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Thursday, September 07, 2006

Elections Aren't about Issues - by Paul Waldman

It must seem like déjà vu all over again to Democrats. There's an unpopular war, an unpopular president, and Republicans calling them weak, terrorist-loving troop-haters as an election approaches.

There is little evidence that the Republican attack is working so far. But if history is any guide, at least some Democrats will soon be desperately backpedaling, trying to figure out whether there is a vote they can cast or a position they can take that will make them look ``strong."

This issue goes to a fundamental question for Democrats, one that is about more than just whether they can win this year. If they want to build long-term political success, they need to understand what the Republicans have been doing right, so they can fix what they've been doing wrong.

If there's one thing Republicans have understood and Democrats haven't, it is that politics is not about issues. Politics is about identity. The candidates and parties that win are not those aligning their positions most precisely with a majority of the electorate. The winners are those who form a positive image in the public mind of who they are (and a negative image of who their opponents are). Issues are a vehicle to create that identity, one that combines with symbolism and narrative to shape what the public thinks about when they think about Democrats and Republicans.

Think about what happens in campaign after campaign. The Democrat comes before the public and says, ``If you read my 10-point policy plan, I'm sure you'll vote for me. Let's go over it point by point." The Republican then comes before the public, points to the Democrat, and says, ``That guy is a weak, elitist liberal who hates you and everything you stand for. I'm one of you and he's not." And guess who wins.

Continued on "Print Article and/or Read More" below >>>
After it's all over, Democrats wonder why they lost, when a majority of the public favors nearly all the items on their agenda. Americans want a higher minimum wage, legal abortion, strong environmental protections, universal healthcare, and a tax policy that isn't tilted toward the wealthy, to name a few. But voters don't read policy papers, and they don't make decisions with a checklist of issues in their hands. That's why Republican campaigns operate on a different level: Whom do you identify with? Whom can you trust? Who is strong, and who is weak? These questions transcend issues, which is why Republicans -- who know they are at a disadvantage on the issues -- spend so much time talking about them.

It's the last question, that of strength and weakness, that vexes Democrats in election after election. While it is usually played out in the arena of national security, it is only partly about foreign affairs and defense policy. The answer to the Democrats' strength problem is to understand that here, as in all areas of politics, the key is identity.

To see how Democrats have misunderstood the question of strength, we can examine Iraq -- likely to be the most prominent issue in the 2006 congressional elections and the 2008 presidential primaries and general election. It seems safe to assume that there were some Democrats who thought the Iraq war was a bad idea, but voted for it anyway out of fear that if they didn't, they would be called weak.

Three years later, with most Americans now believing the war was a mistake, do the Democrats who voted for the war look strong? Hardly. They look like pushovers who didn't have the guts to stand up to President Bush when it mattered most.

Yet today there are still some Democrats in Washington who believe their problem on national security can be solved by adopting positions as close as possible to those of the Republicans.

But strength doesn't flow from a policy proposal, and it can't be demonstrated with a hawkish vote. The public will be convinced that Democrats are strong when they stand up for their beliefs, take political risks, and don't run scared every time they get attacked by Republicans. Think about it this way: Martin Luther King Jr. was a pacifist, and no one ever called him weak.

In short, it isn't about voting the way you think the public wants you to vote, and it isn't about your 10-point plan. It's about who you are. That's just one lesson Democrats need to learn from Republicans.

Paul Waldman is the author of ``Being Right Is Not Enough: What Progressives Must Learn From Conservative Success."

© Copyright 2006 Boston Globe
Elections Aren't about Issues


Anonymous Anonymous said...

The one thing the Republicans have going for them in elections, and the only reason they "won" in 2000 and 2004, is because they are not afraid to tamper with elections. Election fraud on a massive scale, including voting machines that "defaulted" by admitted pre-design to Bush when it wasn't clear who the person voted for, is the only way to win an election. It isn't their money, their identity, their passion, their get-out-the-vote strategies, but just plain and simple fraud.

9/08/2006 1:35 PM  

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