for an era of good governance
by kid oakland, Sun Oct 01, 2006 at 03:50:49 PM EDT
We need to understand that the mid-term elections of 2006, the politics of the off-year of 2007 and the Presidential Year election cycle of 2008 are, in essence, rolled into one. What this compressed two-year time frame in American politics represents, in my view, is a battle for governance.
Simply put, the two political parties, whatever their ideological differences, are locked in a battle to determine who can claim and maintain the mantle of "good governance."
In my view, the party that succeeds at defining itself as embodying a reform agenda...the party that persuades the American public that they represent "clean and well-run government" will win this battle and emerge to control majorities in the Federal Government and State Houses regardless of ideology.
This means one thing:
The party that wins and maintains control of government in the next two election cycles will be the one that persuades the American public that it can be trusted with governing. In order to successfully persuade the public of this, of course, one must understand this reality and act on it.
Governmental reform and the promise of good governance, not ideology, is what will win elections in the electoral battlefield of 2006 and 2008. This has very definite implications for Democratic Party strategy this fall and moving forward. Let me explain:
It would be quite understandable for Democrats to assume that the mid-term elections of 2006 represent a "natural turning point" in the American political cycle and a rejection of GOP conservative governance.
The Republican Party has, more or less, controlled all three branches of the Federal Government since the 2000 Presidential election. GOP dominance of State politics, including the success of GOP candidates in the American South, West and parts of the Midwest seems to have reached a high water mark. State Congressional redistricting intended to lock in a solid GOP majority in the House of Representatives has been taken about as far as it can go. The same can be said for GOP gains in the United States Senate. According to this view, in American politics what goes up, must come down: hence Democrats can expect to benefit in 2006 and 2008 from a high-tide in Republican Party dominance of our political system.
That assumption, however, carries with it a view point that is dangerously off the mark and misplaced. In my view, it represents a fundamental misunderstanding of the American electorate and the public mood.
Let me put it in crude, but immediately understandable terms. Roughly speaking, the Republican Congressional landslide of 1994 seemed to represent a complete and total rejection of Democratic "liberal-based" governance. In 1994, the GOP had 'a perfect storm' of failed executive-branch policies, congressional corruption and scandals, and a failure on the part of Congress to enact legislation on a core issue of the day, Health Care; in the public's mind, we had "a corrupt, ineffective" Congress.
It doesn't take a political genius to see that 2006 represents the possibility of a similar turning point. In the GOP Congress of 2006, we have all three of the conditions that led to the Democrats overwhelming defeat in 1994: executive branch failures, corruption and scandals, and a failure to successfully pass legislation on the self-defined central issue of the day, this time, Social Security. If the Democrats do make significant gains this fall, or even win back one or both houses of Congress, one could assume that a rejection of the GOP majority in 2006 would imply a similar rejection of "conservative-based" governance.
That assumption, however, would be wrong.
In fact, it would be enormously foolish to make the same false assumption that the GOP made about the public's rejection of the "liberal agenda" in 1994 about the "conservative agenda" in 2006. A rejection of one party's misrule does not imply an endorsement of the ideology of the other. Further, legislative defeat does not imply a rejection of the defeated party's ideology so much as it implies a rejection of poor governance.
Let me make a political observation that should be immediately obvious to anyone paying attention to both the election cycle of 2006 and 2008: the second Democrats make gains in the 2006 elections...and we will...a wave of GOP contenders for the 2008 presidential nomination will take up the mantle of "good governance" and "reform" from within the Republican Party and make hay with it.
In fact, 2008 GOP Presidential contenders will be ideally-positioned to:
- run as "reform/good government" candidates
- run against "failed overly-conservative" GOP policies
- run against the threat of the dominance of "liberal-based" policies from a potential or actual Democratic majority in Congress
What does this mean for Democrats?
First, Democrats running for office against GOP incumbents in 2006 need to make this election about good governance and reform.
It is enormously tempting to make this election explicitly about a liberal critique of failed conservative policies. That would, however, repeat the exact same mistake the Republicans made following their victory in 1994.
In 1994, the GOP promised a Contract with America that they never delivered. (Why they chose not to do so is a mystery; it represents a colossal political blunder.) The GOP failed to deliver on reform and good governance because they falsely assumed that the public voted the Democrats out of their Congressional majority because Democrats were "liberal." Not true.
In 1994 the American public remained, as they have for the entire post-Viet Nam era, torn between the promise of aspects of the "liberal agenda" and the perceived values and traditions of the "conservative mindset."
In fact, what the American public hungers for from its legislators and politicians to this day is a "post-ideological" stance that creates the framework for an era of good governance. That "dream" is the exact same motivation that led partisans on the GOP side to support John McCain in 2000 and supporters to rise up behind Howard Dean on the Democratic side in 2004. Reform and good governance are the only burning insurgent causes of the day that can "break out" of the ideological ghetto of the right or the left. It would be wise to pay attention to that fact.
In this light, the party that claims the mantle of reform, the party that takes clean and open government seriously and delivers on that promise is the party that will, de facto, advance its agenda and ultimately emerge with a legislative majority. That victory will not be ideological. As we have seen in both the Clinton era and the Bush Presidency, where either party has advanced its most clearly ideological legislation, that legislation has crashed in defeat.
The task at hand, then, for every Democrat running in 2006 is to frame this election as about good governance and reform and back that frame up with action.
There is not a single issue where opposition to GOP policies cannot be framed in exactly that manner. From the war in Iraq, to GOP fiscal mismanagement, to developing an effective and scientifically-forward policy on stem-cell research: the question Americans are asking of their potential legislators is NOT "What is your ideology?" but, instead, "How will you show leadership?"
Americans hunger for legislative solutions. The public hungers for a "new kind of leadership" and understands that ideological deadlock has stymied progress. Large swaths of the American public mistrust, and rightly so, the "ideological motivations" of either side.
The challenge for Democrats in the election of 2006 is to preempt the inevitable GOP strategy for 2007/2008 by making this election a referendum on leadership, on reform and on good governance. In effect, Democrats have to "give up" some easy hits on conservative policies and agendas in order to take the ball and run with it on reform. We need to embody good government in word and deed.
Our strategy MUST allow us to run with a consistent theme in both the 2006 and 2008 cycles. If you take nothing from this essay, please take this warning: we Democrats will either define the reform playing field in 2006 or it will be defined for us in 2007.
Now, what does this mean for the Democratic critique of conservative GOP policy and, specifically, our netroots efforts as progressives to advance our cause?
I have written extensively about the failed conservative policies of the GOP. As hard as it is for me to say this, I think it is critical that Democrats understand that our opposition to the ideology of the GOP is nowhere near as persuasive to the American public at large as our criticisms of their failures in governance.
In fact, the sooner Democrats understand that what the American public wants is a "post-ideological" political environment...an era of "good governance"...the more effective we will be in advancing those aspects of our agenda that do have broad support. In effect, the best hope for truly and lastingly advancing a progressive agenda is to convincingly marry that agenda to the cause of clean, well-managed government and reform. (Nothing hurt Bill Clinton and Al Gore more than their vulnerability to criticism on this front.)
We Democrats, in particular those of us in heavily Democratic regions and districts, must understand this reality to its core. We will not advance our progressive agenda one foot if we do not take the lead in advancing clean government, effective management and reform. In fact, the perception that our cities and heavily-Democratic districts are poorly-run and ineffective is a weak link in advancing every aspect of the Democratic ideological agenda. It hurts us in every single region of the country. And, yes, as an urban Democrat and lifelong resident of one or another of our nation's big cities, I can say that this lack of emphasis on good governance does not just hurt us politically; the sad fact is that whether it's in our schools, our retirement homes or our hospitals...it hurts our people. And that reality is infinitely worse.
I take up this argument today not to "bury the progressive agenda." Not in the least. In fact, I am convinced that when Democrats persuasively back up a rhetoric of good governance with real action and meaningful "post-ideological" reform that the American public will decisively swing to support those aspects of our agenda that they have always supported...ie. most all of it.
In a sense, I am advocating a stance similar to that old TV commercial for a major investment firm. "We Democrats need to make political gains the old-fashioned way; we need to EARN THEM."
We stand, in October of 2006, on the threshold of significant and lasting gains in a nation-wide election for the first time in a generation. It is up to us to define this moment going forward. I urge Democratic activists and candidates to seize this insight about reform, good governance and ideology and apply it nation-wide.
The outcome of this two-year period will define our nation's history in so many ways. The mantle of reform and good governance is ours to seize. To do so, we must understand this moment in history and, unlike the GOP in 1994, we will have to back our words up with action. That is our task and our challenge.