How to Lose an Election

As George W. Bush's approval ratings sink below 40%, and the GOP and all its projects, from the Iraq War to Social Security "reform" to Hurricane Katrina recovery plans, seem to be going to pieces, we are hearing on every side that it won't be enough for Democrats to rub their hands in glee (however discreetly). They must come up with their own plans. They must offer the country something positive to embrace. One response to this need comes from two former advisers to President Clinton -- William Galston, now of the University of Maryland, and Elaine Kamarck, now of Harvard's Kennedy School of Government. They have produced a report called "The Politics of Polarization," a sequel to one they wrote in 1989 for the Democratic Leadership Council. Their main piece of advice, now as before, is that "seizing the center remains the key to victory."

The word "center," of course, has many possible meanings. One is simply the political space where most of the voters are, whatever their views. Defined thus, a centrist strategy is a mere tautology. Any party that wins over a majority of the electorate will have seized "the center": A winning strategy is one that wins. Since the contrary idea -- a jolly "let's persuade only 40% of the voters!" -- is highly unattractive, any "centrist" strategy has an obvious built-in appeal.

A slightly different meaning of the word -- and this is the one the authors have in mind -- is the collection of specific opinions held by a majority of the voters at a given time. A centrist strategy therefore gears its message to those views, which usually correspond inexactly to the views of either party and so are in a certain way "between them" -- in the center. The alternative to this strategy, which Galston and Kamarck reject, is to gear the message to the party "base," its true believers, while hoping somehow to add enough of the less committed voters to win. (These are the "undecided voters," or "swing voters," whose extremely vague or even clueless opinions are often sought around election time in respectful interviews on extremely boring television programs.)

Still another meaning of "the center" is conceivable. It's possible to imagine a truly substantive center comprising calm, reasonable people who, whether they are in a majority or not, reject the violent or insane views of others, defined as extreme. "Center," in this sense, would mean something like "moderate." For example, in Germany in the early 1930s, there were sensible people who were neither Communists nor Nazis. Unfortunately, they were in a minority, as election results showed, and so were not in the center in either of the two previously mentioned senses of the word. (The Nazis were technically in the political center at the time.)

The report's thesis about American politics today, backed by many charts and graphs, is that the party faithful are more polarized than before, meaning that both Republicans and Democrats are more likely to support their party's candidate no matter what. But in such a contest, self-professed "conservatives," who make up 34% of the vote, will beat self-professed "liberals," who make up only 21%. Therefore Democrats, instead of appealing to their fired-up but fatally slender base, must frame their message to please the large pool of self-styled "moderates," numbering 45%. The technicians of the Democratic Party no doubt will be arguing for the next couple of years about whether or not a centrist strategy is really the path to victory. Though the report's two Democratic authors do not want the Republicans to win, they in passing give them similar advice: abandon the fringe, cleave to the center. (In light of recent experience, however, that advice rings hollow. Win by appealing to the center? Is that how Bush won reelection in 2004?)

Another aspect of the report is worth mentioning: There is scarcely a word in it arguing that the specific policies of a centrist strategy would actually be beneficial for the United States of America or the world. One might suppose that by a marvelous coincidence, the authors' own views correspond exactly to a majority of the electorate. Or conceivably the authors have other views but tactically suppress them in the interest of party unity and victory. (Certainly, we find no sentence taking the form, "Though the public prefers X, we think Y would be the better course.") Or one might possibly argue that the authors are mere scientists, bound to deliver their objective findings regardless of their personal views. But in fact they step forward as advisers, warmly urging the course of action they define. For example, they write, "Democrats must emphasize the importance of the American military as a potential force for good in the world, and in so doing they need to engage 'Michael Moore Democrats,' who instinctively view American power as suspect."

But the basis for that advice is 100% political, and substantive argumentation is 100% lacking. There are thousands of words about such matters as decades of voting trends among married women or among Catholics, but almost none about any concrete instance in which the military should be employed. The advice to be militarily strong is kept studiously general. Consider the war in Iraq -- surely the most urgent issue for the country at the moment. Our authors utter no word for or against it. They do take John Kerry to task for having contradicted himself in the 2004 campaign, by first voting for the war and then voting against funding for the war. But they do not venture to say whether he should have resolved the contradiction by voting against the war or by voting for the funding. (For the record, I was heartbroken when he voted for the war, having hoped that this brave veteran of Vietnam, who with further bravery then opposed that war, would perform a like service opposing the even more disastrous Iraq War.)

Of course, it's hardly startling to discover political strategists scheming to win elections. The phenomenon is as old as democracy. But sixty-four-page reports publicly recommending, without a trace of substantive argumentation, a full-scale strategy for a political party is, I suggest, something new.

In one section the authors declare that the most important consideration for a candidate following their strategy is "the personality test." They explain, "Candidates who say only what they think others want to hear cannot display strength. Candidates who shift position on what should be matters of conviction cannot pass the integrity tests." To which one must add that in that case no politician who heeds their advice can display strength, for what is their entire report but a hugely sophisticated attempt to discern, from poll results going back a quarter-century, what it is that voters want to hear?

According to their own findings, anyone who takes their advice will lose, and will deserve to lose.

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