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the blog

Monday Oct 2, 2006

The Midterm Dynamic (or, What Mark Halperin Doesn't Understand About America)

Republicans have done everything possible in the last two years to sabotage their chances of keeping Congress.

They lost control of Iraq. They lost New Orleans altogether.

They believed Social Security privatization was a political winner.

They rallied around the corrupt Tom DeLay. They failed to pass ethics reform after the Jack Abramoff scandal splattered over them.

They attacked each other on immigration. They decided attacking Bin Laden was "not a top priority."

They even kept quiet when they learned of a predator of House pages in their caucus.

Yet they could still win again.

Pretty much all of the above fiascoes have dragged down the GOP in the polls, even in the area of national security.

But Republicans are betting that -- despite their own problems with national security -- the stereotype of Dems being soft on national security remains pervasive.

In turn, they're trying to make this November the third consecutive federal election to turn on national security.

Bob Woodward's belated realizations and the Mark Foley scandal have recently gotten in the way of the GOP effort to refocus media attention on terrorism.

But as LiberalOasis has noted previously, Democrats have chosen not to "nationalize" this election around a set of core principles.

That leaves the GOP as the only party trying to nationalize the election, which may give them the upper hand despite their poor poll numbers.

Unplanned events, like the Foley scandal, might derail that strategy.

So could a shift in the minds of voters about how strong Republicans really are on national security, with Iraq a mess and Bin Laden still free.

But that would mean Dems just got lucky, not that they did anything to fundamentally change the frame of the national conversation.

Which means they would still have work to do if they want to keep winning elections.

ABC's Mark Halperin offers a similar analysis in the NY Times yesterday, but as he genuflects towards Karl Rove and the conservative base, he gets some key points wrong.

As Talk Left noted (link via The Sideshow), Halperin myopically contends that Democrats are in a lose-lose position: that articulating a principled national message would be a political loser, and so would playing the "centrist" game of "blurring ... differences with Republicans on highly charged issues."

I agree that cravenly blurring differences is no way for a party to build trust with voters.

But why can't Dems speak from "their hearts," according to Halperin?

...because the United States remains in many ways a fundamentally conservative nation. Polls consistently indicate that there are more staunchly conservative Americans than liberal ones. Republicans ... have the advantage of being able to proudly announce what they really think. They can go on the offense.

This is a flat misinterpretation of the poll data.

As detailed in Wait! Don't Move To Canada!, while polls do show that more Americans call themselves conservative than liberal, Halperin leaves out that:

1) Both camps are minorities, one-third of Americans say they're conservatives, one-fifth liberal. Self-described "moderates" are the plurality.

2) Even that only assesses the popularity of the ideological labels, not liberal and conservative ideas.

3) Vast majorities support our government to be responsible for guaranteeing health insurance for all, protecting the environment, eliminating poverty and regulating big corporations. Significant majorities support Roe v. Wade and equality for gays. Two-thirds back a balanced budget over tax cuts.

(This isn't in the book, but 57% want a timetable for troop withdrawal from Iraq.)

When you add up the numbers, it's clear that liberals, moderates and even some self-described conservatives generally support liberal principles to guide our government.

Sure, there is apprehension about the liberal label, thanks to the decades-long conservative smear job and the lack of a liberal defense of our own word.

But not about liberal ideas.

Halperin argues that if Democrats said more clearly what they believed on Iraq, health care, taxes and gays, it would "eat into their support among centrist voters" and backfire.

He doesn't offer evidence to support the assertion. In my reading of the data, there isn't any.

That is not to say it's a simple task for Democrats to overtly embrace liberal principles and positions.

For example, a package of liberal domestic and foreign policy ideas would need to be placed in an easily understood, consistently articulated frame, so busy voters have a good grasp of the overarching direction Democrats want to take our government.

This is particularly true of foreign policy, as voters have little sense of how a Democratic approach would be superior to the current Republican one. That's a big reason why the GOP's rerunning of the national security scarebook remains politically potent.

(Fortunately, Wait! Don't Move To Canada! doesn't skimp on the framing recommendations.)

But Halperin contends that it is an impossible task for Democrats to be true to their core principles, because America is fundamentally conservative.

He's simply wrong.

Posts Near Oct 2, 2006