Purple Nation: Behind the Democratic Debate
Lanny J Davis
Make no mistake: The debate within the Democratic Party is an important one, but it’s about tactics and strategy, not about support for the president and his policies.
To oversimplify somewhat, the disagreement is between two strategic approaches to victory — the first I shall call the “turn-out-the-base” strategy; the second, the “coalition-centrist” strategy.
This is not a new tactical disagreement. It can be traced back as long ago as the 1972 contest for the Democratic nomination between Maine’s Sen. Edmund Muskie and South Dakota Sen. George McGovern. As I wrote in a book published in 1973 about this contest between two liberals for the nomination to oppose Richard Nixon (I was a Muskie supporter):
“As the story of the Muskie-McGovern clash unfolds, it will become clear that the very reasons Muskie seemed to be in the best position to build such a broad coalition and defeat President Nixon were also the reasons why he was doomed as a candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination under the circumstances that prevailed in the Democratic Party in 1972. And, conversely, the same reasons which permitted Sen. McGovern to convert his narrow purist New Politics base into a majority of the delegates at the 1972 Democratic National Convention were also responsible for his doomed candidacy against President Nixon in November.”
It is this possible conflict between a nomination versus general-election strategy that those of us in the “coalition-centrist” strategic camp most fear.
We are concerned that while attacking Romney and depending on populist, tax-the-wealthy messages will energize our liberal Democratic Party base, even maximum turnout of the base won’t be enough to reelect President Obama. Every national public opinion poll, including those recently conducted in key battleground states, shows consistently that about 10 to 15 percent of the electorate is “undecided.” And most of these are self-described independents or unaffiliated voters.
These are the voters who will decide the election. And those in the “coalition-centrist” camp believe they need a message different from the energizing-base message that seems to be the current focus of the Obama campaign.
That message isn’t a mystery. It was tested and proven successful by the only Democratic president to be reelected to a second term since Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1936: Bill Clinton.
Clinton’s “New Democrat” was a unique ideological hybrid just about perfect for these independent swing voters — fiscal conservatism (recall that Clinton took a $300 billion deficit in the beginning of his first term and ended with a $1 trillion-plus surplus); pro-private sector economic growth policies (that resulted in the creation of 23 million new jobs by the end of his second term); a leaner, more effective government — with the total number in the federal workforce reduced over his eight years; but a government committed to progressive goals, civil rights and social justice and active government programs to help the middle class and the poor and dispossessed.
Most of all, Bill Clinton always focused on new ideas and the future, and that is what he, and many others in the coalition-centrist camp, are urging Obama to do, rather than emphasize negativity and attack messages. Obama has a good story to tell — but he needs to tell it more effectively. He should contrast his solution-oriented ideas with Mitt Romney’s. His ideas, I believe, are better — and more likely to persuade the 10 to 15 percent of undecided voters than are Romney’s.
It isn’t clear who is right in this debate. Both sides make good arguments and in good faith. But one thing should be 100 percent clear: When someone described as a “ranking administration official” last week told a reporter that Newark, NJ, Mayor Cory Booker is “dead to us,” imputing his motives to political ambition, because of his comments on “Meet the Press,” that was beyond stupid. It was despicable.
President Obama knows that in an election likely to be close, it makes no sense to depict friends as enemies just because they have good-faith tactical disagreements with campaign strategy. And the president is too good a person to tolerate this level of bile and intolerance within his own campaign.
Davis, the principal in the Washington law firm of Lanny J. Davis & Associates, which also specializes in legal crisis management, served as President Clinton’s special counsel from 1996-98 and as a member of President George W. Bush’s Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board (2006-07). He currently serves as Special Counsel to Dilworth Paxson. He is the author of the book “Scandal: How ‘Gotcha’ Politics Is Destroying America” and the forthcoming book, “Crisis Tales – Five Rules for Handling Scandal in Business, Politics and Life,” to be published by Simon & Schuster.