Wednesday, September 08, 2010

A repulsion election

It has become a commonplace that what we are facing in November is a "referendum" election. As I wrote the other day, Democrats were put in power in Washington to "fix it." They didn't. The economic situation for most people got worse. Democrats will be punished.

It's no good to say we did a lot of things you didn't notice and it was really hard. Even when that is true. And even if there were terrible obstacles (like the entire Republican party). In a nutshell --

None of this is entirely -- or even mostly -- this administration's fault, but that's sort of irrelevant. We are where we are.

Adam Serwer

Since elections present a binary choice -- yes, we are stuck with Republicans or Democrats; other "choices" are fantasies -- the standard countermove to finding your party on the wrong end of a referendum on genuninely bad times is make the election a repulsion election. In a repulsion election, you win by tearing down the other side. Hey, we may be disappointing -- but the other guys are worse, much worse.

In these circumstances, this is true. Democrats are, by a lot, what I once heard a five year old called "the least worst" to have in government. They need to make this a repulsion election. But they aren't doing much of a job at it. What's in the way?
  • Obama: He just did a little of this in a Labor Day speech, but it is profoundly not his style to resolutely demonize the other guys. I stopped bothering to wonder a long time ago whether he really believes his "bipartisanism" schtick, but he sure has stuck to it through conditions that seemed to cry out for drawing sharp contrasts, so I don't expect him to change markedly now.
  • Jarring atmospherics: Having just won a national election on hope and change, it's hard to pivot to "I'm your only hope of suffering just a little less ..." Inspriation is so much more pleasant to dispense than raw self-preservation.
  • The future Democratic coalition: The Millenials, the younger voters who came out in droves to elect Obama but are disinclined to vote in midterm and are the future of the Democratic party, detest the kind of politics that makes for and wins a repulsion election. Here's a respresentative snippet from the progressive blog Future Majority:

    What does a nation without negotiation look like? It's ugly. No one is happy and the entire country is pulled in different directions. The country would be plagued with martial law and civil wars. This is not our country. Our country has a long standing tradition of compromise. We were founded on the idea of protecting everyone's beliefs and creating the fairest possible system we could. ...

    We understand that quality interactions with our counterparts advocating in good faith are more important than building huge e-mail lists based upon tactics of fear and hate. We talk to others, on this blog, on Facebook, on Twitter, and we do it with civility - or at least we try. We interact this way because we know others are watching and that everything we do and say is on-the-record. This does not mean that we don't stick to our principles and our values and voice our opinions. What it does mean is that we know that we are having conversations with people, other than those that just agree with everything we say. We're not about burning bridges; we're about mending them and building them out into the future.

    I may think that is insanely unrealistic, inadequately appeciative of the ferocity with which people enjoying privilege will hold on to power at the expense of others. But the sentiments seem to be common and they make running a repulsion campaign problematic, at least in the longer term.
  • Victories in repulsion campaigns are weak. That may seem counterintuitive in our winner-take-all system -- if you win, what's weak about that? After all you are in office. But the reality is more complex. Here in California we have lived a very clear example. The Democratic politician Gray Davis rose in state politics the old fashioned way, starting in lower offices and gradually working his way up to state Controller, then Lieutenant Governor, then Governor. He never seemed charismatic; the joke among California Democrats was that "Gray is gray." In 2002, he helped conservative Republicans run off moderate Republican challengers in their primary, then successfully demonized the resulting very conservative Republican candidate. He was back in as Governor! And in 2003, less than a year later, Gray was gone, easily recalled and replaced by the Governator. A lifetime of campaigns in which Davis had sold himself as less bad than the alternative left him with no friends when push came to shove.
So Democrats face difficulties running the apparently obvious repulsion campaign this year -- will they do it? Can they do it?

I think they'll try and the results will be mixed. The Republicans have given them the gift of nominating quite a few candidates, Tea Baggers, who should be vulnerable to being portrayed as repulsive. Senator Harry Reid may pull through against Sharron Angle -- a candidate who declares there are "doemstic enemies" in Congress and advocates "Second Amendment remedies" -- because Republican primary voters really did display their extremism by nominating her. He's a fighter when it comes to elections (in the Senate not so much) and I wouldn't bet against him.

Other Democrats will have a harder time of running that kind of hard contrast campaign, some because it doesn't fit with their self understanding or because they care about the contrary factors enumerated above.

They might all be well-advised to listen to this from the American Prospect blog:

There's nothing wrong with highlighting your opponents' positions. Even if the economy were going gangbusters and people were throwing health-care celebration parties, the Democrats would be well within their rights to point out that Republicans haven't changed their policy prescriptions as a result of the crisis but simply doubled-down on them.

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