HERE IN WASHINGTON, Democrats are engaged in a frenzy of rethinking. Two new magazines have been unveiled this week (in one of which — full disclosure here — I wrote a piece on the nonexistence of Democratic policy toward offshoring in the age of globalization). Major conferences abound. Think tanks are adding staff. To be sure, much of the rethinking amounts to reaffirming support for old ideas that are still good and necessary (such as raising the minimum wage) or to stating a problem for which Democrats don’t yet have a solution (such as offshoring in the age of globalization, for which, in fairness, no political tendency in the world has a solution). But even if all this activity amounts to no more than what Kant would have called a Prolegomenon To All Future Democratic Rethinking, it has, at least, reached fever pitch.
The need for such rethinking is beyond dispute (have I mentioned the Democrats’ difficulty with offshoring?), and yet, ironically, most of the Democrats’ core positions are already far more popular than the Republicans’. Indeed, a recent memo from Democratic überpollster Stan Greenberg and metaconsultant James Carville makes clear that Democratic messages are, as Kant would not have put it, kicking butt. A poll conducted by Carville and Greenberg’s Democracy Corps in late May contrasted Democratic support for college tuition aid and moves to reduce health care costs with Republican support for tax cuts and concluded that the public preferred the Democratic position by 23 percent. A similar spread resulted from other questions on domestic positions. The polling on Iraq became less disastrous for Bush and the Republicans since the killing of Zarqawi, but still tilted in the Democrats’ favor.
And yet, Carville and Greenberg note with some exasperation, actual support for the Democrats themselves lags behind the support for their positions. In House races, voters preferred the Democrats by 8 percent; in Senate races, by 11 percent — margins that C. and G. characterize as “impressive .?.?. but not big enough for Democrats to recapture the House or Senate.”
“On virtually every test of message and policy direction in this survey,” they continue, “the Democratic advantage is twice that of the current vote margin. The voters want to give Democrats a bigger margin than they are currently achieving. If the Democrats and challengers fail to show voters something more, this disillusionment could show itself in fragmentation to smaller parties and, more likely, a stay-at-home protest.”
And so far, this year’s primary elections are the very quintessence of stay-at-home protests. The counting of absentee ballots is still dripping along in California, but as of this Tuesday, voter turnout was a scant 31.6 percent — a record low. In Los Angeles County, it was an anemic 26.6 percent.
But California’s turnout was stratospheric compared to that for last week’s Democratic primary in Virginia. The race gained national attention when longtime Democratic warhorse Harris Miller was challenged by James Webb, who’d been secretary of the Navy in the Reagan administration, but switched to the Democrats in opposition to the Iraq war. National Democrats viewed Webb as an unexpectedly serious challenger to incumbent Republican Senator George Allen, who, it had been assumed, would have a cakewalk in ’06 and would be one of the strongest right-wing candidates for the Republican presidential nomination in ’08. The press penned one Webb story after another.
Whatever it was that riveted the press managed to elude the voters, however. Turnout in the Virginia primary was 3.4 percent. That is not, I assure you, a typographical error. Three-point-four.
There are, of course, extenuating circumstances. There are always extenuating circumstances. Californians have endured too many elections in recent years; they are tired and grumpy, and the gubernatorial campaigns of Steve Westly and Phil Angelides only made them more tired and grumpy. Virginians are unaccustomed to June primaries. And besides, these were state, intraparty contests, with no direct relation to the voters’ assessment of Bush or the congressional parties.
And yet, in their polling, C. and G. turned up the disturbing fact that, for all their discontent, even rage, at Bush, Democratic voters were “no more likely to vote than their Republican counterparts.” Their theory — and mine — is that the party lacks a larger profile, a solid identity, a spine. Those terms are mine, but C. and G. note with amazement that some Democratic senators support the repeal of the estate tax, which, they say, “leaves voters unsure about what Democrats stand for and undermines the main choice in this election.”
THE ONE ISSUE ON WHICH VOTERS are most unsure as to where the Democrats stand, of course, happens to be just the single most important issue confronting the nation — what to do in Iraq. Bolstered by their Zarqawi moment, the Republicans have evidently concluded that contrasting their unvarying message on Iraq with the Democrats’ cacophony works to their electoral advantage, even though a majority of voters disapprove of Bush’s conduct of the war and the war itself. Democratic divisions were on display in the House last week when the Republicans pushed through a resolution that rejected setting a timetable for withdrawal and called the war part of the global fight against terrorism: 42 Democrats voted yes, 149 voted no. Chastened, perhaps, by her challenge from Marcy Winograd, Jane Harman voted no, but longtime San Fernando Valley member Howard Berman voted yes — putting him more at odds with his largely liberal constituents, I’d surmise, than the other 41 yes-voting Democrats are with theirs. (The other two California Democrats voting yes, for instance, represent San Joaquin Valley districts.)
This week, two groups of Democratic senators plan to introduce rival resolutions on Iraq — one calling for the withdrawal of most ground troops by July 1 of next year, the other calling on the president to begin the phased redeployment of troops by the end of this year. This is not to say that Iraq is an easy issue — Bush has created a bloody mess in which the alternative courses of action run from awful to grotesque. It is to say that unless the Democrats can stake out some clear positions and give themselves a discernible identity, don’t be surprised if their voters stay home this fall.