Editore"s Note
Tilting at Windmills

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October 12, 2005
By: Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson

The Road Back....The 2006 elections are shaping up as a potential watershed. We know, every election feels that way nowadays, but this time its truereally.

Since January, Republicans have staged a dismally instructive clinic on how not to govern (Social Security, Schiavo, Katrina). These missteps have coincided with the arrival of political payment overdue slips for longer-standing debacles (Iraq, increasing budgetary strain, corruption cases that seem to proliferate almost daily).

The combination has sent GOP approval levels sharply down and wrong path sentiments sharply up (though Democrats arent necessarily reaping the gains, a point well return to in later posts). And all this comes as Republicans prepare to face the six-year itchthe old adage that sixth years of presidencies are unlucky ones for ruling parties. (The adage isnt as ironclad as pundits believe, but sixth years have frequently been capped by severe electoral punishment for the majority.) In short: If the GOP is going to be dislodged, next year seems like the year, despite all the underlying barriers weve talked about.

Democrats are clearly starting to salivate. And yet tempers run hot when the topic turns to the best road to victory. Everyone seems to have a view of what Democrats are doing wrong: too moderate; too immoderate; too cowardly; too shrill; too much emphasis on economics; not enough emphasis on economics; bad candidates; bad framing. And the world is complicated enough that anyone committed to taking one of these positions can find some evidence to support their case.

Still, there is a common feature in almost all these views: If Democrats would just make different strategic or tactical choices, theyd win. We think this is one of the reasons for the recent infatuation with George Lakoffs arguments about framing. If frames are so powerful, then all Democrats have to do is improve their story and presto, no more GOP hegemony.

Were very skeptical. We dont deny that framing matters, but Democrats face a lot of structural hurdles to formulating a long-term strategy not just for winning office but for keeping itchallenges that are rooted in the institutions of contemporary American politics, the social bases of the two parties, and the changing meaning of being in the minority (even if by only narrow margins). We want to briefly describe some of these difficulties here, before turning in another post to the implications for political strategy.

First, Democrats have to overcome the big GOP advantages in the House and Senate that weve already described. In neither chamber is it enough to win 51 percent of the vote nationwide.

Second, Democrats have a far harder time achieving unity than Republicans do. Sixty-two percent of senators, after all, reside in states that went red in the 2004 presidential race, even though Bush got only 51 percent of the vote. That means Democrats have a bigger challenge when they try to bring together members of their coalition who face very different local electoral conditions. Moreover, this problem is exacerbated because GOP agenda control can and is used to create wedge issues for Democratic politicians. Without an ability to control the agenda, it is far more difficult for Democrats to return the favor.

Critics of the Democrats urge them to fight fire with fireto match Republican unity with Democratic unity. But these critics need to remember that just because the majority party has used the tools of government and an extensive network to create a parliamentary-style party, it doesnt logically follow that the minority party can do the same. On the contrary, a politician like Joseph Lieberman or John Breaux often gets (thoroughly undeserved) plaudits for defecting.

Third, there have been a big shift in organizational and financial resources that has disadvantaged and divided Democrats. The last few decades have witnessed a dramatic alteration in the balance of power between labor and business, a vast increase in economic inequality, and a tremendous expansion in the significance of political money. The profound imbalances created by these huge but gradual changes is often lost in the discussion of personalities and tactics that dominate reporting on politics. All of these trends have helped the GOP, while creating cross-cutting pressures on Democrats and sapping the partys strength.

Most of these features cant be changed in the short run. So, in the end, one is led back to a discussion of electoral and political strategy. But any discussion of strategy is bound to short-circuit if it doesnt acknowledge these deeper features of the political terrain, and in the longer-term, broader political reform is a must. There are lots of easy answers floating out there. There just arent any good easy answers.

Still, well offer the best answers that we can in an upcoming post.

Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson 9:50 AM Permalink | Trackbacks

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