Thursday, June 30, 2005

Run to the center? or change the rules?

There's an interesting debate playing out right now on the Left about the proper strategy for dealing with the Republican ascendency. On the one hand you have the Democratic Leadership Council types (e.g. Clinton), who believe that the solution is to run to the "unoccupied middle," i.e. the space that the ideological extremists in the Republican Party (e.g. the Republican Party) have abandoned. On the other hand, you have those who believe that the goal should be to redefine the terrain of political debate itself, since any time you fight a war on the terms of the enemy, you've all but lost before you begin.

A posting over at Crooked Timber captures the essence of the debate, in terms of an argument between Ed Kilgore (the DLC rep) and Rick Perlstein, the latter abetted by Matt Yglesias. Here's how Henry Farrell describes the situation:

In internecine battles over policy, New Democrat/DLC types have made hay with the claim that leftwing policies simply don’t sell in the marketplace of American politics. As a result, they tend to exaggerate the extent to which these market rules are a given, and to discount the possibility that they might be changed....

Perlstein's real claim, if I understand it rightly, is that long term political success doesn't come from adapting your party to a political marketplace in which the enemy has set the rules of competition. It comes from a concerted effort over time to remake those rules yourself. This doesn't have to be pie-in-the-sky wishful thinking. Nor does it have to be something which is antithetical to ND/DLC types' policy goals. Matt [Yglesias]'s suggestion for a new kind of family and childcare politics is a good example of an initiative that could help remake the rules of debate, and that both leftists and centrists could get behind. But it does require people like Ed Kilgore to stop using the current rules of the political marketplace as a stick to beat the heads of leftists, and to start thinking creatively about how those rules might be changed.

Now, as someone who works in marketing, I have to say that (quite apart from my ideological sympathies) I regard Perlstein's way of viewing the political problem as absolutely convincing. Making sure that your audience makes their decision based on the "features" you have chosen is the overwhelmingly most important factor in determining who will win in a particular sales battle. In other words, it's a matter of getting the customer to think that features A, B, and C (where you have real advantage) are the ones that really matter, rather than features X, Y, and Z (where your opponent has the advantage). The battle, in short, is about making the buyer/voter care about the issues where you have an advantage, and to dismiss as secondary the issues where you are weak.

This is especially true in situations where there is total parity on ninety percent of the "features" between the two "vendors." As Alexander Cockburn puts it:

Consider the number of issues on which there is tacit agreement between the Democratic and Republican parties, either as a matter of principle or with an expedient nod-and-wink that, beyond pro forma sloganeering, these are not matters suitable to be discussed in any public forum: the role of the Federal Reserve; trade policy; economic redistribution; the role and budget of the CIA and other intelligence agencies (almost all military); nuclear disarmament; reduction of the military budget and the allocation of military procurement; roles and policies of the World Bank, IMF, WTO; crime, punishment and the prison explosion; the war on drugs; corporate welfare; energy policy; forest policy; the destruction of small farmers and ranchers; Israel; the corruption of the political system; the occupation of Iraq. The most significant outcome of the electoral process is usually imposed on prospective voters weeks or months ahead of polling day—namely, the consensus between the supposed adversaries as to what s off the agenda.
Given this tacit agreement on all the major issues that confront our society -- in other words, the fact that there is de facto major-party consensus on all the big issues that might actually roil political debate in this country -- the real political battle becomes which relatively trivial issues we will choose to debate. And in this respect, the Republicans, quite frankly, have made complete bitches out of the Democrats for the last two electoral cycles. Karl Rove's genius is that he knows exactly which political issues are the "right ones" to choose for establishing effective Republican differentiation.

Quite obviously, the big issues facing the country during the last electoral cycle were (1) the probity of the choice to invade, and the path forward in, Iraq; (2) the massive budget deficit; (3) what to do about entitlements with an aging population. But were these the central issues the two candidates debated? Rhetorical question. Instead, the electoral debate, as played out in the so-called liberal media, focused almost entirely on secondary issues chosen by Rove: gay marriage, Swifties, and "personal character."

There are two problems here. The first is that the Democrats, under DLC guidance, have utterly failed to differentiate themselves from the Republicans on the major issues of the day. This was why I was disgusted by Kerry, but felt that Dean would have been a good candidate. (Dean was "a choice, not an echo," as the Goldwater phrase would have it.) The second problem was that insofar as they were going to concede parity on the vital issues of the day, the Democrats also ceded the choice of secondary issues to the Republicans.

The result was all but inevitable, and in retrospect it's frankly amazing that Kerry got as close as he did.

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