This post on Michael Barone’s new blog points out a potential risk (or opportunity depending on which side of the political spectrum you live on) that I’ve been pondering for a few months now. I think it helps explain some of the seemingly pointless Democratic obstruction we’ve seen in the Senate since the election. Writing about yesterday’s special Congressional election in Ohio’s 2nd district, Barone comments:

In this week’s election, Democrats apparently were able to motivate their Bush-hating core to go to the polls. Republicans, who demonstrated such prowess at turning out their voters in November 2004, did not do nearly as well in motivating their base. Turnout will be much higher in November 2006. But this result will give heart to the www.dailykos.com Democrats who argue that all they need to do is to turn out Bush-haters. And it should give pause to Republicans and raise the question as to whether the Republican base—much larger in this district than the Democratic base—will turn out in record numbers in November 2006 as it did in November 2004. The conservatives at www.polipundit.com are speculating that Democrats will be misled in pursuing a turn-out-the-base strategy that proved a loser in 2004. Maybe so; indeed, I’m still inclined to agree. But if I were Karl Rove or Republican National Chairman Ken Mehlman, I would be thinking hard about how to motivate the Republican base.

Because of its 50% + 1, first-past-the-post electoral system, the United States has room for only two major political parties. The Republicans and Democrats are both coalitions, containing many groups with divergent interests that would probably form separate parties under a parliamentary system. The social conservative faction of the Republican party has limited interests in common with the fiscal conservatives, or the libertarians. The Kos Kidz view of the world isn’t exactly a close match with blue-collar union Democrats. Examples could be multiplied.

The party coalitions are held together by lynchpins of common interests. These days it seems like the Democratic coalition is held together largely by hatred of George W. Bush. The Republican coalition is held together largely by national security concerns.

The 2004 election demonstrated that when both coalitions turn out their current members in large numbers, the Republicans win. This poses an obvious problem for the Democrats, with two possible solutions. They either have to attract new members into their coalition, which would involve changing their platform to make it more attractive to marginal potential Democrats, or they have to figure out a way to change the turnout equation in their favor. Since the election, the Democratic policy response has typically alternated between more-of-the-same-but-louder and the-party-of-no. Neither of these are likely to pull new members into their coalition. (If anything, their coalition seems to be weakening, c.f. the recent split in one of their core constituencies, organized labor. But I digress.)

I think the Democrats have settled on the second approach — change the turnout equation. Turnout is driven by motivation, and all the Democrats have to do to keep their base motivated is toss them red meat every now and then. The Republicans, on the other hand, have a problem. Precisely because they control the White House and the Congress, they have to actually govern. That means coming up with real-world policies, in detail, and working to get them passed. This generally involves taking actions that serve the interests of part of the coalition while leaving others out. And in some cases an action that pleases one coalition group will actively displease another. (A Supreme Court justice who pleases the social conservatives on issues like abortion, gay marriage and church-state relations is likely to displease the libertarian wing for exactly the same reasons. Yet a nomination must be made.) The dust-up over Terri Schiavo is a good illustration of the problem.

The frictions of governing tend, over time, to drive wedges between the various elements of the governing coalition. Time also tends to weaken the national security lynchpin holding the various Republican coalition groups together. Americans, particularly on the right, have strong isolationist tendencies. We want to be able to ignore the rest of the world. 9/11 forced us to pay attention, but 9/11 is moving farther and farther away, and other concerns loom larger with time.

What this suggests is that the Democrats may do well with an essentially defensive strategy. If they can maintain the integrity and motivation of their coalition longer than the GOP can maintain the integrity and motivations of theirs, victory may follow. It’s an intellectually vacuous approach, but it may pay off.

4 Responses to “Coalition Maintenance and Democratic Strategy”
  1. Bob says:

    It’s really hard to draw conclusions from a local race that apply broadly. The Ohio GOP is a walking (limping?) disaster. Schmidt won a fractious primary. Hackett is notably more conservative than a lot of Dem candidates. The list could go on.

    Given the gerrymandered nature of Congressional districts, I still think the Democrats have to find a way to nationalize the election, a la Gingrich and the Contract of 94 to take back the House. There just aren’t enough competitive seats up for grabs without a major national shift.

    My suspicion is that “no to everything” won’t be enough to overcome that, unless the number of Bush-haters increases.

  2. Kyle Haight says:

    I wouldn’t draw the conclusion from the Ohio election alone that the Republicans have turnout problems. (I do think there are issues there, but as you point out there were a lot of factors at work in Ohio this time around. That makes drawing clear inferences difficult at best.) I was trying to make a broader point about a vulnerability I think the Republican coalition has to deal with.

  3. Mithras says:

    Good post.

    They either have to attract new members into their coalition, which would involve changing their platform to make it more attractive to marginal potential Democrats, or they have to figure out a way to change the turnout equation in their favor.

    The far left, such as it is, has felt alienated from the Dems; thus, Nader in 2000 and the resulting mistaken election of Bush. Since then, the Dems have done a better job of appealing to the angry lefties, without alienating large numbers of people in the middle. But the reverse isn’t true – changing the message to indicate that the invasion of Iraq was a good idea (the only substantive change they could possibly make) would drive the left side of the Democratic coalition away in droves.

    Also, you neglect a third possibility – sell the existing message better. I would argue that’s what the Republicans have done over the past, oh, twenty five years.

    The Republicans, on the other hand, have a problem. Precisely because they control the White House and the Congress, they have to actually govern. That means coming up with real-world policies, in detail, and working to get them passed. This generally involves taking actions that serve the interests of part of the coalition while leaving others out.

    It also involves doing the things that previously only existed as words in a PNAC manifesto, AFA newsletter, or a Cato Institute paper. And when your agenda is well marketed but batshit crazy, enacting it often produces negative results.

    It’s an intellectually vacuous approach, but it may pay off.

    Vacuity and empty rhetoric have worked well for the GOP, so why not give it a try?

  4. Kyle Haight says:

    I think the Democrats have several good possible hooks for improving their message. Some pain would be involved, but the result would be a party that’s more ready to face the 21st century.

    One is illegal immigration. There are a lot of people very angry about this, and the Republicans are split. The key would be presenting it in a way that compensates for the inevitable ticking-off of leftist race ideologues. (They’re a small minority in numbers, but have very loud voices.) I would suggest emphasizing the following points:

    1) Securing the borders is a key component of an effective homeland defense against terrorist infiltration. (Helps with national security cred, especially as the Bush administration has been a miserable failure on that front.)

    2) Cracking down on employers who hire illegal immigrants because they can get away with paying them lower wages. (Tosses a bone to the anti-business part of the Democratic coalition in a way that doesn’t offend the mainstream.)

    3) Discuss the negative impact of illegal immigration on job prospects and social services availability to poor people who are in the country legally. (They’re shutting down emergency room services in Los Angeles because the load put on them by illegal immigrants makes them impossible to maintain. This hurts poor people who play by the rules.)

    A second idea (which Hackett used somewhat in Ohio) is to attack the Republicans on national security issues *from the right*. For better or worse, Iraq is a done deal. It’s in the past, and continuing to obsess over it just makes the Democrats look like they’re advocating surrender. But the Republicans haven’t articulated a strong strategy beyond Iraq, and there’s an opportunity there for hawkish Democrats. They *will* have to tick off the appeasement/surrender elements of the left, but I honestly think that doing so would be a “Sister Soulijah” moment that would pull in far more people from the center than they’d lose from the fringe. National security issues have produced a bunch of “Bush Democrats”. Win them back.

    A third idea would be to admit what should be obvious to everyone by now: campaign finance reform has been an utter failure, and is leading towards de facto censorship of political speech. Even the Kos Kidz have figured this one out. Score some points against McCain for pushing it, and Bush for signing it. It isn’t a matter of getting money out of politics when the FEC is busy trying to figure out what the “monetary equivalent” of standing on a corner soapbox saying “Vote for X” is.

    I think you underestimate the negative impact of pandering to the hard left. It used to be the case that Democrats won the close elections. Now Republicans are winning them. The shift of voters in the center may not be huge numerically, but it’s had a critical electoral impact. Reversing this *now* is vital for the Democrats, because long-term demographic trends are working against them. (Look at what happened to the red-blue balance of electoral college votes as a result of the 2000 census; look at the projected shift from the 2010 census. If you’re a Democrat, it isn’t pretty.)

    I would also take issue with the claim that the dominance of the Republican coalition isn’t tied to a change in their ideas. Back in the 1960s and 70s, the Republican party was pretty different from the way it is now. Richard Nixon imposed systematic price controls on the entire U.S. economy! These days no serious politician on either side of the political aisle would try something like that. Back then, ideas like school choice, medical savings accounts and Social Security privatization were glimmers in the eyes of intellectuals in think tanks; these days they’re topics of mainstream debate. In 1996 Steve Forbes ran in part on restoring the gold standard. Many of the planks of 1994’s Contract with America would have been utterly foreign to the GOP of the 60s and 70s.

    The intellectual foundations of the modern Republican party changed substantially as a precondition of their rise to power. I think the intellectual foundations of the Democratic party *should* change as a precondition of their return to power. Both the party and the nation would be better off as a result. Sadly, I don’t see much motivation inside the party to do anything except whine, obstruct and shout louder.

    Intellectual vacuity, even if successful as a political strategy (and do note that that’s far from a guarantee) is bad for the country. It’s bad for our culture, it’s bad for our political institutions. It’s bad for the future. I think that alone should be reason enough to eschew it. If (as seems apparent) you think the GOP is intellectually empty and is damaging the nation as a result, shouldn’t you aspire to be *better* than they are? Saying “me too” and emulating the party in power didn’t work very well for the Republicans when they tried it between 1933 and 1979. It was only when they defined a new, distinctive and positive opposition program that they were able to move into a position of political dominance. I’d love to see the Democrats do likewise. (Not so much because I like them, but because I think the lack of a positive opposition vision leads to smugness and arrogance in the dominant party, and over the long term that leads to disaster.)

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