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Memo To Democrats: It's Not Always About Republicans
Democrats Must Learn To Go With Base Instincts
From time to time, the Democratic Party’s obsession with winning over the mythical Republican swing voter can shift from embarrassing political obsession into the realm of farce and cringe.
One such moment occurred during the 2020 presidential campaign when an otherwise well put together Democratic Convention came to a screeching halt with former Ohio governor John Kasich standing in the middle of nowhere. Kasich, who was the Republican governor of the state, asked voters to go for Biden.
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The Democratic Party’s reward for picking Kasich as a prime time speaker, despite his history of signing laws restricting abortion access, advocating for destructive conservative fiscal policy and literally hosting a show on Fox News, was Joe Biden losing to Donald Trump in Ohio by more than 8 percentage points. Cringe.
It was not worth it.
But the pursuit of Kasich and the voters he could supposedly mobilize has been an undercurrent in Democratic Party politics for nearly 40 years at least. Burned by the landslide loss of the 1984 presidential election followed up by a fumbling 1988 campaign and then Bill Clinton’s 1992 win that was seen as validation of a shift to the right, Democrats have clung to what is now an outmoded and outdated theory of winning elections.
The issue is, this mindset isn’t just in the mind of Democratic leaders, but it affects many supporters and activists as well.
“But it won’t convince Republicans/Trump supporters,” is a complaint I have often seen in response to advice to Democrats on policy, election strategy, and communications.
So often is this refrain invoked that its clear the mindset has taken hold in a destructive way. In fact, one of the most self-destructive Democratic Party behaviors from an optics standpoint, regularly appearing on Fox News, stems from this bad take.
They have to appear on Fox to “turn” Republican voters, the thinking goes.
But to steal a line from the Matrix: What if I told you Republican voters don’t matter?
Now to clarify, of course these voters matter in the large scheme of things. Never forget over 74 million voters gave Trump a green light for a second term and most of them are clamoring for him to be the nominee again. This is not a threat that can be underplayed.
But for the purpose of Democratic Party policy, rhetoric, and communications, it would be a far far better thing if the party and its supporters operated in a manner that at the very least put peeling off Republicans very low on the priority list.
In a practical sense this would mean embracing wholeheartedly progressive legislation, not bothering to include frankly backward conservative ideas designed to attract support from the right that never comes, and rhetoric that does not give credence to bad faith conservative arguments - like obsessing over the deficit (nobody cares about the deficit).
Instead Democrats should embrace the base. That is, the wide swath of the public from center-left all the way to leftist that has repeatedly shown that it is a majority of the American public on most issues. Democrats frequently tout polling showing that “most people agree with us” on issues and then too often abandon any advocacy and implementation of those topics because it is assumed they already have those voters.
I think for Democrats that is a scary proposition, because they have mostly done things the old way for so long. Too many people who experienced the very real powerlessness of 12 years of Republican rule from 1981-1993 think this is a bridge too far and too risky of a challenge. They fear Republican backlash and instead fight to inoculate themselves from it.
But that looks like fear and phoniness and voters of all stripes can see it from a mild away. Some years ago, Bill Clinton noted that “wrong and strong beats weak and right.” You could see this in the real world in 2004 when voters who were skeptical of the Iraq War or even actually opposed to the war still sometimes went with George W. Bush because his clear advocacy of a bad thing was preferable to John Kerry’s approach, which embraced a focus-group style non-position on the war.
Voters pick up on that kind of thing. Republican and lean-Republican voters see it as a validation of the conservative position because they “stand for something” (even if its a bad thing) and meanwhile it turns off Democratic-leaning voters who rightly question if you will stand up for anything.
In the case of Ohio, I would argue that while the ultimate result was always going against Biden, it would have possibly helped him and other candidates down the ballot to not have headlines about bringing on an anti-choice Republican.
What often seems like the obviously politically “smart” thing to do can sometimes backfire because voters are not a bunch of buttons and switches on a board. You don’t press a “fiscal moderate” and “okay with gay marriage” button and out pops a Republican vote for a Democrat. Voters are strange and especially for those who are not knee-deep into the daily give and take of politics, they can be brought on board because there’s a bandwagon effect.
People forget it now, but in 2007, Barack Obama was not the safe choice to be the Democratic nominee. He had so much, on paper, going against him. He was black. He had an “exotic” name, including the middle name Hussein. He was identified with the more progressive side of the Democratic Party because of his unambiguous opposition to the Iraq War.
But a majority of voters in the Democratic primary decided to go with the candidate who appealed more to their hearts than their brains. What appeared in that year to not be the “smart” choice led to a Democratic nominee winning the presidency with what still stands as the highest percentage of the popular vote since 1988.
In going with Obama, a bandwagon appeared. People wanted to be on the winning team with the “Yes, We Can” candidate and not with John McCain. Yes, Obama on occasion made appeals to conservative voters and ideas, but the overall thrust of his campaign was the progressive base and it paid dividends (yet some of this was squandered during his presidency as Democrats pivoted to a somewhat self-destructive “governing” mode).
Democrats focus too much on getting mythical swing vote Republicans that are extremely unlikely to ever come on board, no matter how much to the right the Democrats move. That same move to the right, on policy and rhetoric, also turns off the voters they need — and its just overall destructive to the country.
Go to the base. Center the base and their needs. It will get them on board and it will end up getting some of those Republicans without making everyone look and feel so damned cringey.
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