The Crisis of Character in the Democratic Party

When did the Texas Democratic Party lose its flavor?

Between the Blue Dogs, the Rose-ian “I’m tough on immigration” ads and the shying away from our President – who, I’ll remind you, is the last person who actually energized the Democratic Party -- we aren’t the Democratic Party anymore.  We're simply a group of people constantly reacting to the demands of a radical right.

I’ve got to hand it to the Republicans. At their heart, caricatures like Sarah Palin and Christine O’Donnell only serve to define Republicans like Rick Perry as smart, practical leaders. If you’re used to seeing a sequined political figure doing the cha-cha, a potential Presidential candidate who wrote a book seems downright cultured. And it’s not a far leap from the seemingly acceptable ideology of many Republicans – anti-immigration, anti-gay marriage, pro-life – to the hairy under-armpits of the Mama Grizzly platform. As long as you can take at least one tiny step away from that, you’re a beacon for Republican radicals everywhere, somewhere just off the coast of crazy.

But these characters also give Democrats an opportunity to form characters of their own and a formula for what gets people's attention. Is it really that there are no voters left out there who believe that the premise of “terror babies” is a cultural fallacy as fake as the Botox-infused mouth it’s being spewed from? Or is it that Democrats have just stopped allowing our own true believers to make a counter argument -- or, better yet, a counter offer -- in a more compelling way? 

Democrats in Texas have a problem. Weak, flavorless and not good for cooking, the Democratic Party – particularly in Texas – has tried to blend in so much that we’ve lost our relevancy. We’re the I Can’t Believe It’s Not Republican Party. We were so afraid someone would stop and notice we were Democrats that we forgot one thing: we couldn’t make voters forget about the (D) next to each one of our candidates. "We're not crazy like them, but we're kinda' like them" is a fool's strategy.

"But we need the moderates." Who are these moderates, and where did they get us? They certainly didn’t get our Democrats elected. Our campaigns are over.  Most of our people now aren’t in office. And frankly, that’s how it should be. Because if you can’t embrace our President, then how can voters know that when the chips are down, you’re going to embrace the children of our state who go without health insurance? If you can’t stand up for your own Party’s beliefs, then who is going to go to the ballot box and stand up for you?

The Democratic Party is suffering from an atrophy of character. We have lost any conceivable moderates to attrition, because the Republican Party at least has the ability to define who it is – regardless of the fact that they’re the drunk guy at the holiday party, at least everyone remembers that guy’s name. Our fixation on “the bad guys” does no good if we’re not worth listening to in the first place. We need deliberately distinct leaders and we need to be unabashedly unafraid to support those leaders in bringing back the fundamentals of what matters to Democrats and -- as one insider so eloquently put it recently -- "the tangible consequences of voting for them." 

And if you’re shaking your head at all this saying "No, that won't work" then what will? We already tried it your way.
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20 Response to "The Crisis of Character in the Democratic Party"

  • Bradley Says:

    Add to this the failed strategy to abandon anywhere that leans Republican. The only Democrats I could even vote for this year were statewide.


  • suxex Says:

    It seems that introspective reflection is always called for in the event of a devastating party loss. The New Yorker had a fantastic article calling for the re-definition of Republican values as the necessary response to the 2008. I believe this is necessary, but is ultimately an incomplete approach. Defining who we are is only the first step to answering the most fundamental question of political ideology, what do we want to accomplish? Or stated differently, what is the society we're striving to build? I worry that the heavy ideological focus of today's politics is impractical and will lead to passionately enacted policies that deliver poor results. I am a Democrat for many reasons, but it saddens me that the notion of an efficient government has picked up so much connotative baggage. Efficiency and a workable practical approach to government is simply not a partisan goal.


    -AD


  • Cyrus Says:

    It's not really about ideology, suxex. Parties are lousy vehicles for that, as the Tea Party nuts have demonstrated over the last 20 months. Parties represent interests. The first question Democrats in Texas have to answer is: Who do we represent, and what do they get for voting for us?
    Bill White's campaign did not rally Democrats (rather, those who should be Democrats if we're doing this right) to show up and vote. We made no real attempt to motivate working people to step off of their porches to defend their interests. Bill White's people (and the campaigns of way to many other "Democrats") labored under the delusion that they were trying to win an argument, instead of trying to make a SALE. Even worse, they spent all that money trying to win that argument with REPUBLICAN voters.

    Look, if John freakin' Kerry can motivate 2.8 million voters to cast a ballot for him vs. George Bush, there's no reason on God's green earth why a Texas Democratic candidate for Governor shouldn't be able to spur 2.4 million to cast a vote for our ticket 6 years later. The GOP mustered nearly 75% of their 2008 hard base to show up this year; we couldn't even bring out 60% of ours, in spite of a record level of grassroots volunteer activity. That means we have conceded the narrative advantage, bottled up half of our troops and are consigned to fighting on a battlefield of the Republican's choosing. The results of that strategy are generally predictable.

    Well said, MR.


  • Mack Simpson Says:

    The problem in Texas isn't whether or not Democratic candidates "blend in" or not. The problem in Texas is structural.

    Democrats controlled Texas for so long and with such a machine-like grip that the party's "campaign muscle" was left to atrophy. When the sea change finally arrived, the party was left on the sofa with a bag of corn chips sitting on its chest and a six pack of beer bottles scattered around its feet. It couldn't get up; wasn't even sure it wanted to.

    Texas had county chairs who were in place because of who they knew, not what they could do.

    The TDP, county by county and statewide, forgot how to campaign-- really campaign; organize; block walk everywhere; serious GOTV efforts, not just a few rallies in ever-decreasing strongholds and throw money at mass media-- and, as a consequence, the counties fell, one by one.

    One by one, and left that way until the problem in Texas became completely structural.

    You rightly point out that Obama was the last Democrat who energized our party.

    He still lost Texas by twelve points, even with all that energy.

    Bill White (not the most energetic campaigner or organizer on the face of the planet) lost by 12.69 points.

    That's what the years of atrophy has cost the TDP: a structural, built-in deficit of ~12 points, plus or minus given the candidate and the energy surrounding them.

    So what do we do? (And, no, you haven't tried it my way.)

    We have to show-- to demonstrate and prove-- that we have candidates that know how to govern, and we have to do it at the county level, first, before we will ever have a hope at taking a statewide seat.

    We need to go back, county by county by county, and work-- and that starts with getting county chairs in place who are willing to go in for the long, hard slog.

    County chairs who are there not because of who they know but because of what they can do.

    We need to follow the Dallas County approach.

    Focus on a few local races; pound the ground game and forget the broadcast media (as shiny and pretty as it might be, precious!); build on the success; demonstrate Democrats can truly govern well at the local level. Soon enough, more county wide office will be held by Democrats, showing even more people that Democrats aren't some strange, foreign, hothouse strain of exotic plant.

    Once you do that in enough counties-- once you demonstrate Democrats can govern in Texas-- then the statewide races will "happen."

    It's not about "not" blending in. Linda Chavez certainly didn't blend in-- talk about being "deliberately distinct!"-- and she had her election ass handed to her. 27-points worth.

    She even made a huge hall filled to the gills with hard D's in Dallas uncomfortable with her overtly class warfare-ish message. I was there. I was uncomfortable, too.

    She was distinct. She didn't blend in. She was full of character.

    27-points.

    It's not about an atrophy of character, it's about the structural change brought about by an atrophy of the campaign muscle that, in turn, caused people to believe that the only politicians who can govern effectively (even if they don't know what it takes to govern effectively) are to be found on the Right.

    THAT'S what needs to change, and we have to change it by altering the structural deficit, and we can only do that by doing the hard work, county by county, again from scratch.


  • Elmo Says:

    Democrats have allowed Rush Limbaugh (and his ilk) to define what a Democrat is and what a Democrat stands for. Democrats have stood around and acquiesced to making Liberal a dirty word. Democrats have failed to fight back. It started with Bill Clinton and the Democratic Leadership Comedy which made themselves into Republican Lite and until Barrack Obama came along, that was working. So Obama gets elected and what does he do? He starts accommodating himself to Republican ideas in the name of bipartisanship. We've seen how well that works.


  • Logan Says:

    It's the economy stupid


  • Cyrus Says:

    Mack - while you're right about the dilapidated party infrastructure at the local level, you're wrong if you think that more door-knocking and phone-banking at the precinct level is the answer to this party's troubles. We had no shortage of that this year. Local parties were energized and brought in many new active faces in 2008. But volunteer cadres can't make up for an utterly bankrupt messaging platform and candidates and consultants who offer nothing to those they hope to represent.
    Throwing people at the problem is the same as throwing money at it: pointless without sound strategy or a value proposition that motivates voters. We can purge all the old yellowdogs we want to, but without true connection to our communities and an offer of representation that matters to their daily lives, we're stuck in the same place.


  • Cyrus Says:

    Btw, Mack - if you're buying into the idea that Linda Chavez lost because she was pushing "class warfare", then you've bought into the Republican's trap-door and you're a part of the problem.


  • Gen Van Cleve Says:

    I adore you, but I disagree. I was honored to spend time with the voters, volunteers, and canvassers in Kristi Thibaut's district...and I am happy to report there was plenty of character on display. I will never forget, Mr. Hong, who canvassed tirelessly, and after his 8 hour shift cleaned the office - No Charge! Or Alexis Reza and Mia Fey who stayed up night after night finding ways to make sure we talked to every person south of Westheimer...not once, not twice, but countless times in English, Spanish AND Vietnamese.

    I stood with elderly voters as they demanded to vote, while the Election Judge at the Alief Regional Library demanded to know, "Who are you going to vote for?" before she'd allow them to cast a ballot. I stood between a screaming Tea Party whack job, Steve, Sherman, and a tiny Vietnamese woman who just wanted to help a lady vote. I went toe-to-toe with Jack O'Conner, Republican candidate for Rep. Vo's seat, after he declared to myself and a handful of Vietnamese poll greeters that HE was a "bonafied" American. (I assume he was suggesting the rest of us are not.) The poll greeters didn't leave, it was Jack O'Conner who slunk off tossing insults behind him as he went.

    All of the candidates and staff that worked, suffered, stayed up nights, and endured the most baseless and humiliating attacks and charges are not short of character. At least one candidate I know of was physically assaulted, but had too much dignity to stop, even for a moment, because she didn't want to let down her staff or the voters of her district.

    I suppose we can argue about tactics and message, we can certainly discuss what we learned from the tsunami, but I do not believe for one moment that the voters, candidates, volunteers, and staff were anything but courageous, principled people that will live to fight another day to make Texas a little bit better place to grow, work, and live.

    Your friend,

    Gen


  • Mack Simpson Says:

    Cyrus,

    I thought I was pretty clear in stating that I felt the answer to the party's troubles was in rebuilding the local apparatus and electing candidates, again, at the local COUNTY level who can prove, in ever greater numbers, that Democrats can govern effectively. Then, after that "show me/prove to me" phase in counties across the state, we'll begin to see inroads in statewide races. You admirably summed up my position in the last line of your (first) reply.

    And I believe the best way to accomplish that is through person-to-person campaigning. You're wrong that throwing people at the problem is the same as throwing money at it, at least in terms of "return on investment." In other words, not all dollars are created equal-- see Donald P. Green and Alan S. Gerber's "Get out the Vote!" for more on this.

    You don't seem too adept at divining what it is I do and do not believe, especially it seems in relationship to LCT, or in pigeonholing me as "part of the problem." I used the real perception of her speech, from real hard D's, at a real county-wide Democratic fundraising event, to illustrate that LCT was "distinct," "didn't blend in" and was "full of character" yet lost by a greater margin than White (who could be viewed as being "less distinct," "more blended" and "less full of character").

    Classify her message however you will; it certainly wasn't "run of the mill."

    It goes back to: the problem isn't the message (we have a good one-- several, actually) and it isn't the candidate (unless they stink up the place).

    It's that the citizens of Texas have forgotten that Democrats can actually govern-- and govern well-- and we need to provide them with a safe place at the county level to "remember" before they'll trust that leadership again at the state level.


  • Cyrus Says:

    Well, thanks for clarifying, Mack.

    I agree that we must prove an ability to govern. I also agree that person-to-person contact is one of the best ways to move voters.

    But to compare LCT's results to Bill White's is a bit facile, no? One of those two had substantial financial backing and was the focus of the Party's efforts - based almost entirely on that candidate's supposed "viability".
    No effort was made to formulate a clear, coherent message to working Texans by the top of our ticket. It was entirely geared toward winning an argument with soft Republican voters who were certain to turn out. Think about that for a minute. Can you summarize Bill White's value proposition to working Texans in 10 words or less? Was there a message formulated to resonate with a Democratic base other than "i'm not Rick Perry"? If 2.3 million Texas Democrats show up in 2010 instead of 1.8, this would have been a VERY different election.

    If a candidate like LC-T had real backing, real support from her party outside of the urban bubbles that we continue to retreat into, who else might have felt compelled to show up? The proposition that the rest of Texas should be more like Austin or Dallas or Houston is insulting to the rest of the state and is an outgrowth of thinking as narrow and simplistic as those rural voters that liberals are so fond of mocking.

    If the message was right, then someone's putting the cart before the horse, because they apaprently forgot that first you much choose an audience that is large and diverse enough to win an election, and then figure out how and where to deliver it so that it reaches them and provokes them to action.


  • Mack Simpson Says:

    "Not Rick Perry" probably would have been a perfectly good communications strategy(*) had the public at large been comfortable with the idea that good governance is a likely outcome when a Democrat holds any particular statewide office.

    As it is, they don't believe it and need to be shown and given proof. The lowest hanging fruit to do that is at the county level.

    I don't want the rest of the state to be like Austin or Houston or Dallas. They simply can't be. But the other counties in Texas, rural or otherwise, can learn from the Dallas County strategy and implement it using their own candidates that speak to their own issues in their own, very local, way.

    Show them a Democrat can govern at the local level and they'll be more likely to trust in, and believe that, a Democrat can govern at the state level.

    (*) In Dallas County, the "Not Rick Perry" communication strategy propelled White to a 53/46 margin over Perry, which equates to roughly ~25,000 votes that migrated from the (R) column to the (D) column over the rest of the Big 6, down ballot, statewide field. (Tangentially, Weems came the closest to pulling White-like numbers (51%/46%, a swing of ~10,000) and LCT was the only one of the "Big 6" to lose Dallas County; White, Radnofsky, Uribe, Gilbert and Weems all won.)


  • Mean Rachel Says:

    @Gen: No doubt about it, we still have character (and characters) that make up our party. The crisis, in my opinion, lies with our Party leadership's ability to embrace that character, capitalize on it and allow it to produce tangible results.

    The crisis can't (and shouldn't) be blamed on one person or one group of financiers. But it is a top-down mentality and that should be looked at in some respect.


  • Cyrus Says:

    Mack -

    Demographics and economics matter.

    The whole ticket won big-time in Travis County, too. Again, what did that get us?

    I agree that we need to rebuild our bench - that's one of our 3 main problems. But messaging is another.
    Dallas had good Democratic turnout, but their spread was far better in '08. Blame that drop-off on LC-T or others like her if you must, but it misses a much bigger picture. Our unwillingness to put muscle behind a real defense of the interests of working people may perhaps account for the fact that so few of them turn out to support our candidates, no?


  • Mack Simpson Says:

    Or it could be as simple as the traditional fall-off in participation between Presidential and Gubernatorial election years. (I rather think it is.)

    We're improving on that, too.

    Win enough counties and you'll win the statewide race. We've gotta' start changing the counties, and we do that with good local candidates and the "muscle" of door-to-door campaigning.

    Too many Dems fixate on the glory of the statewide races and wonder where we go wrong when we come up short.

    Start taking over a few more counties and, in a few years, we won't be having this conversation. And it's going to be done with county leadership and legwork, not messaging, consultants and cash.


  • Cyrus Says:

    I agree that focusing on the Governor's race is a mistake. But lack of opposition also implies consent. Not running and backing a real statewide slate in 2006 was a tremendous waste of opportunity. Not unifying our party organizations behind our slate and allowing guys like Chet Edwards & Patrick Rose to soak up money and oxygen while they spits on their constituencies and party shows nothing but weakness and a lack of identity. Putting more volunteers and local commissioner candidates on the street to plead their case can't make up for that.


  • Cyrus Says:

    And no, it's not as simple as "traditional fall off". Like I said, 75% of the GOP Presidential year base returned this year. We barely topped 55% of ours. And I'm talking about Democrats who have voted - recently - for Democrats. It was stupid, actually, for White to ignore Obama. He was going to be tarred with him anyway, and he was. All he did was look like a chickenshit. Obama brought 3.5 million Democrats to the polls in Texas, and his numbers held up remarkably well downballot, while McCain's fell precipitously past the first 2 lines. Prioritizing a message to motivate Democrats instead of going straight to groveling at the feet of moderate Republicans might have helped an awful lot, and done much to invigorate that "county level" of Democrats you mentioned.

    Our candidate picked the wrong audience, and the wrong message, and the results reflected that.


  • John Coby Says:

    The democrats underestimated the power of ignorance. The republican's capitalized on it.

    It was literally that simple.


  • David Van Os Says:

    Actually there are many Texas Democrats who have worked hard and advocated vigorously to frame and deliver a message more populist, progressive, and down to earth. The current TDP administration made it a priority to ignore them as candidates and to exclude them from internal party discourse. I am one of them and there are many more.
    David Van Os
    '06 Democratic candidate for Texas Attorney General


  • Edwin Says:

    Whatever frame you choose will not get to the people if we are not sufficiently organized in those places where we did not get the votes.

    "It's like your thinking Bree when it's clearly Montana time." - There's Something About Mary (Montana substitution added)

    http://ipolity.com/blogpost6