A longish rant…

09/18/2006 10:25 AM

All of the discussion lately about the wars this country is waging has got me thinking about the way the government, and the opposition, work in this country.

Much of the rest of the world uses a Parliamentary form of government. There are one or two houses, and the leader of the majority party (or coalition) in one of them (generally the lower, or more populist, one) is the top dog – Prime Minister. The rest of the Cabinet consists of other elected members of parliament (MPs). It is natural in such a system for the opposition to create a “Shadow Government,” a group of MPs who are ready to step in and take over the portfolio of their counterpart in the ruling party.

This system provides the electorate with some good sense of what the actual differences would be were they to elevate the opposition to ruling status. It is common in such countries for the “Shadow Government” to lay out their agenda in a detailed form, to provide running commentary on the actions of the government, which they are expected to back up with action should they have the opportunity, and thus some lowering of rhetorical hyperbole. It also serves to lead the electorate to consider their vote for individual MPs in the context of the larger majority/opposition framework.

In our system, however, the executive is wholly separate from the Congress, and we have no similar concept of a shadow executive. The Cabinet, again wholly separate from the Congress, is not shadowed either. This makes it very difficult for our electorate to have any good idea what would really change were they to change the balance of power. It also effectively decouples our vote for our legislators from our choice of Executive.

Now, I am not saying that we should change our system, but recent history does show that our political opposition could at least learn a lesson from the shadow governments of other countries. Much has been made of the “Contract With America” which Newt Gingrich and his boys promulgated in 1994. It has been credited with sweeping them into power – a net win of 54 seats. Often lost in such ballyhoo is the fact that the “Contract” wasn’t actually published until just two weeks prior to the election; the public made their choice because the election had been successfully “Nationalized” by the Gingrich team, not because of the “Contract.” In other words, the Republicans found a way to strongly connect the elector’s local vote for Representative to the national issues of the day. Having successfully made such a connection in 1994, the Republican leadership would now have us believe that no such connection can be made, that Congressional elections are always local in nature. We’ll see…

In any event, it is incumbent upon the Democrats (pardon the pun) to nationalize this election if they are to have any chance of taking over either house of Congress. While they have a better chance of winning the 15 seats needed to take the House than the 6 seats needed for the Senate, they won’t get either unless they succeed in this nationalization. There are some compelling arguments to be made, as a matter of fact, that unless they can rally around a cause (or causes) that it is not in the opposition’s best interest to actually win this election.

More on that last point later.

With our fragmented party, the Democrats have not been able to find any one spokesperson, any common platform, or any common cause in the past 10 years. Even back to 1996, when Bill Clinton was re-elected in convincing fashion, the party didn’t have any, and lost seats in both houses. The failure of the party to form common cause has been a problem going back, really, to the Reagan years. Their steady loss of seats over the past 25 years is indicative of this.

How, then, do the Dems form common cause? That is the $64,00 question. Only time will tell if they will succeed. We saw some promise last fall and winter when the constant drumbeat of “Incompetent” and “Corrupt” began to catch fire with the public, and for the first time we started to see the House and Senate leadership of the Democratic Party speak with not only one voice, but with a message which resonated with the American public. The indictment of the Bush administration, and its lapdog Congress, as incompetent resonated with the public because it jibed with the reality which confronted us every day from the inability to respond to Hurricane Katrina to the failure in Iraq and Afghanistan. “Culture of Corruption,” likewise, resonated as we watched indictments handed down against Republicans like Duke Cunningham (R-CA), Jack Abramhoff and now Bob Rey (R-OH). (Keep an eye out for Jerry Lewis, R-CA)

We weren’t asked to make any leap of faith – the Republicans had told us for years how bad big government was, and now that they control it completely its every bit as bad as they said it was. Only problem is we want government to be good, and effective. Democrats had been telling us for years, right up until the Clinton/Democratic Leadership Council days, that government could be good, and had actually, in retrospect, done a pretty good job of running it.

The recent fog of the Bush/Cheney/Rove blue smoke and mirrors national-security/terrorism/safety/war/etc. machine has rendered the playing field a little murky, but as we have seen in the past week, fractures within the President’s own party (the Warner/McCain/Graham cabal) is taking the steam out of even that vaunted machine.

Friday’s papers offered up some interesting perspectives on these issues. First, with Peggy Noonan (former Reagan speech writer) in the Wall Street Journal: http://www.opinionjournal.com/columnists/pnoonan/?id=110008942

(an excerpt…)

The Democrats’ mistake–ironically, in a year all about Mr. Bush–is obsessing on Mr. Bush. They’ve been sucker-punched by their own animosity.

“The Democrats now are incapable of answering a question on policy without mentioning Bush six times,” says pollster Kellyanne Conway. “‘What is your vision on Iraq?’ ‘Bush lied us into war.’ ‘Health care? ‘Bush hasn’t a clue.’ They’re so obsessed with Bush it impedes them from crafting and communicating a vision all their own.” They heighten Bush by hating him.

One of the oldest clichés in politics is, “You can’t beat something with nothing.” It’s a cliché because it’s true. You have to have belief, and a program. You have to look away from the big foe and focus instead on the world and philosophy and programs you imagine.

And from E.J. Dionne, at the Washington Post, reassesses Tip O’Neill’s old saw “All politics is local” in this column:

The United States is witnessing a centralization and nationalization of politics unprecedented in our history. This trend is rooted in the rise of the political consulting industry, vast changes in the technology of campaigning, and the intense competition between the two major parties for control of Congress.

Again, the common theme is the nationalization of politics and campaigns, the centralization, as well, of the stories which inform our votes. This can have both good and bad consequences for the parties, as they more and more are inserting national party organization and money into primaries for House races and the like. For example, in the most recent round of primaries, last Tuesday, we saw heavy investment by the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee on the side of one candidate, Jim Craig, in the race for an open House seat in New Hampshire. There was a ten-to-one funding differential between Craig and his opponent, Carol Shea-Porter, and yet she won in a walk-away which embarrassed the national party (12,497 to 7,944 – in other words, Craig spent $25.00 per vote versus $1.50 for Shea-Porter).

Here is a comment from an acquaintance who was active in the Shea-Porter campaign:

After the vote, the (national) Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) quickly switched allegiances. “Carol Shea-Porter clearly has the grassroots New Hampshire support,” said Jen Psaki, aspokeswoman for the committee. “We will 100 percent support her.”

Full coverage here: http://www.seacoastonline.com/news/09172006/columns-17sun-dornin-col.html

And the more famous such races would be Leiberman/Lamont (Senate, D-CN) or Chaffee/Laffey (Senate, R-RI) – in the first case the DSCC gave support first to Leiberman, and now is supporting the primary victor, Lamont, or in the latter, where despite his liberal(ish) voting record, and complete lack of support for the President, the RNSC poured a fortune into the Rhode Island race to prop up Lincoln Chaffee, ultimately securing his victory with their miraculous get-out-the-vote machine.

In any event, the larger points here are:

  • The electorate is unhappy: A CNN poll earlier this month found that 55 percent of Americans are more likely to vote for the challenger in any election this fall. And an ABC News/Washington Post poll in August found that 53 percent of Americans call themselves “anti-incumbent,” a figure as high as it was in the summer 1994 shortly before Republicans seized control from Democrats.
  • This is not 1994 – even though anti-incumbent sentiment is running so high, the nature of the nationalization of the campaigning this year is essentially different. And, we are at war, which throws huge unknowns into the mix.
  • There is greater opportunity for outside money to meddle in the races this year (see MoveOn.org in Leiberman/Lamont for example). 527 organizations didn’t even exist a few cycles ago, and now they are nearly passé. Expect the PAC and 527 dollars to rival that which the party organizations spend this time around.
  • Success is not well defined. Winning the House by a narrow margin may be more trouble than it is worth to the Democrats, or, for that matter, for the Republicans. Both parties have strategists staying up late nights pondering what do do if they actually win, and then have to govern:

See “How to win by losing” by Ramesh Ponnuru, New York Times, 9/13/2006

Or “Hey Democrats, why win?” by Adam Nagourney, New York Times, 5/14/2006


Lastly, I would like to draw your attention to an article by Mike Tomasky, executive editor of the American Prospect magazine, from the May issue, “Party in search of a notion”:

Here Tomasky examines the need for the Democratic Party to coalesce behind a central theme, “The Common Good,” in order to formulate winning messages and winning plans. This is an important piece at as much for the debate it inspiredamong party strategists as for anything intrinsic to the essay itself.

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