Saturday, April 15, 2017

The Not So Helpful Advice

The recent surprisingly close special election for a House seat in Kansas has led to another round of what I like to call "What The Democrats Are Doing Wrong" takes all over the internet. In some ways this makes sense. The electoral success of my beloved party hasn't exactly been stellar since 2012 (in fact in some ways we've been losing ground since 2008). And it's obvious that some changes need to be made in the party to be able to win elections in the future. Plus there's a reality that the party itself is changing due to things like new activists entering the party (although I do think rumors of our death are being a bit exaggerated) and that fact that the old players are leaving the scene. Figuring out how to accommodate this changing reality as well as how to do better is clearly something we Democrats need to figure out.

So yes the party needs to change. But the question is how should it change? And this is where the"What The Democrats Are Doing Wrong" takes start to get a bit much.

To begin with a lot of these takes often just restate a the author's preferences for what the they want the party to focus on. So some people's pre-election and post-election takes seem quite similar, as they argue about how the key to wining elections is presidential delegate allocation rules. Other people who want the party to become some sort of European style ideological social democratic party write about how that's the only way to win. And people who want anti-racism to be the fundamental principle of the party write about that's the path forward. Other people who want liberals to shut up and stop whining and scolding so much argue doing just that is the key to victory. Meanwhile other people explain that once Chelsea Clinton has been destroyed the road to socialism will be open.

Some of those ideas are better than other (and yes I'm cherry picking some of the worst examples) but the issue remains. When a political party is trying to change, people with opinions about what that change should look like are obviously going to frame there arguments in terms of "This is the thing to do to win elections." Fair enough, but that doesn't mean those arguments are right.

More over, and yes this is sophomoric but it's still true, the political future is really hard to predict! Remember when Trump could never win? Remember when Obamacare website problems showed the program was doomed? Remember when the shutdown meant that the GOP was screwed in 2014? Remember when Obama's terrible debate performance meant he lost the election? Remember when a special election in Massachusetts meant Obama had to change his presidency's whole agenda?  Remember when the Tea Party was obviously a joke? Remember when the future of liberal politics was Occupy? Remember when the key to winning presidential elections was the "rising electorate"? Or "Nascar dad's?" Or that strange new place called the exurbs? Or "soccer moms?"

In other words you can write a great piece marshaling well thought out arguments, interesting anecdotes, and good data about "how the future of the left is female", and indeed maybe it is! But then again maybe in March of 2021 some annoying person will write a dumb blog post poking fun at Rebecca's excellent piece pointing out that the Booker/Brown ticket's utter annihilation of the weird Trump/Rubio reboot shows the real key to winning elections on the D side is nominating a younger hip black dude and an older white dude.

Recently Matt Yglesias wrote a piece on the House special election in Kansas that made sense, but reminded me of all the reasons why I find these "What The Democrats Are Doing Wrong" takes so frustrating. Basically he argued that the leadership of of the DCCC should be more willing to fund more outside the box House campaigns because it's not clear that there system of "targeting" works very well. More over this targeting system channels resources through a select few and in the Trump Era it seems that really weird things can happen and maybe that guy could have won with some more help from the DCCC. Add in the fact that overconfidence is a major problem and you got a recipe for dysfunction.

These are sensible and intelligent point. I too have worked on Democratic congressional campaigns, I too found the DCCC's targeting methods to be very frustrating, and I too think that a more broad based strategy makes sense. But it's not like this is happening because those dumb Democrats don't know how to do politics. In fact Matt points out the major flaws in his own arguments in his own piece. That is the idiots in charge of the DCCC may be skeptical of the "give money to everyone who runs for the House" strategy because:
The risks of a new approach are large. In particular, party leaders worry about burnout. They worry that the same grassroots who this morning are frustrated that the party didn't invest in a 5-point loss in Kansas would be even more frustrated today if a massive effort had resulted in a 2-point loss. That asking the same grassroots brigade to trudge toward what's still a long-shot race in Georgia would be counterproductive.
The national outpouring of grassroots enthusiasm for Wendy Davis’s support of abortion rights is a cautionary tale here. There are some very real trends making Texas more Democratic, but nobody (including Davis’s campaign) really thought abortion was the best issue — as opposed to Medicaid expansion, say, or school funding — for Texas Democrats to highlight.
Which leads us too:
The specter of a bunch of amateur-hour pundits and online organizers ginning up enthusiasm for a handful of lovable long shots and firebrands with weak teams and poor district fit, only to walk away when the whole thing crashes and burns, makes party insiders nervous with good reason.
In other words the Democrats are skeptical of your advice because it has problems too? Okay then.

Look, I don't want to beat up on Matt here, he makes some pretty good points. But I'm sorry, political money is going to be political and so of course it's going to have those political problems Matt identifies. John Barry points this out in his excellent book "The Ambition and the Power" about the rise and fall of Speaker Jim Wright (page 394 in the hardcover):
Another element of power was money. Lyndon Johnson first rose to power through the DCCC, funneling campaign money to colleagues, [Speaker Tip] O'Neill had once chaired it, and had called money "the mother's milk of politics." [Representative Tony] Coelho used it as a stepping-stone. Wright viewed DCCC fund-raising as crucial to his job. By late September he had taken almost twenty trips for the DCCC to raise money for colleagues...Wright was exhausted, worn out, and physically ill. He needed rest. But he had scheduled a trip with the DCCC chairman Beryl Anthony and he kept his commitment.
Barry is describing Wright flying all over the country like a madman in the fall of 1987 raising money for the DCCC. He did this for a number of reasons. Reasons like to be able to increase his power, help his party, try to enact his mad dream of bringing the South "back home" to the Democrats in 88' and beyond, and insulate himself from his enemies inside and outside his caucus that would soon tear him down. So yes, the DCCC probably should take more chances and overconfidence is a major problem but the idea that political money isn't political is a bit much. Hence why people fight hard over money streams in American politics. The same way Matt and Ezra work hard to control who writes what about what at the media company the work at.

And don't get me started on the idea that frustrated progressive activists don't have other ways of raising money and giving it to people they like outside of one formal party organization.

I get the need to give advice. I also get the frustration at the state of American politics. And I get all the negative emotions about the Democratic Party by people who would like things to be quite different. Heck, I get that some people reading this blog post are annoyed at me for writing it and being the neoliberal Hillary shill that I was.

But giving advice that isn't well thought out isn't exactly making things easier. We are in bad place yes, but that doesn't mean your advice isn't about your own interests, or that you have some way of telling the future, or that politics can stop being political for this one special idea you have that will fix everything.

Are the Democrats doing everything wrong? Maybe, but then again I think things have been going much better since January 21st 2017, special elections in Kansas aside.

No comments:

Post a Comment