How Democrats Should Talk

The Greatest Story Ever Sold: The Decline and Fall of Truth from 9/11 to Katrina

by Frank Rich
Penguin, 341 pp., $25.95

Washington liberals and Democrats have made many arguments about what they need to do as they try to recover from the low point of their support among the public during the Bush years in 2002 and 2003 and climb toward renewed dominance. Most of these arguments have centered on the big questions of ideology and vision—whether the times demand a calibrated centrism or a bolder liberalism of big plans and ideas. But other arguments, put forward in many a blog post, have ignored ideology and focused more on the question of tactics.

One can dismiss this as superficial if one wishes, but it’s demonstrably the case that the gulf between the two parties is frequently greatest in tactical matters. Considerably fewer than 50 percent of Americans are as conservative as George W. Bush, Karl Rove, and Dick Cheney; yet somehow they got 52 percent of the voters to support the administration in 2004. That victory had many sources, but surely high on the list were the Bush campaign’s effective verbal assaults on John Kerry’s character—and not all of them, incidentally, calumnious; “flip-flopper,” alas, wasn’t really a false charge. Even so, the election was close enough that a smarter Kerry campaign would have won, whatever the Democrats’ long-running internal ideological divisions. So tactics matter.

Specifically, the tactical debate has been about the degree to which liberals ought to mimic the strategies that have succeeded in recent history for the right. Liberals (myself included) have often observed that conservatives and Republicans have done two things far more effectively than liberals and Democrats during the last thirty years. First, they have built an extensive idea-and-messaging network since the early 1970s, when they concluded that “the American economic system is under broad attack,” in the words of the Powell Memorandum of 1971, the founding document of the new conservative Republican strategy.1 Second, they have done a much better job of “packaging” both their ideas and, with a small number of obvious exceptions, such as Bob Dole, their candidates for high office. This has caused Democratic candidates to lose even when they appeared to be positioned for victory—Michael Dukakis and Al Gore, for example—and even when majorities expressed a repeated preference for or at least openness to liberal Democratic views.2 If “our side,” the argument has gone, could reproduce the communications networks of the conservative Republicans and duplicate their ruthless creativity in the marketing of policies and candidates, much that has ailed liberalism would be alleviated. The victories in last fall’s elections have lessened the panic that was evident after the 2004 elections but have by no means relieved it entirely; most observers agree that Democrats won last fall chiefly by default and not because of any great tactical brilliance on their part.

A Democratic effort to reproduce Republican campaign methods is, sort of, underway. A consortium of liberal multimillionaires founded in 2005, the Democracy Alliance, has pooled its money for the purpose of backing existing and new ventures that might collectively…

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