Thursday, May 26, 2005

Senate Democrats: Back to Basics in 2006

According to the Christian Science Monitor, Senate Democrats in 2006 "plan to rely on a back-to-basics strategy, avoiding internal squabbles and ideological litmus tests and stressing instead the economic issues that are often paramount to voters."

The Monitor interviewed Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee chair Sen. Charles Schumer (NY), who said the focus would be on "meat and potatoes: healthcare, education, jobs." The DSCC appears to be dropping the framing approach in favor of a strategy of what I'd call "deliberate priming."

A priming strategy determines which issues are most salient to the voters, identifies those on which the party - or an individual candidate - has a natural advantage (based on voters' perceptions of which party handles which issues better), and emphasizes only those issues.

This is far better than trying to persuade voters to see it your way on issues on which they trust the other side more (i.e., a framing strategy). Try as they might, Democrats just will never convince the average swing voter that they have a better approach to national security than the Republicans. Likewise, President Bush can talk until he's blue in the face about Social Security, but the more he talks the worse he does. That's because voters trust Democrats more to protect and preserve the program.

It's also encouraging (if you're a Democrat) to see the Democrats finally focus on bread-and-butter issues. Beginning in 1968, the only time a Democrat has won the White House (with the exception of Carter's narrow win in 1976, based in large measure on Watergate) is when economic issues, particularly jobs, were paramount (1992 and 1996).

Monday, May 23, 2005

Gronke's earlyvote Blog

Here's a great resource that I've just found out about - Prof. Paul Gronke's (Reed College) blog devoted to early voting. Check it out...

Kos and the DLC: Anti-Single Issue Groups

Kos has a post today on "the curse of the single issue groups." In it, he makes the following point:

One of the key problems with the Democratic Party is that single issue groups have hijacked it for their pet causes. So suddenly, Democrats are the party of abortion, of gun control, of spottend [sic] owls, of labor, of trial lawyers, etc, etc., et-frickin'-cetera. We don't stand for any ideals, we stand for specific causes. We don't have a core philosophy, we have a list with boxes to check off.
It's an interesting argument, but I think I've heard it before. Oh, yes, over at the Democratic Leadership Council (see here and, especially, here, one of the earliest expressions of this critique). Don't get me wrong; I'm not saying I disagree. It's just interesting to hear someone who has said that the DLC is a "tool of the GOP" make one of their most fundamental arguments.

Scheiber on Lakoff

I'm way behind on my blogging responsibilities. I've wanted to comment on the latest Pew study of the electorate (though Ruy Teixeira said most of what can be said here and here) and the Newsweek Koran story, but I've been finishing up a few other projects. Anyway, I wanted to mention Noam Scheiber's critique of George Lakoff in The New Republic. This is the latest in a string of critical pieces and, as Pete Ross says at Teixeira's site, it's the most thoughtful to date. (The title of Ross's post, by the way, is "Dems Drunk on 'Frames'?" The answer to that question is undeniably YES.)

Scheiber's argument is, essentially, that Lakoff would have Democrats frame issues according to his own preferences - which are decidedly left - rather than those that would appeal to mainstream (read: swing) voters. Fair point, but that still isn't the biggest problem with Lakoff's approach. It's that he thinks framing is the solution to Democratic woes when a far more effective approach is priming (based on issues the party owns). I hope to have my own critique of Lakoff very soon (though don't hold your breath).

Monday, May 16, 2005

Election Reform in PA

The Pennsylvania Election Reform Task Force issued its final report last week. It had recommendations in six areas (primary date change, absentee voting, uniformed and overseas citizens absentee voting, voter participation, compliance with HAVA, and the Electoral College). The most significant recommendation is to move PA's primary to the first Tuesday in March in order to garner more influence for PA in presidential nominations. One can't blame the Task Force for wanting to jump on the front-loading bandwagon, but if PA does this, the parties and state legislatures need to get together to implement a national plan for managing this problem. I personally like the National Association of Secretaries of State's "regional rotating primary plan" (even though it exempts New Hampshire and Iowa), but there are a number of other interesting plans to consider.

The PA Election Reform Task Force also suggested that the state begin using no-excuse absentee ballots but didn't endorse early voting. Unfortunately, they also rejected (by a vote of 7-6) same-day voter registration. On the plus side (from my perspective) they opposed PA "unilaterally moving away from the 'winner-take-all' method of electing presidential electors."

I wish they had dealt with the most pressing electoral problem in PA, and most other states, which is redistricting. But they did call for further study of that and other issues, including the use of instant run-off voting and proportional representation.

Friday, May 13, 2005

My Pet Goat, Part II?

My friend Dale Miller sent this link to an Editor & Publisher transcript of Wednesday's White House press briefing. In it, White House Press Secretary Scott McClellan defends the decision not to inform President Bush of the Cessna flying dangerously close to the White House until 36 minutes after the all-clear had been sent. It's worth a read, especially since this is a president who likes to cultivate an image as a take charge, hands-on commander-in-chief. But, as Dale noted in an e-mail to me, "You would think that after Fahrenheit 9/11 they would bend over backwards not to let this happen again."

For me, however, this is yet another example of how party issue advantages operate. To this point, there is virtually no flap over this aspect of the incident. But image that John Kerry had been in the White House. Now imagine that he was RIDING A BIKE while a mysterious plane entered restricted airspace and he just continued riding that bike while much of D.C. was evacuated, his wife was taken to a secure location, the decision of whether or not to shoot down the plane was made, and the all-clear was given. And then he rode for 36 more minutes without any knowledge of what was transpiring! Does anyone doubt that President Kerry would be skewered over this? Fox News, Rush Limbaugh, and Tom Delay would have a field day. You can hear the talking point now - The elitist John Kerry riding a $3100 mountain bike [the reported cost of President Bush's bike] while D.C. fears an attack.

Perceptions of party strength give both parties the benefit of the doubt on the issues they "own." So Bush isn't viewed as derelict; rather, he's got security so much under his control that he can leave the decisions to someone else.

Friday, May 06, 2005

Lessons from Britain?

Expect American pundits to begin uncovering lessons for Democrats in the British election results. Some will say that moving to the center enabled Labour to win an historic third consecutive term. Others will say that same move cut their majority in half.

The truth is that there are no lessons for Democrats in Labour's performance. As Kenneth Baer has recently pointed out, "England is England and the US is the US; chalk up [the parties'] individual positions to their unique political cultures and history." One of the differences that makes comparison particularly difficult is the presence of a credible third party in Britain (the Liberal Democrats). The losses would not have been as great for Labour if Tories were the only alternative. [Even though the Lib Dems, as of this writing, only have a net gain of 11 seats, they certainly drained votes from Labour in districts all across Britain. In the London constituency of Putney, for example, Conservatives picked up a seat previously held by Labour with a majority of about 1800 votes; the Lib Dems garnered nearly 6000 votes there.]

The British results do, however, raise questions about the old saw that voters prefer a party that has a vision, takes clear positions and knows where it wants to lead. That's true in the abstract and it's certainly the case that they prefer clarity to muddle. But when given the choice between a clear vision they oppose and no vision at all, it's a toss-up. Blair tried to convince voters that he faced a difficult choice over the war in Iraq and, agree with him or not, he should be given credit for making a decision. (For a vivid illustration of this line of argument, see his interrogation on the BBC program Question Time.) Most voters didn't buy it.

People want to be lead, but only in the direction the want to go.

Wednesday, May 04, 2005

Teixeira - The Myths of Democratic Renewal

For those interested (and this should include Republicans who follow party politics), Ruy Teixeira has a great post on the "myths of Democratic renewal." They include my favorite, the "Framing Myth." But he goes beyond de-mythification. Teixeira points to some promising paths for a Democratic comeback.

Monday, May 02, 2005

Kos (from Across the Pond) on Framing

Markos Moulitsas (a.k.a. Kos of fame) is writing for The Guardian this week, comparing the British campaign to those in the U.S. Yesterday, he made the case that Labour has an advantage over the Conservatives because they've won the "framing wars." The essay itself is simplistic and sloppy, while the basic argument misunderstands how the electorate approaches election choices.

Kos, like so many American progressives, has fallen for George Lakoff's notion that if Democrats just expressed their positions in a more appealing way, they'd win more often. As such, Kos says that "key" among the factors "fuelling the rise of the American right" is Conservatives' control of the political language. "[T]here has been no greater framing success in the last 30 years," writes Kos, "than the GOP's demonization of taxation and the social services those taxes buy." This vastly overstates the case. Poll after poll suggests that people would rather spend money on a clean environment, education, and deficit reduction, than get a tax cut.

Tony Blair certainly has won the framing battle in the U.K. But, according to Kos, this is "probably his chief legacy." Blair's victory in this all-important fight, he continues, "can provide the philosophical foundation for a long lasting Labour majority." In Kos's hands, a frame has apparently become more than a rhetorical device - it's now an entire philosophy. But he has the cart before the horse. Frames derive from worldviews, they don't constitute them. This mistake is precisely the kind progressives make when they obsess about framing.

Kos acknowledges that "Democrats have been able to ride specific issues to the presidency," like Carter did in the wake of Watergate in 1976. The implication is that the Democrats lack anything more durable. But, strangely, he includes 1992 as an example of the Dems' use of specific issues, arguing that "Clinton wielded the economy as his secret weapon." This captures nicely the silliness of the "frames shall set you free" school of thought.

Leave aside the fact that "the economy" is not a specific issue and that it wasn't - and never is - a "secret" weapon (remember, "It's the economy, stupid"?). Democrats best hand has always been the basket of issues called "the economy." It's why they were the majority party from the 1930s to the late 1960s. But, similarly, the Republicans have an advantage on national security (and cultural issues). Currently, we live in a time when security is crucial to the calculus of the average voter (and, because so many feel insecure, cultural issues become more salient). In that environment, Republicans will always have the upper hand. There's not much Democrats can do but try to be credible on defense and culture, change the subject to economics, and wait for times to change.

Frames aren't irrelevant and smart political actors give some thought to them. But frames aren't the whole ball of wax either. Until progressives learn something about how the electorate really operates, they're in for a long period of frustration.