Rather than retool their party after their losses in 2002 and 2004 (and after the nearly 30 year secular decline they’ve experienced), Democrats have insisted with an addict’s fervency that their stealth strategy of keeping silent about their counter-culture policy vision combined with a planned retreat in the War on Terror will find a majority of support this election cycle. More fundamentally, they misapprehend that the course correction message that voters typically like to send to Washington in off year elections is actually an endorsement of the unpopular views espoused by Democrats. Such a miscalculation greatly diminishes their prospects for success this November.
With polls showing a significant generic preference for Democrats over Republicans, the party should be poised to make sizeable gains. But they won’t because of structural barriers that stymie their prospects. Yes it’s true that Republicans have a sizeable fundraising advantage and that they’ve greatly benefited from the last round of redistricting battles. And it is also true that the Republicans have a vaunted GOTV operation that can make the difference in close elections. But Karl Rove and Ken Mehlman realize that the largest barriers to gains this year for the opposition are Democrats themselves.
Mid-term elections typically provide corrections not rejections. For much of the 20th century the party out of the White House gains seats in off year elections. Although this didn’t happen in 1998 and 2002 it was likely to occur this year. Such a result could fairly straightforwardly be recognized as holding the incumbent party accountable for the course of national policy. But precisely because handing the Democrats control of Congress would be seen as not just a no-confidence vote in President Bush and the GOP, but it would be tantamount to an endorsement of the overall agenda Democratic agenda, the public is unlikely to go as far as most pundits predict.
The implication is that in an election that should give voters an opportunity to express their misgivings about the present course of US policy, voters are instead forced to make a stark choice: Ratify all the choices of the Bush Administration and the GOP – an expanded Medicare program, runaway government spending and a near complete rejection of any criticism of the administrations’ war strategy, or embrace the discredited statist policies of redistribution, smug counterculturalism, and military decline.
Here’s a prediction. This November, Democrats will pick up a few seats in coastal and urban areas. But Republicans will gain seats in the South and Midwest. And the trend will likely continue in successive elections benefiting Republicans and hindering Democrats until all potential seats are exhausted or the Democrats change course.
But it seems that Democrats are unlikely to change course. From a macro view, the party itself is primarily coastal and urban whereas the Republicans are Midwestern, rural and suburban. In 2008 regardless of whom wins the presidential race Republicans will start with 25 states solidly in place and Democrats will start with less than 15. And as a result of the rising phenomenon of straight-ticket voting, Republicans increasingly have an advantage in obtaining and keeping majorities in the House and Senate.
If the party is primarily coastal and urban, the party’s activists are disproportionately so. Ceding much of the heartland is a strategic failing for Democrats. The party’s insularity makes it unable to fairly evaluate the public’s misgivings about gay marriage, aggressive secularism, anti-Americanism, gun control and related social schemes as anything other than uninformed bigotry. Soliciting the votes of people you believe to be ignorant bigots requires a degree of cynicism difficult to mask from the voter. And such a task is impossible if it turns out the voters are neither ignorant nor bigoted.
Since 1980 each time the public has been given similar choices Democrats have lost at the presidential level. While decrying the losses to be the result of name calling, divisiveness and hate-mongering at the end of the day the Democrats managed to lose 5 of 7 of the last presidential races. Only after losing the House and the Senate for most of the past 12 years (and a growing number of state legislatures) have some Democrats reluctantly conceded that the problem may be more systemic.
But today Democrats who make the mistake of wondering out loud whether their party should consider a change in its platform are heckled or worse. In the case of Scoop Jackson Democrat Joe Lieberman, they are likely to be all but purged from the party.
In 1994 the American public was willing to chart an entirely different course and they used their vote to accomplish just that. Changing away from nationalized health care and gays in the military to balanced budgets and welfare reform was possible precisely because the alternatives were viewed as acceptable and attractive. This November the choices are just as stark but the alternatives put forward by Democrats are neither acceptable nor attractive.
Although much of establishment Washington and elites in the media have gathered for the Fat Lady’s final act, they likely will be disappointed when she announces that she won’t perform because she’s lost her voice. But they shouldn’t be surprised.