Thursday, November 4, 2010

New Day Rising (The Case For Democratic Optimism -- Real or Fake)

I recommend to all Democrats a manifesto from Ed Kilgore, James Vega, and J.P. Green, which recognizes how likely it is that Democratic factions will turn on each other in a self-destructive frenzy and urges them not to.  It's an excellent piece, although I'm tempted to add a little "good luck with that" sarcasm.  Will Rogers, and all that.

Speaking of the Democrats, one positive impression I have of their reaction for far this week is that there's a lot less despair than there was in 1994 (this Jonathan Chait post notwithstanding).  I remember arguing with a Democratic pollster in December 1994 who was convinced that the Democratic Party was entirely doomed, and it would probably be replaced by a new third party. Perhaps that was a bit extreme of an example, but there was a lot of hopelessness going around that winter -- it sure seemed to me that very few Democratic activists or campaign professionals thought Clinton would be reelected, for example.

Why should anyone care about a little pessimism?  Because Democrats wound up with a relatively lousy crop of candidates in 1996 who were unable to take advantage of Clinton's popularity and Newt's disasters. 

The one thing that the political science literature tells us that matters in Congressional elections and is to a large extent within the control of the parties is the quality of candidates.  Very soon, politicians will be making decisions about 2012.  Incumbent Democrats who now find themselves lost in the Siberia of House Minority status, and who in many cases will be faced with the chore of learning and appealing to a significantly different constituency thanks to redistricting, will have to decide whether to retire.   Ambitious pols -- state legislators, local prosecutors, former Members of the House who just lost their reelection bids -- will have to decide whether 2012 will be promising. 

What political scientists have learned is that this is a case in which party prophesies are to a large extent self-fulfilling.  Believe that the party is going over a cliff, and you'll wind up with third-rate candidates, who will then lose -- not because of the general environment, but because bad candidates lose Congressional elections.  Believe that your party is about to benefit from the wave, and you'll wind up with excellent candidates who will win regardless of whether such a "wave" actually existed. 

It seems to me that the GOP did a great job of selling their own potential candidates that 2010 would be like 1994.  That's behind the data that Brendan Nyhan reported last week about the large spike in quality GOP candidates, especially challengers.  I strongly suspect that when all is said and done, that's going to be the controllable variable that made the most difference, much more than choices about pushing the agenda for the Democrats or opposing it for the Republicans (with the possible exception of economic policy, but it's always hard to know the effects of any potential changes, there).

Now, it's the Democrats' turn to react to adversity with confidence.  First up: keeping what they have.  They lost 20 House Members to retirement in the 1996 cycle, and that was without redistricting; that's a terrible number for what turned out to be a good year for the party.  Can they do better this time around?  To do so, they'll have to persuade not only wavering Members of the House and Senators that Democratic chances are good in 2012, but also persuade the people who those Members talk to -- including fundraisers and donors, including activists within the district, and especially including the Democratic establishment in Washington. 

What's on their side, this time around, is that the election was much less of a shock than 1994 was.  Moreover, the example of the Clinton years, which has worked so well for the GOP for the last couple of years, now flips: while activists may not remember 1996, surely much of the Washington establishment does. 

The rest is up to Democratic elites.  There are a lot of things that opinion leaders cannot do -- a good speech from a president cannot make out-party rank-and-file, or even independents, change their minds about policy.  This, however, is one that a strong effort by party leaders should be able to affect, because the target audience here -- other active Democrats -- is ready and willing to listen to what party elites have to say. 

So, whatever they actually believe, Democrats should pound the 1996-2012 analogies, remind themselves that reversals are not only possible but happen all the time (I bet there are all sorts of other historical examples easy to dig up: liberal bloggers, consider that a challenge!), and convince themselves and anyone who will listen to them that good times for Dems are, once again, right around the corner. 

At least until candidate recruitment season is over.  If they want a time to bemoan their prospects, I'd recommend saving it for late spring/early summer 2012, after the last Congressional filing dates but before the presidential conventions.  As long as they snap out of it by mid-summer, I would think that talking down their chances at that point will have absolutely no effect on anything.

13 comments:

  1. I know this isn't question time, but I have one anyway:

    Many people have blamed the results this year on the poor turnout among young people and, to a lesser extent, minorities. But, when I look at the districts that flipped, almost all of them are rural and disproportionately old and white.

    So, are there specific districts where a youth/minority vote would make a difference? Or does excitement among the young/minority groups wear off on rural districts (e.g., does voter enthusiasm by urban 20-somethings encourage their suburban parents to vote for Democrats)?

    Also, I'm astonished that I never received a single email from OFA/DNC asking me to go to a neighboring state (in my case, Pennsylvania) to help elect Democrats to the Senate. I went to PA four or five times in 2008, and would have gone again if the DNC had arranged transportation, or even asked me to go. But, instead all the emails asked me to vote Democratic in Maryland (which was never in real danger of turning Republican) or give money, neither of which seemed very worthwhile.

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  2. I'm less bothered by the results than I thought I'd be, for a couple of reasons. The Democrats still hold the Senate and the White House, which severely limits what the House will be able to do. If they want to overturn health care, the GOP needs to somehow find Senators who voted for it in the first place who will now switch votes, plus they'd need to override a veto. That's not going to happen.

    And the new GOPers don't seem to have any idea what to do with the power they do have. One Congressman came out today with the bold idea to eliminate the newly passed Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. Really? Has there been some outcry against this? Could there be any clearer sign that the Republicans are the big banks' best friend?

    Basically, I don't expect this Congress to be able to accomplish anything more substantive than recognizing National Radish Week. And that's not all bad.

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  3. That's pretty amazing about OFA -- it's also the second (at least) OFA screwup story I've heard. FWIW.

    As far the question (and what's with all the thread hijackers this week?), well, there are young people, of course, everywhere, even districts that are on average older.

    For those who are interested in explanations for what happened, especially focusing on voter behavior, I recommend heading over to the Monkey Cage; John Sides is much more expert on that sort of thing than I am, and they've had some good guest posts, too.

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  4. Democrats will have to do better than Martha Coakley and Kendrick Meeks. That won't be easy given the party's proclivities for political correctness and identity politics. And good candidates will need clear and convincing messages, not the generic vagaries of which the party is so fond.

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  5. James Connor is right. One thing the right does is go out across the country and recruit these ex-beauty queens and jocks, give them lots of monetary and other support, media training, on camera experience, wardrobe consultations (and probably a credit card), give their spouses and kids jobs doing whatever, train them in messaging, the whole nine yards. They don't mess around. That's how the Quitta from Wasilla was foisted upon the nation. The Dems need a development program like that.

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  6. The Democratic Party of Pinellas County Florida has been disfunctional for 30 years. This area (Tampa Bay) has had 50% democratic registration for years, and yet the party itself is very weak. This is one example where the local party structure needs to be torn up and rebuilt with a new structure that can recruit and train future canditates.

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  7. James C. and James,

    I disagree pretty strongly with this. The Dems have several advantages in candidate quality, whether it's because liberals tend to be more interested in government in general, or because the GOP is mostly only interested in candidates from a fairly small fraction of the population (OK, I'm exaggerating there, but it's an asset, not a liability, that Democrats are aggressive in diversity in their candidate fields).

    Anon,

    I know nothing at all about local politics in FL, but there are lots of places around the country where the formal party organization is a joke, but informal party networks are strong and effective -- anyone who is really interested in that should read Seth Masket's book, which is excellent.

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  8. Here is why I'm optimistic: the Republican Party had control of Congress for 12 years, and the presidency for 8 years. America is still here. The economy may be bad, but I'd take my chances in the US over my chances in 90% of the world any day. Federalism will protect those of us out here on the Left Coast from some of the stupidity. Seperated institutions sharing powers.

    Yes, I'm a junkie and I think government is important. I think the Republicans represent a real opportunity cost. But, the world will go on.

    Oh, and I have some hope that Tea Party nuttiness will return the good guys to power soon enough. Just about the only silver lining I can see. But, it is just a cloud. Life goes on.

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  9. @Jonathan,
    My comment goes to marketing. I agree with you entirely that the Dems have the edge in quality and good ideas. I think that most of them would greatly benefit from grooming and media training early on, though.

    And, I'm with @Matt Jarvis. There were times during the Cheney Administration where I had my doubts, but here we are. I'm optimistic too.

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  10. It helps that I live in California, but I really don't feel like Tuesday was that big a deal. Nothing controversial was going to pass this session anyway. Obama did his policy heavy lifting; now he goes into campaign mode. I certainly won't claim that a GOP House makes anything 'better' for him, but does it really make things much worse?

    And Obama seems to me in much better shape that Bill Clinton was after 1994. Clinton had already flamed out on his legislative agenda with his own party, and looked like Jimmy Carter minus the Sunday School part. Obama got his agenda through, and though Dems took a pasting, he can basically say he had political capital and used it.

    If the economy still is in the dumps, Dems will be in a world of hurt, but Americans will probably start spending again, because we don't do austerity.

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  11. Don't confuse diversity with quality. Or with strength.

    Martha Coakley was a weak candidate who ran an incompetent campaign. MA Dems could have fielded a stronger candidate, but she was the only woman in a field of men and got the nomination through identity voting. Most Dems see nothing wrong with that, the results of the election notwithstanding, which is one of the weaknesses of the party. Had MA Dems nominated a strong candidate who ran an aggressive campaign, Scott Brown would not be senator.

    Meeks strikes me as the kind of bumbler who can win elections in a Congressional district, but lacks the broad appeal required for statewide election. Whether any Democrat could have won in Florida is problematic, but I was not impressed with Meeks, who was no Bob Graham or Lawton Chiles.

    Identity politics weakens political systems and parties because it subordinates merit to identity.

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  12. "MA Dems could have fielded a stronger candidate, but she was the only woman in a field of men and got the nomination through identity voting."

    Prove that assertion. Coakley was also the sitting AG- which means she'd won statewide before. Thus, it's just as likely that she ran a better campaign than her primary rivals, and that primary voters expected her to run a good campaign in the general. Moreover, AGs are generally popular politicians (indeed, even after her Senate debacle, Coakley won re-election Tuesday), so Dems may have expected her to run well. They certainly had no way of predicting that she'd refuse to shake hands and insult Curt Shilling. I mean, I'm sure being a woman didn't hurt her, but there were plenty of other reasons to nominate her.

    "Meeks strikes me as the kind of bumbler who can win elections in a Congressional district, but lacks the broad appeal required for statewide election."

    Perhaps that's true, but it doesn't mean he was nominated because he was black. Actually, he was nominated 'cause he was the only Dem of any stature to step forward. And even then, half the party spent the campaign courting the old white guy. Meanwhile, the Republicans are going head-over-heels for THEIR candidate in that race because, in their own words, he's the "Latino Obama". So much for identity politics.

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  13. It is a cruel irony to call anything by a DLC guy a manifesto. Here's the opposite take.

    Since when did redistricting create many cases of significantly different constituencies? That's a bit vague, of course, but there should be measures of this in the literature, right? I can't see redistricting being a significant factor unless two members end up in the same district.

    "The rest is up to Democratic elites." Shudder.

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