Sunday, February 13, 2011

What has happened to the Democratic Party as a national organization?

Should the Democrats be nationalizing the Democratic political message the way the Republicans have or should the Democrats continue to run primarily a district-by-district set of campaigns with each candidate crafting the message to match what he or she thinks his voters want to hear from him?

The following was posted yesterday by at MyDD. November, I was angry. The Democrats had just backed away from the only winable fight on the Bush Tax Cuts, and seemed hell bent on heading into the election with nothing much to get voters, at home either content or disenfranchised, out to the polls to fight back. Part of that was the policy they were defending, and part of it was the lack of any unified, consistent message. You can't campaign on principle your policy doesn't back up, and the principle the policy does portrays -- Eh, we sorta tried? -- isn't a winning slogan. Ta-da! GOP "mandate."
Jason is right. It appeared to me that the national Democratic Party did not want to put out a national Democratic message because it would have damaged too many already threatened blue dogs. So the Democrats ran district by district while the Republicans nationalized their message. Then, of course, the Citizens United decision allowed the national Republicans to throw tons of money into the election, and FOX News is one massive propaganda organization. They all demonized the Democrats.

Remember 2008 right after Obama was elected when the talk was that Bush/Cheney had made the Republican Party so toxic they wouldn't be able to win elections for decades and might even have to change the name of their party?

It didn't help a bit that the Republicans in Congress ran a two year program to stop the Democrats from doing anything to alleviate the problems caused by the Great Recession, especially unemployment. That worked for them also. The Republicans caused the Great Recession and the Wall Street collapse, so they lost in 2008. Obama came in and in two years was unable to break the lock the Republicans have had on the Senate so Obama and the Democrats were in office and got blamed for the problems the Republicans caused either through greed or through political calculation.

Well, with the Republicans in charge of the House a lot of the political terrain has changed. Now the Democrats can sit on the sidelines and expose the less than photogenic behavior of the conservatives. Take a look at what Steve Benen wrote today:
Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) defended proposed Republican budget cuts to popular domestic programs Sunday as necessary to maintaining fiscal health.

"No matter how popular sounding these programs are, they jeopardize our children's future," the House Budget Committee chairman said on "Fox News Sunday."
So, let me get this straight. In order to help protect the interests of our children, we have to cut Head Start, student loans, Title I grants (which help schools with kids who live in poverty), and nutritional aid for pregnant women and women with young children.

By making these cuts, Paul Ryan believes he's helping make children's futures brighter. Presumably, the House Budget Committee chairman also intends to teach kids about fire safety by handing them matches and lighter fluid, and encouraging them to play.

Indeed, as far as Ryan is concerned, we just can't afford Head Start, student loans, Title I grants, and nutritional aid for pregnant women and women with young children, but we can afford tax breaks for people who don't need them, costing far more money.
But it gets better. Steve also pointed out:
The DCCC targeted 19 GOP House incumbents, nearly all of whom represent districts won by President Obama in 2008, blasting their support for a spending-cut plan that would "cut education" and "cut science and technology research," which would in turn cost jobs. Soon after, some of the Republicans facing the heat felt a little defensive.

In other words, the ads had the intended effect. GOP lawmakers in competitive districts wanted to be seen as cutting spending, but started getting nervous when Dems told their constituents about the breadth of the possible cuts.

This is a step toward nationalizing the 2012 campaign, something that Obama is going to have to do anyway if he is going to win reelection. But will Obama then shut down the Democratic national messaging machine again after 2012 and force the individual Democratic candidates to run mostly on whatever message each of them can craft?

Consider what Jack Balkin wrote on this subject:
What we are facing today is likely to be importantly different from previous periods of divided government before the George W. Bush Administration. The reason is that at the national level, contemporary American politics suffers from a pathological and debilitating condition: the emergence of parliamentary parties in a presidential system.

Democracy in the United States is based on a presidential system, in which different parties can control the presidency and the houses of Congress. In a parliamentary system, by contrast, the prime minister is head of government and also a member of either the majority party or a party in the majority coalition. Presidential systems have regular elections; there is no possibility of bringing down a government with a vote of no confidence (other than the possibility of impeachment and removal). In parliamentary systems, the head of government can call for new elections at different times, and the legislature can dismiss the head of government by a vote of no confidence.

The American system has long presumed that in periods of divided government, the President will be able to create coalitions with members of both parties in order to pass legislation. This is possible in part because, at least since the Civil War, and until very recently, American political parties have been agglomerations of heterogenous interests, and relatively ideologically diverse. (During the New Deal, for example, northern liberals, Catholics, and blacks coexisted in the same Democratic party as Southern whites). The heterogeneity of American parties is due partly to historical contingencies, and partly to the fact that candidates run to represent particular geographical constituencies in different regions of the country (rather than having seats assigned to them based--in whole or in part--on a party list). Parliamentary parties in most countries, by contrast, tend to be more ideologically coherent and centrally controlled. (Unlike the United States, with its first-past-the-post system, many parliamentary democracies also have some seats awarded by proportional representation, which also tends to concentrate power in the central party apparatus.)

In the past several decades, however, American political parties have come to resemble European-style parliamentary parties, as the old party system inherited from the New Deal has broken down. Each party is increasingly ideologically cohesive, and strongly differentiated from members of the other political party.

The way this point is usually expressed is that the parties are increasingly polarized. But a more appropriate way of saying this is that representatives of the two parties in Congress are behaving more like parliamentary parties. Perhaps ironically, given their anti-European rhetoric, the Republicans behave more like a European-style parliamentary party than the Democrats, who still retain more moderates in the House and Senate.

There are many overlapping reasons for this polarization. One is the primary system, which tends to produce less moderate, more ideological candidates. A second is the system of campaign finance. The national parties have more control over individual members because of the amount of money they can bring to bear (or withhold) to promote (or punish) candidates in the primary and general elections.

Parliamentary-style parties may work well in parliamentary systems, but their emergence in a presidential system is a particularly worrisome development.
I think we will see more nationalized politics from the Democrats because they have to match what the Republicans are already doing. This is going to be one more major strain on our political system, something which will cost the United States in both international power and in economic power. I'm not sure how long it will take the denizens inside the Washington beltway (what Paul Rosenberg called Versailles) to realize that the old rules really aren't working properly and the Republicans are actively screwing everything up for the rest of us. America is off in unknown territory without a guide.

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