Monday, September 01, 2008

Political Issues and Tactics

The Democrats are, once again, threatening to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory because they have misunderstood the political issues, which leads to ineffective political tactics.

At this point in the election, there are only two issues that matter. One is the Republican ticket and how that will affect Republican turn out. The other is the disaffection of the Democratic base.

Republican Ticket
There is little the Democrats can do directly about the end run McCain is attempting with Palin. McCain correctly identified his electoral weaknesses (loss of image as outsider, growth of image that he is not a mover and shaker, belief that he is not sufficiently conservative) and has located a running mate who helps him shore up issues without detracting from him. He has reasserted the maverick brand, positioned himself as a change agent, and has neutralized most of his hard-right defection threat. What Democrats need to understand is the VP selection was all about McCain and the problems he was having creating the right image and was not about policy, credentials, or filling an office. Our Republican friends are ecstatic about the selection of Palin because it fixes their problems with McCain. They now have a positive reason to vote for their ticket.

The tactical blunder then is to attack Palin, which is exactly what the Democrats are doing. Hillary hit the right note by congratulating Palin for winning the slot but flatly saying that the Republican policies are wrong, which conveys the right message - no VP choice will change the fundamentally flawed Republican approach to government, even if that person is an historic choice and personally very nice.

What too many on the Left see as Palin's weaknesses will not, repeat, NOT be seen that way by her base. For example, there is an article today in the NYT by Kit Seelye about Bristol Palin's pregnancy. The headline screams "Palin’s Teen Daughter Is Pregnant; New G.O.P. Tumult," but the text of the article shows one Republican after another saying some variation on "Stuff like that happens. I wish the family the best." No tumult at all. Kind of like the Pope approving of Madonna's song "Papa Don't Preach." Also, absolutely do not under any circumstances breathe that Gov. Palin should have to produce medical records related to her reproductive history. Quite aside from that being a HIPAA violation, it is what the Republicans want the power to do, so do not damage your own privacy interests.

Attacking Palin on personal integrity grounds, as was done to Hillary, will boomerang into increased conservative support because you are outsiders attacking one of the tribe and they will come to her defense. The experience issue is a non-starter. McCain has already abandoned that as a significant argument and it is now the Democrats who keep the meme alive. No one who intends to vote for Palin cares about the "experience" argument and it allows the Republicans to shoot back "But what about Obama?"

To continue to go after Palin as an individual is to put yourself onto Republican turf, engaging in a politics of personal take-down. This is where the Republicans want to fight because it distracts from their policies and practices. Anything you say or do can be turned into a smear - just ask Hillary. This is why both the Clintons in their convention addresses and in their campaign speeches do not bother to talk about the individuals (except to praise them as people), but return over and over to the political acts of the Republican Party that have brought the country to the brink of ruin since 2001.

Democratic Base
This is the one area of weakness the party can affect directly. My grim opinion is that the window of opportunity to repair this rift has passed. The party is now stuck with a divided and angry base. The party must be under no illusion about why this has happened: The DNC and the Obama campaign denigrated and dismissed the preferred candidate of more than half the party, using misogyny and false accusations of racism and giving the CDS-afflicted media carte blanche to act out its worst impulses. When the candidate refused to be intimidated out of the race, the smears were aimed at her supporters. These smears continue to this day. These two lines of attack, one aimed at the voters, the other attributed to them, have inflicted damage that the Obamacan faction will not take responsibility for, let alone move to fix.

Before McCain's VP selection, the rift was not so crucial because McCain also was struggling with an uninspired and disaffected base. This did him more damage because the Republican pool of voters is smaller than the Democratic pool of voters. They have always had to make up for numbers with turnout, and that is a function of identification and enthusiasm. The Democrats now face a bad electoral situation, with an abruptly energized Republican base (all the more enthused because of a come-from-behind-finish possibility) and an angry and increasingly alienated Democratic base.

The danger is not primarily defections to McCain, no matter the news headlines or the rantings in Left Blogistan, but a silent opting out and refusal to cast a vote for the Democratic ticket. This group will be larger than any defections to McCain. There will be defections, of course, just as there will be Republican defectors to Obama. However, because the disaffection among the base springs from a sense of unfairness (rather than a lack of interest in the candidates), the defection rate will be higher than it would usually be. This does not have to be (nor will it be) all 18 million HRC primary voters, but even 5% of that 18 million could be enough to decide the election if the abstentions and defections occur predominantly in swing states, such as Ohio, Pennsylvania, Michigan, Missouri, Nevada, New Mexico and West Virginia.

Democratic weakness in what should be our year, particularly in the face of an energized opposition, is a direct result of the conduct of the Democratic primaries. The people withholding their votes are not deciding between platforms or policy stances. People who have been voting Democrat for 20, 30, 40+ years know the the issues and the differences between the parties. Instead, they are passing political judgment on their own party. They are angry at the conduct of the party leadership towards a specific candidate. When that candidate was refused a place on the ticket, an enormous opportunity was opened up for the Republicans to exploit lower turn outs and higher defections. This was probably the single largest tactical error of the political season.

I have no reasonable or viable suggestions for how the rift in the party can be mended. If I did, I would state them loud and clear.

No prognosticating in this post. Just a presentation of what I see as the position of the Democratic Party heading into the GE.