Listen: You can already hear the sound of a thousand conservative
axes sharpening, and not just in the national forests. We’ve already seen Alberto
Gonzales and heard about the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge going on the block,
but that’s kid stuff. Starting with Social Security, the conservative movement
hopes to finally undo as much of the 20th century’s political progress as it
can in the next four years — and slip in a right-wing social agenda while they’re
at it. With a continuing grip on the House and the largest Republican majority
in the Senate in years — even Daschle got sniped! — they just might get their
But let’s not retreat from the storm into melancholy. There is
a lot to be learned from the other side’s success. The reason conservatives
are getting their crack at the top is because they patiently plotted their way
there. 2004 was the successful reward of careful planning begun 40 years ago,
when conservatives realized that they had to package and sell their Idea, and
they began building a network of well-financed educational institutions, think
tanks, nonprofit organizations and media outlets to turn out armies of legislators,
leaders and activists to do so. This is Hillary Clinton’s “vast, right-wing
conspiracy” or what Rob Stein at the New Democrat Network more precisely
calls “The Conservative Message Machine’s Money Matrix” in a Powerpoint
presentation that maps it all out with graphs and flow charts, from the Heritage
Foundation to the 700 Club to the op-ed page of The Wall Street Journal.
This network is real; it works; and the Democrats need to stop complaining about
it and get one of their own.
It was Tucker Carlson whom I first heard suggest that the past
election might be a “Goldwater moment” for Democrats, and difficult
as it is to take seriously a young man wearing a bow tie on television in the
21st century, I hope he’s right. Because that was when conservatives took the
long view — and that’s what we need to do now.
Recall that Barry Goldwater, backed by a new breed of conservatives,
won only six states — one of the worst defeats in history. How did those conservatives
respond? Not by soul-searching or compromise or blaming each other. They returned
quietly to the drawing board and figured out how to win — not next election,
or even the one after that. Instead, they set sights on a distant future when
compromise would be unnecessary because their Idea would have grown deeper roots.
This is what Pat Buchanan meant when he described politics as a culture war.
Conservatives understood that they would lose the battles of that war in the
cultural landscape of 1964, so they set about to change the landscape altogether.
Now, those conservatives control the Republican Party and much of the government.
Democrats must assimilate this lesson. Individual storylines and
characters are meaningless compared to the master narrative. The $600 million
each candidate spent this year trying to tell his story to the voters was mostly
wasted, as only 16 and 15 percent, respectively, of Bush and Kerry voters later
reported that they ever considered switching their allegiance. But on the Republican
side their money is essentially a write-off, a financial feint to fool the Democrats
into putting their chips into a losing game. Because the political investment
that pays Republicans real dividends is the $300 million that steadily churns
through the conservative money matrix each year, framing the debate, honing
the Idea and promulgating their master narrative with an avalanche of superior
We should try to match this budget — and put it to proper use.
With great promise, 2004 was the first time progressives raised the kind of
money conservatives have long had available to them. Sadly, these vast sums
went to one-shot efforts like candidacies (and losing ones at that). If we can
continue that participatory and fund-raising momentum, however, and use it to
lay the foundation for our own network of institutions, we’ll be able to hone
the progressive Idea, and start to frame the debate ourselves to make it stick.
Because what the conservatives have demonstrated since 1964 is
that the heavy machinery of modern politics is long-term marketing. All the
conventional wisdom about Democrats’ flaws, including their supposed lack of
a message, is just part of the relentless Republican message. It’s not that
the Republican message is any more consistent, by the way — they just say it
is. And they’ve been on it, uniformly, for 30 years. This is how Bush can turn
Clinton’s balanced budget and surplus into the largest public debt in history
and still label Democrats as the big spenders. Or install a special revolving
door in the White House for giant corporate cronies and still be seen as the
friend of small business. The lesson: Control language, and you can control
the political culture.
Which is why the hubbub about Howard Dean at the helm of the DNC
or Harry Reid’s nominally pro-life politics is largely insignificant. To even
talk about “the center” is to have the wrong conversation, because
what that center means is not being defined by us. The right’s key insight in
1964 was not to play to the center, but to pick it up and move it — and all
Democratic politics will be following rather than leading until we do the same.
Yes, we should fight the short-term skirmishes and try to win
them. But Democrats need to escape the trap of looking at politics as a series
of campaigns and trade tactics for strategy. “The fight for 2008 starts
today,” said the leftie blogs on November 3, 2004. Good hustle, people!
— but it will be better directed toward building a long-term progressive majority
over the next several decades.
If that sounds far-fetched it’s because the Republican
messaging matrix wants it that way. Despite GOP advances this year, we’re in
a pretty good position to get started. First off, the national political split
is still about even. And in addition to the widely reported red-shifting exurban
counties and softer Democratic support among white males and Latino voters,
there were many positive signs in this year’s demographics. Montana has a Democratic
governor, the first in 20 years. In the red state of Colorado, Ken Salazar beat
Pete Coors, scion of the charter member family and primary patron to the vast
right-wing conspiracy. Kerry also performed better than expected in both states.
Further east, in Minnesota, as the GOP salivated over Bush winning the Wellstone
state (he didn’t), the regional Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party erased a 28-member
GOP majority in the statehouse.
In all these instances, there was strong rural and suburban support,
where average folks were tired of moralizing ultraconservatives overplaying
their hand. This is where the long-term weakness lies, because the Republicans
have created a patchwork party with the slimmest majority, and the Democrats
have the opportunity to formulate themselves as an opposition for those who
are disappointed with the conservatives’ arrogance of power.
And behind the story of high evangelical turnout is that 20 percent
of them voted for Kerry. We often forget that religious people were naturally
progressive before the conservatives spent 40 years and a lot of money convincing
them otherwise. It will take a long time, but progressives need to embrace and
recapture religion. With an institutional framework in place to capitalize on
latent progressive sentiment there and elsewhere, we could build a permanent
majority in much less time than it took conservatives to come this far. Remember:
Democrats aren’t anywhere near the conservative nadir of 1964, and we have the
chance to be well-funded from the start. Rove wasn’t even a college Republican
yet when Democrats predicted his party wouldn’t survive 1964. Now he’s gleefully
predicting the Democrats’ demise. Let’s hit the drawing board and give the guy
a run for his money.