Democratic Dinosaurs Turn D.C. into the Land That Time Forgot

For the Beltway's Democratic dinosaurs, Bush still has credibility on Iraq, Democrats still need to tread lightly in opposing the war for fear of alienating swing voters, and Iraq is still a right vs left issue. This sclerotic framing is wrong on every level: moral, strategic, and psychological.
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With each passing day, Washington, D.C. is turning into the Land That Time Forgot.

While the rest of the country is dealing with the here and now -- exemplified by Bush's puny approval ratings and this new poll showing rural voters turning against the GOP's handling of Iraq -- the Beltway's Democratic dinosaurs are acting like it's 2002. For them, Bush still has credibility on Iraq, Democrats still need to tread lightly in opposing the war for fear of alienating red state and swing voters, and Iraq is still a right vs left issue.

The latest proof that Tyrannosaurus Democrat is not an extinct species comes in the fossilized thinking of Stuart Rothenberg, editor of The Rothenberg Political Report. Writing in Roll Call, the Cro-Magnon pundit waxed ecstatic over Congressional Democrats' handling of the war funding issue, spinning the Dems' capitulation as having "played the issue like a Stradivarius," and proclaiming: "From a purely political point of view, Democrats had their cake and ate it too."

Rothenberg's piece is so confounding, it might have been written by David Chase. But the screen abruptly going to black would be preferable to a mindset that completely and totally (and even gleefully) buys into the Republican framing on the war -- namely, that pushing to bring the troops home is somehow not supporting the troops.

This sclerotic framing is wrong on every level: moral, strategic, and psychological.

You want a snapshot of immorality in action? Look no further than this bloodless analysis of the ultimate political question of life and death as nothing more than a question of tactics. "Why take a chance alienating swing voters," ask Rothenberg, "when the party already made its point by sending the president a deadline bill that he voted?" How about because a deadline bill is the right bill for the country -- and without it there will be hundreds more dead young Americans, and a less safe future for our children?

Instead, Rothenberg lauds the spineless positioning that led Democrats to defeat in 2000, 2002, and 2004: "The Democratic House and Senate leaders wisely played things safe by allowing a bill to pass that Bush could sign." Memo to Democrats interested in winning in 2008: from now until the next Election Day, do not use the words "wisely" and "play things safe" in the same sentence. Or paragraph. Or even the same speech.

Unfortunately, Rothenberg's timorous, realpolitik rationalization for giving the president another book of blank checks on Iraq has been adopted -- along with the Republicans' "support the troops" framing -- by many in Congress, including heretofore anti-war stalwarts Carl Levin, Jim Webb and Jack Murtha. All three voted for the war spending bill, and all offered some variation of Webb's claim, "I find myself unable to vote against a measure that is necessary to fund our troops who are now in harm's way."

But even putting morality aside and looking at things just from what Rothenberg calls "a purely political point of view," his analysis is deeply flawed. The truth is that while the punditocracy and the consulting class continue to search for electoral treasure using badly outdated red state/blue state maps, the country has changed. Radically. Especially when it comes to Iraq.

And especially in rural America -- which is no longer reliably Republican. In 2000, Bush beat Gore by 22 points in rural areas. In 2004, Bush beat Kerry by 19 points among rural voters. But in a new poll, 46 percent of likely rural voters said they preferred an unnamed Democratic candidate for president, while 43 favored a generic Republican. And half of those surveyed said they supported Congressional efforts to reduce troop levels in Iraq.

What's more, support for congressional Democrats dropped 10 points following the war funding vote. As Matt Stoller broke it down: "The Democrats lost twelve points among independents and eighteen points among liberal Democrats... If you are politically craven, this was a terrible move."

For insight into the psychology surrounding the Beltway conventional "wisdom" on the war, I turned to Dr. Drew Westen, a professor of psychology and psychiatry at Emory University, and the author of The Political Brain, a brilliant new book I've been reading over the weekend that is set to be released later this month. In it, Westen offers Democrats a guide for using language to connect to the political brain, which he believes leads voters to make choices based less on reason than on emotion.

I emailed him Rothenberg's column and asked him what he thought. "If this is what a Stradivarius sounds like," he wrote back, "I'd hate to hear a broken fiddle. Behind Rothenberg's analysis -- like the analysis of the risk-averse pollster-consultants who have been running Democratic candidates into the electoral ground for a decade -- is the assumption that voters hear the words Democrats say but don't pick up the meta-message they're conveying with their actions: that they're too frightened to do and say what they believe. Democrats can tell voters that they're strong on national security, but the public can see with its own eyes what Dems do when confronted with aggression. If voters don't trust Democrats with national security, there's nothing the matter with Kansas. Kansans are seeing them clearly. They know cowardice when they see it. And Democrats have repeatedly displayed cowardice for a decade. The irony is that every time they haven't -- like when they started to challenge Bush on his equation of the Iraq War with the 'war on terror' -- the public has responded."

"Voters," Westen told me, "don't like pollster-driven politics or politicians, and with good reason: They want to know what their leaders' values are, because if they know their values, they know how they're likely to represent them -- not just on today's issues, but on tomorrow's, about which we may have no inkling today. Political scientists have found that people prefer to vote for candidates who share their values, but they prefer a candidate who is strong in his or her convictions -- even if they don't share those convictions -- to one whose convictions are hidden in the fine print. Being strong and principled isn't about being left, center, or right. The fact that voters associate values with the right reflects the fact that conservatives wear their values proudly on their sleeves, and they display their principles in their voting records. Conservatives don't vote for bills they don't believe in. If the public associates principles and values with the GOP, it's time Democrats start showing voters that there's another set of principles and values out there: theirs."

Let's make sure that all Capitol Hill cavemen read Drew Westen's book, and take it to heart. With America stuck in the Iraqi tar pit, the last thing we need is for Democrats to de-evolve into invertebrates and slither back into the sticky muck from which they only recently crawled.

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