It's been a few days, so DSCC Chair Robert Menendez's comments regarding 2010 electoral strategy have faded from the news. I've been mulling them over and come to a conclusion: Once again, the people responsible for developing Democratic electoral strategies are a bunch of raging incompetents.
"Given the pressure Republican candidates feel from the extreme right in their party, there is a critical -- yet time-sensitive -- opportunity for Democratic candidates," the DSCC writes. "We have a finite window when Republicans candidates will feel susceptible to the extremists in their party. Given the urgent nature of this dynamic, we suggest an aggressive effort to get your opponents on the record."
The memo urges Democratic candidates to force their opponents to answer a series of questions:
"Do you believe that Barack Obama is a U.S. citizen? Do you think the 10th Amendment bars Congress from issuing regulations like minimum health care coverage standards? Do you think programs like Social Security and Medicare represent socialism and should never have been created in the first place? Do you think President Obama is a socialist? Do you think America should return to a gold standard?"
If a Republican candidate says no to any of the questions, the memo says Democrats should "make their primary opponent or conservative activists know it. This will cause them to take heat from their primary opponents and could likely provoke a flip-flop, as it already has several times with Mark Kirk in Illinois."
The assumption seems to be that the tea party crowd will not return to the Republican fold when their nominees move away from appeasing the crazy base and moderate their rhetoric for the general election. Good luck with that.
The fact is that tea partiers aren't stupid and can identify (and vote for) what they perceive to be the lesser of two evils. And they'll do that.
In the main, the tea party movement is a psychological phenomenon. Conservative Republicans, unhappy after the election of a Democratic President and Congress, looked for someone to blame. Led by talk radio, they came up with the idea that the American people turned against Republicans, not conservatives, because they had abandoned their principles. Not wanting to be associated with failure, they separated themselves from the Republican Party and, through sheer force of numbers, co-opted the nascent tea-party movement that was then comprised of mostly Ron Paul-styled anti-Fed activists riled up over TARP and associated bailouts.
In truth, they remain conservative Republicans and will continue to do whatever Rush Limbaugh tells them. Democratic strategists make a huge mistake when they assume otherwise. You doubt this? Ask yourself: how many tea partiers voted for Obama or the Democratic candidate for Congress?
Another glaring erroneous assumption underlying the Democratic strategy is that these conservative voters will not tolerate or vote for candidates that deviate from tea-party orthodoxy; that by exposing the flip-flops of their opponents, Democratic campaigns will demonstrate that their opponents aren't "real conservatives" and depress the Republican base.
Again, that takes for granted that conservative voters will penalize wayward Republicans. Fat chance.
George Bush said America shouldn't be nation-builders, then invaded and occupied Iraq. He ran against big-government and then created a huge new unfunded entitlement in Medicare Part D. He was supposed to be the "MBA President" and then gave us a failed war, incompetent response to Katrina and a ruined economy. The same tea partiers that decry Obama's profligate spending were just fine with the exploding Bush deficit. After all this, nearly 1/2 of Americans voted for John McCain. The objective truth is that conservative voters are imbued with an incredible tolerance for hypocrisy and cognitive dissonance. So long as conservatives have a "daddy" like Rush Limbaugh telling them what to do, they don't get mired down in little details like the way their leaders actually govern.
Democrats don't want to hear that Obama was elected because the Democratic base was energized, but it's the fact. He ran as a progressive and promised a marked break with the failed policies of the past. Eight years of Bush and an enabling Congress turned out to be about four years to many; folks that weren't inspired by Kerry in 2004 turned out in droves for Obama. Moreover, disengaged independents had seen enough and broke for Democrats in places like Florida, Ohio, Virginia and North Carolina.
A little more than a year later, the mood in the country is decidedly anti-incumbent after months of hearing about dysfunctional government and not seeing any of the promised "change" Obama rode to victory on. The media has filled the vacuum with sympathetic story after sympathetic story about the anti-government tea partiers. The latter circumstance reinforced the former; the result is an energized conservative electorate and a growing snowball of anti-incumbent fervor amongst low-info independents. Hyped Democratic losses in New Jersey, Virginia and, especially, Massachusetts, provided even more fuel for the fires driving conservative enthusiasm.
Democratic strategists need to realize that any hopes they have of minimizing damage in 2010 hang entirely on establishing a string of legislative successes that people feel in their lives and credit Democrats for. They need to turn out their own base and that ain't gonna happen unless you give them something to be happy about. At the same time, they need to take back a chunk of independent votes by demonstrating that government can be a competent force for good.