Sunday, September 16, 2007

Let Bartlet Be Bartlet

In this post, I will attempt my own version of a dichotomy that has been drawn time and again, largely by those who place themselves on the one side of it, between "DLC Democrats" and "progressive Democrats". It must be said that "DLC" does not fully capture the brand of Democratic pols and especially consultants that fall on that side of the dichotomy and that "progressive" does not do a much better job for the other. Rather than attempt in vain to craft precise definitions, I'll rehash the same basic groupings that have been used time and again. Then, I'll tell you why the dichotomy is important to me in this instant, without evaluating its broader potential import.

DLC Democrats are those affiliated with the DLC (obviously), the New Democrat Network, the Blue Dogs, Bill Clinton, Hillary Clinton, Paul Begala, James Carville, Bob Shrum, John Kerry "triangulation", the "Third Way", etc. These people and organizations fall into this category because they have a shared conception of America (and especially of the American electorate), of the Democratic Party, and of what the Democratic Party ought to do in order to regain its status as "the Natural Party of Government" (although I would argue that many in this group don't believe that's possible). DLCers believe that America is fundamentally conservative. They'll tell you that ceteris paribus the Republican Party label will always beat the Democratic Party label because the Republican platform is better in sync with America than the Democrats' is. They might allow that the American center is gradually shifting to the left, but they certainly reject the notion that politicians can do anything to alter or shape that trend. Politicians are not independent variables as related to the political atmosphere. Instead, politicians can only tailor their messages and tactics to the existing environment to maximize their chances of winning.

Progressive Democrats are those affiliate with Progressive Democrats of America, the "netroots", Howard Dean, Jon Tester, Jim Webb, etc. These people have a drastically different conception of the American electorate and its relation to the Democratic Party. They acknowledge that the Republican Party label beats the Democratic Party label, barring any extenuating circumstances (like those dominating the environment in the 2008 cycle). They reject the notion that America is fundamentally conservative, however and will give you one of two related explanations for the Republican Party's domination of American politics (ante its 2006 implosion). Some will tell you that's its simply a matter of the Democrats' poor effort in communicating what it is that it stands for. It's not that Americans feel closer to the Republican platform than to the Democratic platform, it's that Americans have a general feel for what the Republican platform calls for ("strong national defense", "low taxes", "pro-life", "sanctity of marriage" & "2nd Amendment rights") and no clue what the Democratic platform says. Its evident that there is a certain truth to this, but perhaps not enough to take it as a full explanation. The other group will tell you that Americans do have an idea of what Democrats stand for, but that Republicans have persuaded the majority of Americans that our platform is unacceptable while we've been sitting on the sidelines watching it happen. From the "death tax" to "tax and spend" to the rendering of the very term "liberal" into a dirty word, there are innumerable examples that validate this theory as well.

As should be clear by now, I strongly identify with the "progressive Democrats". That's not to say that I like to snuggle up close to PDA, or that I would ever have voted for Dean in the 2004 primaries. It's also not a convoluted way of confirming that I inhabit the political space to the left of the center of the Democratic Party. The dichotomy involved here is not purely ideological. Perhaps it isn't ideological at all. Jon Tester and Jim Webb are no bleeding hearts and John Kerry (the guy I would have voted for in the 2004 primaries, had I been able to) is as far as one can get from moderate (as an elected official, that is). Then again, it's probably disingenuous not to acknowledge that DLC Democrats tend to be, well members of the DLC and therefore to the right of the rest of the party and that progressive Democrats tend to be to the left, at least of their local political environments (Tester and Webb both beat DLC-style Democrats in their 2006 Senate primaries).

A DLC consultant advises his clients to avoid identifying with the party base on virtually any issue. All debate on affirmative action, taxes, spending, capital punishment, same-sex marriage, etc. is to be evaded with a quick pivot to a safer issue, unless the candidate is willing to adopt the Republican position on those controversial issues. Democrats, in order to win consistently, have to abandon their philosophical core. They have to adopt the same position as the Republicans (or one just barely left of theirs) on most issues, while brandishing individual candidates' credentials on national security and competent governance. For a DLC consultant, the perfect Democratic candidate would be a moderate Republican minus the negative baggage associated with that party label. The worst part of it is not the run to the center. Clearly, if we are going to be a long-term majority party, we must make room for the Clintons and the Bill Richardsons of the world. It's the manner by which DLCers execute their centrist tacks. By emphasizing that their candidate is strong on national security, they imply that the Democratic Party is a bunch of pansies otherwise. Every time Bill Richardson says that he's not "one of those Democrats" in response to a question on taxes, he implies that the Democratic Party is wrong to insist on progressive taxation. Perhaps the worst surrender to the Republicans is the label "New Democrat" itself. By adapting Republican language in talking about other Democrats, DLCers sabotage their own party.

Progressive Democrats do not urge that candidates make a corresponding shift back to the left (although many, if not most of them want just that). Instead, the common denominator from this group is their emphasis that Democrats stop upholding Republican positions and Republican language as the gold standard and instead focus on winning the war of ideas. They believe that most Americans would agree with Democratic candidates if only those candidates would really engage in debate, rather than allow the Republicans to box them into corners.

To quote from Bruno Gianelli, I am tired of working for candidates who make me think I should be embarrassed to believe what I believe, Sam. I'm tired of getting them elected. We all need some therapy, because somebody came along and said "liberal" means soft on crime, soft on drugs, soft on Communism, soft on defense, and we're gonna tax you back to the Stone Age because people shouldn't have to go to work if they don't want to. And instead of saying "Well, excuse me, you right-wing, reactionary, xenophobic, homophobic, anti-education, anti-choice, pro-gun, Leave it to Beaver trip back to the fifties", we cowered in the corner and said "Please, don't hurt me." No more. I really don't care who's right, who's wrong. We're both right. We're both wrong. Let's have two parties, huh? What do you say?”

There was a point to laying all of this out and here it is. In this presidential primary race, I am evaluating the candidates on two criteria. One is the whether I think that they are more or less likely that most to be able to avoid a genocide in Iraq. Not being a supernatural prognosticator, I can only say that Biden is likely head and shoulders above the others on the first point, but that the other major candidates are completely unpredictable. All I can really do is pray that the nominee makes Biden their Secretary of State, or at least lets him be actively involved in the withdrawal process. The second is the likelihood that candidate, once nominated, will run more of a DLC or a progressive campaign. Of the six major candidates, I know that Hillary and Richardson are squarely within the DLC camp. Biden is too, but is real enough that he breaks out of that mold every now and again. Dodd is certainly not a DLCer ideologically, but I'm just not sure that a guy who's spent his entire life as a member of Congress or the son of a member of Congress can break free of the DLC mindset. Edwards is the only candidate that I feel comfortable putting in the "progressive" category. Now I get around to my point.

I have no idea where Obama will end up. His whole being seems at odds with the DLC schtick and yet his message is "bi-partisanship" and "bringing the country together". That sounds a bit too much like, "well, neither of us are right, so it doesn't matter who you vote for as long as we work together." Hell, he even publicly discounts the importance of electing a Democratic President (and not a Republican). Maybe this is a strategy designed to make him look like a credible general election candidate in order to sway "electability" voters. Who knows? Regardless, I have no idea whether general election Obama would revert back to his old self, or whether his consultants would run the show, as they appear to be doing right now.

Maybe some other time I'll write about why I think Obama's campaign message is his own worst enemy.

As I've said many times, I am still undecided on the race. If I had to vote today, I'd vote for Edwards. I'm still waiting for Obama to convince me that he will return to form upon winning the nomination or for any of the front-runners to endorse Biden's Iraq plan. Unless either of those happen, I'll remain undecided until Feb. 5.


devinmauney said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Joaquin said...

I would say that the unity language in Obama's stuff isn't necessarily a DLC sort of thing. It isn't intended to gloss over the differences between the parties necessarily; while it's intended as a missionary appeal to those who are disconnected from the civic sphere, by making such a communitarian appeal it also is hitting at the importance of building a communitarian society as well. (There are obviously less esoteric ways of communicating this.) This commitment to philosophical communitarianism resonates throughout his campaign structure as well. It is this hint of illiberalism that resonates with me and causes me to see him as having an edge over Edwards.

That all being said, Obama's problem is that his 04 speech is like the Bible and the Constitution; 10,000 different readers come up with 10,000 different explanations. Even with what will ultimately be an exhausting campaign of left-hooks against Hillary, in the eyes of most people he will still be that 04 speech that means different things to different people. The question simply is whether those with this messianic image of Obama will show up to vote.

Alton Brooks Parker said...

I think you're right about why Obama uses his unity language. What strikes me as DLCish is that he speaks as though he is a "New Democrat" (clearly not in the Clinton sense) capable of bringing the "disconnected" into the political process whereas all other Democrats will fail. I suppose that's an unfair criticism because right now it's his job to differentiate himself. I just wish that he would make phrase his unity language in such a way as to say, "the Democratic Party will bring the country together" rather than "I will bring the country together". He'd still be different because he'd be the only one saying that so persistently, but he wouldn't imply that Democrats generally are incapable of uniting the country. Again, that's unfair as a criticism of his campaign, because it's not their job to do that. It's also possible that his language will change to reflect my preferences if and when he wins the nomination and becomes the leader of the party. Like I said in the post, I just don't know.

I'm glad that you bring up communitarianism, because its that impulse than also leads me to love Obama. I'm guess I'm just confused about why (other than campaign structure) you see Obama as more of a communitarian than Edwards. I can't distinguish the two on a communitarian scale, because they both pass what is the for the most important illiberal test; they both talk about helping disadvantaged people as though it were something that we are all interested in for its own sake rather than as a matter of securing some nebulous set of "rights".

Espo said...

In my opinion, Edwards and Obama are working towards the same goal in different ways. Both pass the "illiberal test", as you put it, but their strategies in bringing about this more communitarian society are starkly different. This brings me to the messaging. Edwards is employing the style of a traditional fire-breathing southern populist; fighting the power, tearing down the titans and establishing the common man to his rightful place as the leader of this democracy.

Obama's language, as you have noted, goes in a new direction. His focus, while still populist in nature, also has a much broader focus of developing a culture of unity and an attitude of hope on which this populism is supposed to thrive. The idea is that behind the communitarian philosophy there must also be a community, and that a nation divided cannot stand and thrive. It is my belief that Obama's message and philosophy is more comprehensive than Edwards' (from a communitarian prospective) and therefore I support Obama over Edwards.

Alton Brooks Parker said...

I think that's a fair assessment of the two. You guys are probably right in giving Obama a slight edge in the communitarian primary.

Still, I would say that I think Edwards' communitarian rhetoric would likely become more expansive and inclusive should he win the nomination. Then again, it might be unfair to give him the benefit of the doubt and not Obama. On the other hand, I understand the kind of transformation that Edwards would undergo in that scenario and I have no idea why Obama would choose his current message to appeal to a primary campaign audience so I can't make a confident guess as to what he would do in the general.

Again, I promise that I will later expand upon my confusion with Obama's message from a tactical perspective.