and even dumb at times. The party seemed too small, too infected with scandal and too conservative. What did the Republicans do? They doubled down and moved even farther to the right! With the help of the feckless and flaccid Democrats, it worked.

Not even two years later, scandals surrounding Abramoff, DeLay and others are all but forgotten; a bit of the shine has worn off Obama; the Democrats have lost control of the House and have diminished power in the Senate; Sarah Palin serves as the point person of a new conservative insurgency within the Republican Party (the Tea Party); and the Democrats are the ones who now seem rudderless.

I have a bit of advice for the Dems (though they probably won’t listen): Go left.

The problem with the Democrats is they have no identity. They fancy themselves a “big tent” party open to all, but what they really are is a mixed-up bag of spineless wonders who can’t fight their way out of a political wet paper bag.

For example, the Dems were criticized for not being able to get some of their legislation through even though they had majorities in both the House and Senate after the 2008 elections. It is true that they had numerical majorities, but what they didn’t have was an ideological majority. Why? Because to secure “numbers,” the Democrats made veritable deals with devils by supporting “conservative Democrats” in both 2006 and 2008. The deals came back to haunt them, because even though these people were technically Democrats, they could not be counted on.

Like Republicans, Democrats need a purge. They need to get rid of the conservative menace in their own party, exile the Blue Dogs, become smaller, more nimble and ideologically pure. Finally, they need to rebrand liberalism and go after potential voters on the left who have exited the electoral process altogether because neither party speaks to them. Don’t scoff and say this is unrealistic. It has already been done — by Republicans.

In 2004, Bush political strategist Karl Rove deployed a plan he felt would mobilize 4 million-plus evangelical Christians to support Bush. In the face of inner circle concerns that Rove’s plan lurched the Bush camp too far right, he didn’t get 4 million … he got more than 8 million Christian fundamentalists to pull the lever for Bush in his successful re-election bid.

Rush Limbaugh pushes dedication to conservatism even further. Limbaugh argues that Republicans should always vote for the most conservative candidate in primaries … period. Limbaugh’s retort to people who say some of these candidates are sure losers in generals (e.g. Christine O’Donnell)? “What good are 51 votes if a minimum of three are unreliable?” The Dems should do the same for liberals — always go for the most progressive candidate.

So, the Dems need to retool. They need to make “conservative” a bad word in the same way Republicans have made “liberal” toxic. They need clear, uniform messages with inspiring liberal candidates. They need to stop being reactionary and be proactive and progressive.

By doing this, I believe they can expand the electorate and capture new votes from millions of young people, minorities and progressives who are not participating in the process at all right now because neither party speaks to them. Be bold, Democrats, or continue to be limited, cowardly and politically dead.