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Overdetermination and Election Strategy

I've been known to engage in it myself but the analytic approach on display here is really no good:

But as the new year begins, no such consensus exists among Democrats about why Mr. Kerry was defeated, and the party is locked in a battle of interpretation over just what went wrong. Was it values? Terrorism and Iraq? A better Republican get-out-the-vote operation or a rush of Hispanics to President Bush? A gawky candidate with little to say?
Look, the election was close. There are any number of somewhat different approaches that might have worked. The issue here isn't that liberals need to discern the One True Path to electoral victory. Instead, we need to look at the set of feasible paths to victory and decide which one is better. Moving right on cultural issues would probably work. Rethinking the whole approach to both forming substantive national security policy and selling it to the public would also work. But it would be harder. On the plus side, I think the party really could use substantively better national security policies, while its substantive views on the cultural issues are basically okay, except on guns. But either way, the Democrats face choices, not a forced move.

January 2, 2005 | Permalink


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What makes you think moving right on cultural issues would work? Giving up what we believe in is a recipie for disaster.

More effectively communicating what we believe in, that's another story. We'll trounce them when a) we get somebody who can tell our story well and b) we get Democrats to stick with it and stay on message (the much, much harder part of the equation).

"It's the economy, stupid" was the finest Democratic slogan ever written. It had the advantage of truth, which is a bonus but not really necessary, it appealed to populists and it appealed to elitists. The phrase we need to hear on moral issues is, "it's between you and God, keep the government out of it."

Posted by: bunny | Jan 2, 2005 1:44:13 PM

I think it would be worth peeling off a substantial part of the pro-life support the Republican party gets, by being less obsessive about protecting post-viability elective abortions. At that point, abortion stops being about the woman's right to not be pregnant, and becomes just too obviously about the woman's "right" to kill the baby.

Posted by: Brett Bellmore | Jan 2, 2005 1:45:28 PM

I don't know why women have late term abortions, but I do know that very, very few of them are performed. It's not a very big problem, but outlawing a procedure even when the mother's life is threatened is something the Democratic party should always be against. The woman and her doctor should make that decision, not a bureaucrat in the department of pregnancy timing in Washington.

See how easy it is?

Posted by: bunny | Jan 2, 2005 1:53:56 PM

I don't know that "very few" of them are being performed. It's my impression that no hard and fast data is being collected on this. In fact, didn't the abortion industry go to court a few years back to challenge a law that would have required them to maintain such records?

Given the number of abortions performed anually, "very few" could easily exceed the number of people murdered after birth each year.

Posted by: Brett Bellmore | Jan 2, 2005 2:05:47 PM

Notice you don't say anything about improved GOTV efforts. Tell you what, we have a big election in 2005 here in Virginia. Why don't you cross the Potomac and help us, might give you new insight about what does and does not work with voters.

Posted by: Alice Marshall | Jan 2, 2005 2:07:40 PM

Dump the Democrats - they are a part of the problem.

Vote for SP-USA or something...

Posted by: abb1 | Jan 2, 2005 2:09:42 PM

A related point is that in a close race like this, the losing side obviously did some things right as well as somethings wrong. The hard part is figuring out which is which. An example of this is attempts to turn out the youth vote. Was this a failure? Or was it effective in helping prevent a Bush landslide?

Posted by: Dan F | Jan 2, 2005 2:18:25 PM

Alice, I'm already working on some stuff that involves GOtV stuff for the VA gov's race. We did a stunning job in FFax this year if you read the precinct breakdowns compared to 2000/2002.

but yes, drag Matt across the bridge and make him walk a precinct. Even right wingers I know dispise our AG and would be gov. We can turn this race into a walkover if we try.

And Brent, yes it IS very few late abortions performed each year, but the number has nothing to do with the argument. Very few people have a problem with some restrictions on late term abortions as long as the health and safety of the mother are considered. In those cases, the mother and the doctor should decide together what to do.

I think it's noble for a mother to sacrifice her life in a futile attempt at giving birth, but I'm not the correct person to decide which women should take that risk. I don't think you or a government bureaucrat are either.

Posted by: bunny | Jan 2, 2005 2:32:06 PM

Was it that close? The hell with the presidency, a permanently Republican-controlled House is a nightmare. Tell me how to get and keep thirty house seats, and then we can talk about choices and forced moves.

Posted by: bob mcmanus | Jan 2, 2005 2:40:57 PM

Moving right on cultural issues? No, no, no. I don't think so. I consider myself a fiscal conservative and social moderate, and much of the Democratic Party is already to the right of me. Republican-lite ain't the answer. I don't think I've changed; the ground has shifted under me.

Posted by: janeboatler | Jan 2, 2005 2:55:34 PM

"Moving right on cultural issues would probably work."

That happens, and the Democrats can kiss this vote goodbye for good. In fact not only will I actively vote for Green Party candidates but I will actively work to undermine the Democrats every chance I get.

Posted by: Green Democrat | Jan 2, 2005 3:01:26 PM

The democratic party is alreasy further to the right on a host of social issues than the american public is and you want to go further ? This pernicious idea must be crushed. Pandering to rightwing ideology hurts the left trice: It alienates the progressive base and it says to the public that ideas of the right are worth having regardless of how vile they are and it makes democrat leaders look like spineless cowards! It is a recipie for utter defeat.

Strategies to adopt: Declare War on "abstinence only". The american public doesn't like abortions and teen mothers? Fine. The number of abortions can be massively reduced by giving kids proper sex-ed and access to birthcontrol: Slogan:
"The republicans would rather see single mothers in our classrooms than condoms. Vote democrat for nursery-free highschools"

Gay marriage? Its a great idea, and the democrats should be mopping the floor with the Repugs on this issue, but you can't win a battle you are not *fighting* Slogan: "Vote democrat. It might be your daughters wedding someday."

Healthcare? Stop dicking around with pissant halfmeasures already. Slogan: "This is the laws covering Canadas single-payer system. This is a photocopy machine. Vote democrat. Pay smaller premiums and never be uninsured again."

Posted by: Thomas | Jan 2, 2005 3:06:56 PM

The debate I get into my friends to the left of me consists of arguing the following.

The democrats are doing stuff they shouldn't or not doing stuff they should and, as such, are "sinning" (either through commission or omission) and can rectify their problems by ceasing to "sin". Or, at least, cutting back.

The democrats are well within acceptable sinning limits (we are all sinners, after all) and the problem is that the electorate is ignorant. Or far too easily manipulated by Bush's masterful use of the easily-duped media. Or bought off by the tax cuts. Or mistakenly think that "I support the troops" means "I vote for presidents who put them in harm's way." Or they are anti-choice. Or they are prejudiced against homosexuals. Or. Or. Or.

What this means that there is nothing that the democrats can do to win votes without betraying their Higher Values.

From where I sit, the second choice is a "nursing one's wounds" position. "At least we have the moral high ground." It allows oneself to say "Well, it couldn't have been helped and we didn't make any mistakes that weren't in service to our Principles."

There are two main things that I see wrong with this:
1. It's not true.
2. An adoption of this view precludes making changes.

But, maybe I'm wrong. Maybe the second viewpoint *IS* correct. If that's the case, the choice for the democrats is between betraying core principles and maybe losing elections anyway and keeping core principles and, eventually, being seen as having held onto principles despite it costing elections.

Now, if it is true that the dems cannot start winning elections again without betraying higher principles, the best thing for the dems is to keep losing elections. The pendulum will swing back eventually and the dems will be able to point to how they held on to their beliefs when it wasn't in their best interests to do so.

But, from where I sit, this strikes me as self-flattery that will only result in elections lost that didn't have to be.

Posted by: Jaybird | Jan 2, 2005 3:14:21 PM

Have any seen the Wash Post today?

Plans to incarcerate suspected terrorists for life, even if there isnt enough evidence to ever bring them to trial!


Surely something like this is inimical to the very basis of much Right philosophy. Lets challenge the Right to say this is abhorrent.

Ive blogged it here:


Matt, are you listening?

Regards, Cernig

Posted by: Cernig | Jan 2, 2005 3:15:46 PM

The election wasn't close. It was a rout, pretty much.

Posted by: Fantazia | Jan 2, 2005 3:19:24 PM

Huh? This presidential was very close. Perhaps folks commenting here are too young to remember Mondale in 84 or McGovern in 72 or Goldwater in 64 . Those, my friends, are true blowouts, routs, landslides, whatever.

I agree there is plenty that went wrong in the 04 campaign, but when you get within couple percent of winning, a few things must have gone right. You don't want to abandon those. (Baby, bathwater, etc. etc.)

Posted by: DAn F. | Jan 2, 2005 3:29:31 PM

Who cares why Democrats lost?

Now that there's nothing more for Democrats to lose, its time to become the party of Bob Taft and Barry Goldwater, which is not to say the party that doesn't give a rat's ass about the poor, but the party that recognizes itself as the opposition, and stops a) trying to figure out what the center wants or even b) caring what the center wants. In other words, Democrats need to start being themselves, and quit worrying about being perceived as socialistic peacenik hedonists - that's what we are.

Eventually, the puritannism, militarism, incompetence, corruption, and barbaric laissez faire of the GOP will begin to wear on the American people, and not only will a Democratic president and congress be swept into office, an openly socialistic peacenik hedonist Democratic president and congress will be swept into office. And at first the GOP will chalk it up to luck, or foul play. Then said Democrats will be elected, and again, and after awhile it will occur to Republicans that the only way they will be electable is by being the party of socialistic peacenik hedonist-lite.

Posted by: Robin the Hood | Jan 2, 2005 3:40:06 PM

I thought the single most important reason was the "Swift Boat Veterans for Truth" and supporting operations. That reason doesn't translate neatly into a watchword for a Democratic future: if the GOPpies outlied our side, we should not try to steal their thunder by lying more. The lesson is rather to trumpet the truth louder -- and given the unspent monies the Kerry campaign finished with, it's plain they should have countered the SBVT with a huge August media buy to shout the bastards down instead of saving money, vocal cords and (seeming) dignity by giving the press time to debunk the slanders, which the press did -- but too late and too softly to stick in the public memory. More generally, the lesson for the future might be for liberals and others in opposition to be sedulous to tell the public the homely truth: what in practical terms the Right wants to do, and why they shouldn't get away with it. If we do this right, in the long term we might even move public discourse off buzzwords and slogans and towards complete sentences so that politics can be carried on less by overwrought imaginations and more by sober thinking about what we the voters want and believe.

Posted by: Dabodius | Jan 2, 2005 3:42:18 PM

Democrats need to start being themselves

Unfortunately they are being themselves - less crazy Republicans, party of sane billionaires. There is the whole left side of the political spectrum missing.

Posted by: abb1 | Jan 2, 2005 3:45:50 PM

"The democratic party is alreasy further to the right on a host of social issues than the american public is..."

Whoo, talk about delusional!

Posted by: Brett Bellmore | Jan 2, 2005 4:01:58 PM

the election was close. There are any number of somewhat different approaches that might have worked

True 'dat.

The problem of the campaign was that Bush defined the race, not that the Dems were not coherent.

With 20/20 hindsight, the change in strategy I would have like to have seen was:

- A complete tossing of the ball back at Bush *early* in the Swiftboat campaign. Kerry should have kept running the McCain ad, even though McCain asked him to stop using it. Screw McCain. His whole goal in 2004 was to position himself for a run in 2008.

- A full frontal assault on Bush's character. The "Two faces of Bush" blitz was a month late and a dollar short. It needed to be ten times more agressive.

Oh well. Carville had it right when he said Americans will never trust someone to defend the country when he can't defend himself.

Let the Democrats form their new backbone as the party of the *vocal* opposition and let each candidate take us in the direction that he/she see fit for each race.

Our strength should come from the fact that we are unified *despite* having many diverse views under out tent, not from distancing ourselves from various core constituencies.

Build. Don't Break.

Posted by: def | Jan 2, 2005 4:04:18 PM

Delusional? Not a bit of it. A majority of americans favor government healthcare of the canadian/european type and say they'd be more likely to vote for politicans who would fight for that. Is this part of the democrat electorial strategy? No: Too lefty. 80+% of americans favor comprehensive sex-ed in schools, yet in addition to being a vile disinformation campaign "abstinence only" is also a bipartisan federal program. The enviorment. The UN. Multilateralism in general. Free speech. And of course there is that classic liberal value the democrats would have to fight much, much harder for in order to be in line with the american public: Not locking people up and torturing them without trial!

Posted by: Thomas | Jan 2, 2005 4:37:10 PM

"Alice, I'm already working on some stuff that involves GOtV stuff for the VA gov's race. We did a stunning job in FFax this year if you read the precinct breakdowns compared to 2000/2002."

Bunny - you are absolutely correct. In fact I cannot figure out why all the party big shots are not on the phone with Ginny Peters and asking her how they can duplicate what was done in Fairfax County.

We registered 46,000 new voters, the equivalent of 18 new precincts. We did many other splendid things, which is why won Herndon, Centerville and so many othe places we lost in 2000.

That is why Matt should come across the river and work in Fairfax this year, at least a few times. He would learn what works.

Posted by: Alice Marshall | Jan 2, 2005 4:44:41 PM

The party needs to show up on national security issues.

If there's anyone out there who thinks highly of Evan Bayh's potential as a party leader (which I doubt, unless many readers of this site are members of the clueless consultariat), remember this line of his from a Labor Day weekend interview on one of the Sunday chat shows: "Every time we talk about national security issues, we are on their turf." Disgusting.

The two worst failures of the Kerry campaign were running away from the $87 billion vote and failing to use the generals after the convention.

The $87 billion issue is the perfect microcosm of our warped politics. The three pricipal variables, Republican mendacity, Democratic fecklessness, and major-media passivity are on elegant display. Bush threatened to veto the thing if stipulated loans instead of grants for Iraqi reconstruction (deluded optimist that I was, at the time I pictured a Dem candidate saying, "The Adminstration has said that Iraq can finance its own reconstruction...let's let them do that.."). Kerry proposed repealing the upper-class tax cut to pay for it. Then Kerry gaffed and the campaign swept the issue under the rug. They should have relentlessly repeated those counterarguments. Major media would have come around.

As for the generals, the only explantion I can think of is that they were spooked by the Bush campaign's assertion that it had over 100 generals ready to endorse Bush, and didn't want to get into a generals contest. Even if they really had those generals (and I do wonder), runnig away was still wrong. They could have gone for quality ads. A series of ads with Gen. Hoar, Gen. Christman (former West Point Superintendent), talking in forceful, personable tones about their experience defending America and their trust of Kerry.

The DNC seemed to understand this. They ran an ad showing Gen. McPeak starting in August. In fact, the DNC ads generally were much better than the KE '04 ads. That is, they hit hard on Bush and made Kerry look good.

I forgot to mention the attacks on Kerry's weapons-system votes. Again, repetition of the truth was the only thing needed: the absurdity of saying that a vote against an omnibus authorization was a vote against specific weapons, and the fact that Kerry voted for 16 of 19 omnibus authorizations anyway. And Cheney's advocacy of cuts, which didn't come up until the VP debate. And on the this issue as well, the DNC got it; I remember an ad running in June talking about Kerry's endorsement by two former Joint Chiefs chairmen and about voting for most defense budgets.

Said before, but needs to be repeated: the only major problem the party faces is rhetorical. Abandon Shrumery and hit back early and often. If the issue is complex, write some clever lines (example: "Only this Administration would send our young people to risk their lives without calling for our wealthiest citizens to contribute to the war effort") and shout louder.

Posted by: Sean Flaherty | Jan 2, 2005 5:22:30 PM

Brett: There are about 600 third trimester abortions a year, according to the CDC. The vast majority of them are in cases where the mother's life is in danger, or when the fetus has died in the womb, or is guaranteed to die before or immediately after birth (for example, when a fetus' brain grows outside the skull).

Posted by: Walt Pohl | Jan 2, 2005 5:25:13 PM

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