Famed Clinton pollster Stanley Greenberg is, I think, correct, but for the wrong reasons when he says that Democrats have lost major elections in recent years because they have not "run with conviction."
It’s true that they haven’t run with conviction, but it’s not because they lack convictions as much as that they can’t risk being open about them.
Greenberg said the Democrats’ major weakness today is that "they do not know what they stand for, they don’t know their policy direction, they don’t know their underlying values, they don’t know who they fight for."
As a Democrat, Greenberg can’t really mean all of this, because if he did, he might as well be saying that there is no reason for his party to exist. If candidates of a major party truly don’t have core beliefs and "don’t know their underlying values," is there really any point to their participation, other than the raw acquisition of power?
The reality is that Democrats do know what they believe, they just don’t know if they can afford to "stand for" those things in an election for national office. They do know their underlying values, but they don’t know whether they can be completely open about them without risking an electoral bloodbath. So on some issues they vacillate, saying one thing to certain people — their rabid left-wing constituency groups — and different things to others. Whether it’s foreign policy, social issues or economic ones, Democrats have a tough time unmasking themselves.
Their kaleidoscope of positions on the Iraq War is a case study in this phenomenon. Don’t get me wrong. Most of them, in their gut, were adamantly opposed to attacking Iraq either to depose Saddam or to eradicate his presumed WMD. So they definitely knew what they believed and initially said so, but ultimately did an about-face when intelligence data indicated WMD, and, more importantly, the public became supportive of the president’s position.
But as soon as antiwar candidates in their own party, like Howard Dean, started gaining traction, they had to revert to their original position. In order to justify their otherwise inexplicable reversal they had to manufacture excuses for their earlier support of the war resolution, such as the whopper that President Bush promised not to attack until he’d further exhausted diplomatic efforts at the United Nations and with France, Germany and Russia. To further save face with their bellicose antiwar base, they concocted the now familiar fantasy that President Bush had lied about the WMD intelligence, to which they manifestly had equal access when they took their original stand in support of the war.
Now, consider the issue of abortion. Can anyone deny that most national Democrats favor abortion on demand? They believe in it so strongly that they’re willing to assassinate the character of anyone, not to mention filibuster judicial nominees who might disagree that it’s a constitutional right. They’re even willing to facilitate the grisly practice of partial-birth abortion.
Yet despite the fervency of their commitment against the unborn, they go to great pains to euphemize their position, saying they’re actually pro-choice, not pro-abortion, and while greasing the skids to maximize the number of abortions, they insist they want to make abortion rare. Do you think they would play such games of deceit if they were as sure as they pretend to be that the majority of the public aligns with them — and their abject extremism — on this issue?
Even on tax policy, they are less than candid about their underlying philosophy. They candy coat their position by patronizingly peddling taxes as "contributions" and government expenditures as "investments." They shroud their socialistic proclivities to redistribute wealth by portraying confiscatory tax hikes on major producers as a refund of money that properly belongs to government. Similarly, they shamelessly depict across-the-board tax-rate reductions as gifts to the rich.
One might conclude that I’m making Greenberg’s point for him: that if Democrats truly had strong convictions, they wouldn’t disguise them so readily to placate voters. Point taken, but I think it’s more likely a result of their realization, despite their denials, that their views are in the minority, and, unlike Republicans, they don’t have the luxury of fully exposing their hearts.
They have this nagging feeling — mostly accurate, I might add — that the majority of the electorate is not on their side, so they are usually reduced to opposing President Bush and Republicans instead of offering their own coherent policies, or, alternatively, running trial balloons to see what will fly with the public. After all, unless they get elected, they won’t accomplish anything. So, they do have principles — but they are unprincipled in their presentation of them. Or, if you prefer euphemism, call them "pragmatic."
Either way, Greenberg’s advice that Democrats adopt a clearer message would likely be suicidal for them. So I hope they follow it.