The Democrats' problem

Bruce Bartlett
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Posted: Jun 27, 2006 12:01 AM

From what I read on the blogs these days, most Democrats believe that their party's single biggest problem is that it is not tough enough. Their solution is to be ever more shrill and hysterical in attacking Republicans. As a Republican, I think this is wonderful. It just makes Democrats look like kooks, and forces moderates to vote Republican.

Actually, I think the Democrats' biggest problem is simple ineptness -- they just aren't very good at coming up with politically attractive ideas and marketing them effectively. I even have a theory about why this is the case.

The fact is that a lot of people who get into politics don't really have any ideology. They could just as easily be Democrats or Republicans, because they don't have anything in particular they want to accomplish in terms of policy. They just like the spotlight, or the thrill of running for office or want a nice line on their resume.

When such people first decide what party to join, they are not concerned about where they would feel most at home philosophically. Rather, their only concern is which party will give them the best chance of winning. Secondarily, they are concerned about which party offers them the best opportunities for advancement once elected.

During the long period from 1932 to 1994, when Democrats controlled Congress almost continuously, these sorts of non-ideological people primarily became Democrats. That's where the action was.

This helped the Democratic Party enormously because those whose only interest is winning tend to be better at it than ideologues. Ideologues generally put principles first, and are often unattractive candidates because they are obsessed with fine points of policy that the vast bulk of voters find boring and off-putting. By contrast, those without any ideological baggage will simply tell voters whatever they want to hear and strive to do so in the most engaging way possible.

Ideologues find these people revolting. They are viewed as nothing but prostitutes -- selling their votes to the highest bidder -- who don't believe in anything except winning. Ideologues believe they are better than them -- more pure, more principled, closer to God.

Maybe so. But the political prostitutes also play an extremely valuable role in party politics precisely because they are what they are. They show the ideologues how to win by being more sensitive to what the electorate wants. And when forced to defend their party's leaders or policies, they are usually much better than the ideologues at coming up with ways to explain, defend and rationalize them in ways that voters find convincing.

Moreover, because neither party can win enough seats to control Congress running only true believers, the prostitutes are essential to get control and give power to the ideologues. Therefore, the purists must tolerate the political prostitutes and work with them, no matter how annoying it may be.

At one time, almost all those who just want to win and don't stand for anything were Democrats. As a Republican, you would have been condemned to the minority, where you would have no power, get no media attention and have no fun. The place to be for the politically ambitious was clearly in the Democratic Party.

These people helped the Democrats in various ways. They provided the marginal votes to keep control of Congress, presented a more attractive public face for the party than the dour ideologues and helped shape and craft its program and message in ways that voters responded positively toward for decades.

The downfall of the Democratic Party in Congress really began in 1974. That year it won a huge victory in the wake of Watergate. Democrats had a margin of 2-to-1 in both the House and Senate. With such a large majority, the ideologues mounted a purge of conservatives from committee chairmanships and other leadership positions. They thought their control was so secure that they weren't needed.

This began a huge shift of Southern Democrats into the Republican Party at the congressional and state legislature levels. By 1994, this transition was complete and virtually every political conservative had left the Democratic Party for good, giving Republicans control in both the House and Senate.

At this point, the prostitutes switched parties as well. The Republican Party became the place where the action is. It was the place to go for those motivated only by ambition. This helped the Republicans for all the reasons that such people had previously been assets to the Democrats.

The prostitutes' switch from the Democratic Party deprived it of potential winners and effective strategists. The party was left only with those who view any deviation from the party line as heresy. Such people don't know how to win and don't really want to. They would rather die for principle than settle for half a loaf. That's the Democrats' problem today.