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Tilting at Windmills

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November 8, 2010

HOW THE PARTIES HANDLE ADVERSITY.... Over the weekend, the Washington Post ran a piece with all kinds of Democratic handwringing in the wake of the midterm elections. Plenty of Dems -- some on the record, some not -- are blaming aspects of President Obama's style, including his inability to emote and be "an extrovert." Clinton, the argument goes, felt voters' pain in ways Obama doesn't. Politico had a similar item today.

Kevin Drum noted how very annoying all of this is.

Honest, to God, stuff like this just makes me want to scream. Why do Democrats panic so badly whenever they lose an election? Why run to the nearest reporter to spout idiocies about Obama not feeling middle class pain or not being an extrovert like Bill Clinton? Bill Clinton! For chrissake, I like and defend the guy, but he was an extrovert who felt people's pain and he lost 54 seats in the 1994 midterm. No one cared if he felt their pain. Likewise, no one cares if Obama feels their pain. They want jobs, not pursed lips and moist eyes.

This stuff is so inane, so ego-driven, so self-destructive that it drives me crazy. Why are Democrats such idiots?

I think it's helpful to look back at how Republicans handled their electoral setbacks in recent years, because there's a noticeable difference in how the parties respond to adversity.

In 1998, voters were unimpressed, to put it mildly, with the Republican crusade against Bill Clinton. In the midterms, voters sent a message -- in a historical rarity, the party that controlled the White House gained congressional seats. It was a stinging rebuke of the GOP and its excesses, and yet, House Republicans responded by impeaching the president anyway. In fact, they did so quickly, ramming impeachment through the chamber before newly-elected lawmakers could take office.

Eight years later, in 2006, voters were widely dissatisfied with the war in Iraq, and wanted to see a withdrawal. In the midterms, the Republican majority didn't just suffer setbacks; they lost both the House and Senate. It was an overwhelming rejection of GOP rule. In response, Republicans endorsed escalating the conflict anyway, and didn't change course at all.

In 2008, Democrats took the White House and expanded their congressional majorities to heights unseen in a generation. After years of witnessing abject failure, the electorate wanted nothing to do with the GOP. Republicans responded by changing literally nothing about their agenda, ideas, ideology, rhetoric, tone, attitude, or approach to politics.

In 2009, there were five congressional special elections. Democrats won all five -- including one district that hadn't been represented by a Democrat since the 1800s. Despite frustrations about the pace of change in D.C., voters still weren't buying what the GOP was selling. Republicans again responded by changing literally nothing.

But Dems just don't seem to operate this way, and in the wake of midterm setbacks -- which were bad, but could have been worse -- their handling of adversity leaves much to be desired.

Steve Benen 9:55 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (35)

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That's because the Republicans are the party of the plutocracy, while the Democrats are 50% the party of the plutocracy and 50% the party of the people. When Republicans lose an election, it doesn't mean that they've lost their core constituency, it just means they need to try harder next time. When Democrats lose an election, they actually worry that maybe they are doing something wrong.

Posted by: rae on November 8, 2010 at 10:01 AM | PERMALINK

Actually, the GOP reacted to each setback by moving further right. Despite the voters rejection of the rabidly insane--as opposed to the just regularly insane- wing of the GOP in some high profile Senate races, you know that in 2012 the GOP will keep moving to the right. Of course, the Dems make it easy for them because whatever the rhetoric, they move further right too. Clinton was center right, but in a lot of ways he was further left than Obama--he raised taxes, tried for real health care reform, did not let social security get on the table etc. I would be mpore optomistic if more Dems were telling Obama that the GOP is going to continue to call him a socialist who is anti business so he may as well do something about income equality--starting with a pledge to veto legislation that extends Dumbya's tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans.

Posted by: Terry on November 8, 2010 at 10:05 AM | PERMALINK

The GOP understands that half the population is made up of people of below average intelligence who will only respond to immediate stimuli in their environment. They have no memory, they do not analyze. They don't vote on policy, they vote on emotion. So there is no pattern between election cycles, if one doesn't work out, perhaps the next will. What's important is strong branding, which the GOP has and the Dems don't.

Posted by: g. powell on November 8, 2010 at 10:08 AM | PERMALINK

It is the difference between and organized party with a goal and a collection of pussy cats in constant need of herding and stroking.

Tougher Democrats please. And can we get rid of Harry Reid? He needs a kinder and gentler role.

Posted by: Ron Byers on November 8, 2010 at 10:16 AM | PERMALINK

The GOP understands . . . nothing.

Most people are willfully stupid, or lazy. Those who aren't tend to be frustrated. One truly unpleasant aspect of this is that many people who are stupid don't realize it.

If you don't like what the media reports, don't read it. If you watch television or listen to the radio, turn them off. Be selective about what you read. Just because someone is named, for example, Samuelson, doesn't mean that he or she is predisposed to be intelligent about economics. Writers are hired to produce on a deadline; few editors care as much about accuracy as they do about readership.

As for Mr. Drum wanting to scream, having read him now and then, I can identify with the feeling.


Alan Tomlinson

Posted by: Alan Tomlinson on November 8, 2010 at 10:22 AM | PERMALINK

Over the weekend, the Washington Post ran a piece with all kinds of Democratic handwringing

How is that different from any other weekend?

Posted by: Gregory on November 8, 2010 at 10:23 AM | PERMALINK

There is only one real political party in the US and that's the Democrats.

Republicans are simply an instrument of corruption, while Democrats must accommodate the entire range of political opinion of the country and make work together.

Posted by: cld on November 8, 2010 at 10:23 AM | PERMALINK

As an antidote to typical Dem thinking, I recommend this message, sent out the day after the election by Jim Dean, chair of Democracy For America and brother of Howard Dean. DFA was about the only Dem-associated group that posted more victories than losses Tuesday. This was the reaction from a fighter:

Thank you.

You and DFA members nationwide did incredible work trying to save Democrats from themselves.

You deserve the credit for never giving up and fighting all the way to the end.

Together, we raised over one million dollars for progressives candidates, made over one million phone calls in 16 tight races, and delivered over 250,000 volunteer hours on the ground.

While it was a tough night, we had a few important victories too. DFA 2010 Progressive Hero Barbara Boxer won. Public Option Heroes Michael Bennet, Kristen Gillibrand, Jared Polis, and Chellie Pingree all won without running away from their votes for Healthcare. Co-Chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus Raul Grijalva was in the fight of his life and won. In fact 94% of the rest of the Progressive Caucus also won (compared to only 47% of the Blue Dogs).

Florida amendments legally requiring fair redistricting of congressional districts -- instead of Republican-controlled gerrymandering -- won. The anti-environmental Proposition 23 in California, which could have rolled back some of the most important clean air laws in the country, was defeated. And bold progressive Peter Shumlin was elected the first Democratic Governor of Vermont since Howard Dean left office in 2002.

The fact is progressive heroes who lost last night like Russ Feingold and Alan Grayson became collateral damage in a toxic election environment created by weak leadership and corporate Democrats who refused to stand up and fight for real change. Progressives like Annie Kuster, Mary Jo Kilroy, and Tom Perriello ran some of the strongest grassroots campaigns in history, but were drowned out by unregulated corporate front groups that spent hundreds of millions to scare and lie to voters.

The biggest lesson from last night is actually pretty simple. For Democrats to win in the future, they need to fight for the people they represent and stop cutting deals to water down reform with the same corporate interests who will turn around and spend unlimited amounts of money to defeat Democrats year after year.

It was a tough election and it's a tough fight ahead of us, but we have no regrets for fighting every day to move America forward -- and we never will.

Posted by: ericfree on November 8, 2010 at 10:30 AM | PERMALINK

[Trolling deleted.]

Posted by: Alejandro on November 8, 2010 at 10:34 AM | PERMALINK

@Alejandro - how can your through-the-looking-glass opinion be taken seriously when you can't even get the name of the party correct -- it's The Democratic Party - not the GOP's childish rendering of "Democrat Party."

Further, if what you wrote isn't satire, it's the most classic case of projection I've ever come across.

Posted by: June on November 8, 2010 at 10:45 AM | PERMALINK

I don't think you can be as rigidly partisan and one note as Benen is and simultaneously claim special insight into the opposing side: "Republicans have changed literally nothing" is a simplistic liberal talking point, a way too broad brush depiction of the last five years or so on the right. As someone above notes, the right has responded with a more rigid conservatism (i.e. that's you get increased polarization - it takes two sides, after all), and while the national GOP has struggled to reinvent itself, the conservative grassrioots went out and started a Tea Party out of frustration.

I've long argued that the missed ball here on the left is that if anyone needed a shakeup of internal complacency... it's the liberal left, which keeps expecting some of the oldest and hoariest (literally, as Democrats look to, say, John Dingell to craft health policy) members of the Democratic machine politics rather than trying to come up with new structures and new approaches... never mind new ideas.

Republicans won, it seems pretty clear, because they harnessed general voter dismay with government overall and made use of being the "out" party; they didn't offer a lot of new ideas, have few real policy proposals, and may well run into trouble as a result. That's their problem. And we can spend the next two years talking about their problems... or do something about ours.

I agree that a lot of the handwringing articles are not necessarily a help, mostly because a) we do too much of this via the press, rather than directly talking to people who might help the discussion... and secondly because they ask the same people the same questions and expect different answers. Asking the Democratic Establishment what';s wrong is really not the point. Figuring out how to change things within the Democratic Party requires a different discussion with more voices from different people, many of them people on the edges, or outside entirely, of the political process. I've been watching this dance for close to 30 years. It's tiring, and I wish we did less of it. But arguing, as Benen does here, that the answer lies in being rigidly unchanging, like the mythical GOP in his mind, is no answer. It's just more, in fact, of what we already do. And that's been working swell, really, hasn't it?

Posted by: weboy on November 8, 2010 at 10:52 AM | PERMALINK

Thanks for the post Steve, it was a good prompt for me to call my rep and let her know how much I appreciated all they have done in the last 2 years, and how much I would like her to vote for Pelosi for minority leader. Congress critters need carrots too.

Posted by: the seal on November 8, 2010 at 10:52 AM | PERMALINK

Unfortunately, this is a bad habit that a lot of Democratic lawmakers seem to fall into far too easily. Remember the apocalyptic statement that Barney Frank gave to Rachel Maddow after Scott Brown's election about how it was all over for the Democrats and their only choice was to capitulate to everything the Republicans wanted? Barney Frank was saying that, FFS.

Posted by: Mnemosyne on November 8, 2010 at 10:53 AM | PERMALINK

PS, I like Jim Dean and DFA a lot, but that letter is a lot of trying to make bad results seem better than they were. Congratulating winners without really hard races - no insult to her, but Kirsten Gillibrand was going to beat a begonia by the beginning of September - and then blaming every loss on evil corporate interests is nice... but not really true.

And, seal, I'd love to call my Representative and thank him for his leadership too... but he was one of the 60+ Democrats who lost.

Posted by: weboy on November 8, 2010 at 10:55 AM | PERMALINK

Kevin Drum found his voice on this one, in refreshing contrast to his usual posts of "I don't know where I stand on this one", "I'm not sure I care one way or another here", "This one doesn't mean much to me, but I'm throwing it out there," and "This really doesn't bother me: discuss."

Posted by: HydroCabron on November 8, 2010 at 10:57 AM | PERMALINK

Basically the 'narrative' is that Democrats are nothing but a bunch of out-of-touch elitists, so of course you'd have the press repeatedly writing articles like this.

They do this because otherwise people might pay more attention to the fact that the GOPers' whole agenda is to aid and assist in any way possible the elitists of wealth in this country.

And it works.

Posted by: leo on November 8, 2010 at 11:03 AM | PERMALINK

This is why people don't trust the Democratic Party to defend this country. I can't believe some of the stuff Obama has been saying the past few days, about compromise and understanding his opponents' views.

As disgusting as Bush was, he never bothered with this stuff, and it didn't hurt him one bit. In fact, it helped him persuade the public even when he was obviously wrong.

Will the Democrats ever learn not to waste energy with this sort of compassion and understanding for Teabaggers? Arrogance and confidence sells, not equivocation and frank confessions.

Posted by: HydroCabron on November 8, 2010 at 11:10 AM | PERMALINK


I think part of the reason the Republicans react better to adverse political results is a different relationship to the media.

Republicans believe that they dominate and control the media and find the media mostly as a way of getting their decrees out to the public. They cut the media gadflies out of the loop as much as possible. The media in the Republican view consists of megaphones for the accepted message or as political opponents to be silenced.

The Democrats, on the contrary, go to the media as supplicants. They want to convince the media of the correctness of their policies and to enlist the assistance of the media in getting the public on board with the public activities.

The difference has been made sharp in this election cycle. When teabaggers were asked questions by the media they did not want to answer they did not answer, and in fact on occasion manhandled the questioners. But when the media members ask the Democrats questions, they feel obligated to answer.

Then the media publishes the most inflammatory replies while ignoring the (boring) routine explanations. The Republicans can squash this by ignoring the questions, while the Democrats are obligated to respond and keep the controversies going.

It's not the politicians who are setting the rules, though. It's the respective core political base who demand these behaviors.

Posted by: Rick B on November 8, 2010 at 11:11 AM | PERMALINK

It's some conventional media phrasing like

"Democrats want to convince you that. . ."


"Republicans are saying. . ."

Posted by: cld on November 8, 2010 at 11:15 AM | PERMALINK

People should never forget how in the immediate wake of Scott Brown's victory, many, many Democrats including leading figures such as Barney Frank, flat-out shit their pants running away in panic and declaring the entire Democratic agenda dead.

I'm sure there are more examples of the abject clownish running away from the party en masse, but that's the one which really occurs to me.

Posted by: El Cid on November 8, 2010 at 11:17 AM | PERMALINK

Bill Clinton "felt" a lot of things while he was in the White House.

The irony is of course after the Dems lost Congress in 1994 the press chided Clinton for basically moping around for several months wearing his emotions on his sleeves. Now its about "lack of emotions." Well which is better? Being cool or being mushy? Me myself I'd rather be cool.

Of course they also called Clinton "too liberal" back then as well. Consistency has never been a strong point of the political press, among other things. Politico.com makes it worse because it takes all the cliches and bad habits of political writing and puts them on one website.

Posted by: Sean Scallon on November 8, 2010 at 11:24 AM | PERMALINK

Drum's sentiment presupposes that jobs was the most important issue affecting the outcome of Tuesday's election.

I happen to disagree.

It was a lack of leadership that disappointed the base and kept them at home.

Was it the right response? No, certainly not, but neither is pretending like it was the economy.

The Democrats had the Republicans against the ropes; all they had to do to score a knockout was act like Democrats.

Posted by: doubtful on November 8, 2010 at 11:57 AM | PERMALINK

When Democrats lose an election, they accept the will of the voters and engage in soul-searching as to why it went against them. When Republicans lose, they scream vote-fraud, demonize some group like ACORN, and threaten to pick up their guns.

Posted by: T-Rex on November 8, 2010 at 12:02 PM | PERMALINK

Republicans may not have changed their approach, but they sure as hell sound as if they did, at least if you're a low-information voter who's not sitting down and comparing current policy positions to old ones. That's why the Obama "we can't afford to go back" message was a failure -- Republicans succeeded in fooling swing voters into thinking they've changed. (To some extent it's true -- a lot of them have even crazier right-wing ideas.)

My question is, Why can't Democrats do that in defeat? Why can't they successfully rebrand themselves in a completely superficial way? Republicans did it in 2000 and again this year, so it's obviously doable.

Posted by: Steve M. on November 8, 2010 at 12:20 PM | PERMALINK

weboy@10:55: I don't think a 94% Progressive success rate is anything to be ashamed of, especially considering how the Party, and especially the Blue Dogs, did as a whole. Gillibrand may have had an easy race, but Boxer, Bennett and many others certainly didn't. The message obviously is, DFA-style Progressive positions and tactics work while the timid, Blue Dog -Emanuel whining and waffling practiced by too much of the rest of the party doesn't.

Posted by: ericfree on November 8, 2010 at 12:20 PM | PERMALINK

Sean Scallon sez:

Consistency has never been a strong point of the political press

I disagree. They've been very consistent in disparaging Democrats (when they bother to report on them and their ideas at all) and pumping up Republicans, regardless of the newsworthiness of the 'pubbie covered or the soundness (let alone honesty) of their arguments.

Posted by: KarenJG on November 8, 2010 at 12:26 PM | PERMALINK

Eric, Most of the House "progressive" Caucus are in safe seats with heavy Democratic bases. I'm glad they won too... but the outcomes were not in a lot of doubt for many of them.

I agree that Barbara Boxer's win was tough, and Bennet's not a given... but I don't think DFA can claim great credit for those; I think a variety of factors, not least that Ken Buck and Carly Fiorina never quite overcame doubts about either.

Again, my represnetative was not some practitioner of "blue dog" middle way thinking - he was a Democrat who voted for the big bills and said he was proud of the votes... and he lost. And it wasn't close. Would a "more DFA" approach won my district? I tend to doubt it... but having some proposals for the severe economic problems and job losses working people in my district have might have made a difference. I didn't see a lot of that from DFA, or anyone else.

Posted by: weboy on November 8, 2010 at 12:36 PM | PERMALINK

Dems: gormless. GOP: soulless.

Take your pick, Idiot America.


Posted by: Zorro on November 8, 2010 at 1:19 PM | PERMALINK

Amazing, isn't it?

Republicans lose an election....the message they get from it is that they were right all along, need to only do more of what they were doing.

Democrats lose an election....the Repubs say the message is that Dems were all wrong, have been soundly repudiated, and need to change course and be (in effect) Republicans...

Posted by: marty on November 8, 2010 at 2:25 PM | PERMALINK

The Democratic Party needs to learn to "Dance with the one that brought ya".

The Republicans NEVER desert their base once they are elected: the Democrats nearly always do. As a result, the Republican rank and file turn out for every election. For the Democrats, not so. If you look at the polls taken during this last cycle, for example, Democrats lead among registered voters, but not *likely* ones. Those on the left have become disillusioned with a Party that every cycle says "Trust us, we're on you side" only to run away from the very policies that we elected them to implement.

Posted by: Bill on November 8, 2010 at 3:04 PM | PERMALINK

re: appealing to your base, an interesting contrast can be made, but it's not the contrast that everyone expects.

The consensus is that the Dems appeal to liberals to win elections, and then govern to appeal to the vaguely-liberal part of the money community, whereas the GOP appeals to the religious right to get elected, and then gives them what they want. But it's not quite that simple.

Yes, for the most part, Dems campaign to get the votes of liberals, and then the DLC crew runs away from us (eg- Gibbs' comments after the Halter-Lincoln primary). But, while the GOP does appeal for the votes of the religious right, they don't really give them everything they expect. They make token gestures towards their social issues, such as gay marriage and abortion, but don't really do a huge amount to stop them. After all, even after 40+ years of mostly-GOP dominance of the federal + state governments, Roe v. Wade is still the law of the land, and gay marriage has more support today than ever before.

Basically, the GOP talks the religious right's talk, gladly collects their votes, and then caters to the demands of the moneyed oligarchy who fund them. But, while libs are generally perceptive enough to realize that they've been had, hence their low turnout to support policies which haven't benefitted them, the religious right seems to not realize that they've been had. Hence, the GOP continues to get their support, without giving much more than lip service to their demands.

Of course, GWB was both a member of the moneyed oligarchy *and* a member of the religious right. It's no co-incidence that this combination yielded the 2nd worst President in US history (IMnsftHO, James Buchanan is the worst by far).

This is a slight variation on Thomas Frank's argument in _What's the Matter With Kansas,_ in which he describes how poor white people in his home state are manipulated into voting against their own economic self interest by the GOP mouthing moralistic platitudes.


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