Democrats at a Loss
by

“Every public survey shows a country ready for a political upheaval in 2006.”

So begins the latest memo from Democracy Corps, the heavyweight political strategy group run by Democratic bigwigs James Carville, Stanley Greenberg, and Robert Shrum. It’s a revealing glimpse into the thinking of party’s top strategists — though not always in the way they intended.

The basic thrust of it is that the Republicans are tanking, being dragged down President Bush’s slumping polls, Iraq, the Hurricane Katrina response and other bad news. But the Democrats thus far haven’t been able to capitalize on it.

“Right now, Democrats are not yet the answer for the growing majority seeking change,” according to the memo, which lists Carville and Greenberg as authors. “[T]he party’s image has not improved through the whole course of the Republican slide. Indeed, both national parties are at a half-century low point in public esteem.”

Democracy Corps’s own polling shows that in the generic congressional vote Democrats now have a 5-point advantage, over Republicans, 46 to 41 percent. That’s good but not good enough since most congressional districts are heavily gerrymandered. To dislodge the GOP from the majority, the Democrats will have to do much better.

“Democrats have already moved into a significant lead, but they are underperforming,” the authors ruefully note.

This is, as you might imagine, a bit frustrating. You can almost hear them ripping out their hair (well, Greenberg anyway). Even Republicans are souring on their own party, but we can’t get a serious leg up. What’s going on?

The problem, as they see it, is that the party is still seen as too close to Washington and too invested in the status quo.

Here’s where it gets really interesting: Carville and Greenberg argue that the party should become “reformist, populist and nationalist.”

“2006 will only produce an upheaval if Democrats make a break with the forces that have put them just short of a majority in the country,” they argue. “The Democrats should revisit the Perot voters and their concerns, even if Perot himself has faded from view. His voters were the most anti-political and anti-elitist, anti-big government and big corporations, anti-free trade and anti-immigration. They were pro-military but anti-foreign entanglements. They were libertarian and secular, pro-gun and pro-choice.”

Without ever actually acknowledging this (maybe they don’t see it themselves), they’re calling on the party to adopt something akin to the platform of the guy who ran as the candidate of Perot’s Reform Party in 2000: Pat Buchanan. (It would be stripped of some of his “culture war” issues, though.)

The party has to do this because its gains among minorities and secular suburbanites have been offset by dramatic declines among “white rural and blue collar voters.” Until they win those voters over, they’re never going to be a stable majority party again.

“It is hard to win congressional and Senate races when the Democratic national candidate is getting only about a third of the white rural and non-college vote,” Carville and Greenberg say.

This argument isn’t all that new. Democrats have been making variations on it for the last few years. Howard Dean, you’ll recall, said during Democratic primaries that he wanted to be “the candidate for guys with Confederate flags in their pickup trucks.” You’ll also recall that he quickly backed away from that remark when it was labeled insensitive.

And that’s the problem. As much as Democrats talk about changing they’re still hemmed in by the demands and expectations of the existing members of their coalition. Few are willing to fundamentally rethink what the party should stand for.

For example, although Greenberg and Carville note that immigration is a key concern of the voters they say Democrats must reach, they don’t propose any immigration-related policies or stances. After raising the subject early on, they simply drop it.

Instead, they call for Democrats to attack Republicans as the corrupt tools of corporate lobbyists and push an agenda of health care, education, tax hikes on the wealthy and bashing energy companies — the, umm, same policies they’ve been pushing for the last few years as the minority party.

To be sure, things are pretty gloomy for the Republicans right now and Democrats could indeed come out on top in 2006. But if they do, it won’t be due to any innovative thinking on their part.

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