The Tea Party Lesson: Passion Over Positioning

It's an unending sequel. The election ends; Democrats crash; the circular firing squad opens up. Already conservative Democrats are urging the president to fire his advisors, trim his sails, "move to the center," and spend less attention catering to his base and more trying to appeal to independent voters.

This is a staple of conservative Democratic rump groups from the Coalition for a Democratic Majority (that transmuted into Reagan neocons), the Democratic Leadership Council (that flirted with a third party after the 1994 debacle), and now the Third Way, esteemed advisors to the Blue Dogs that just lost half of their members in the election debacle.

The argument is old-doughnut stale. Progressives say Democrats were hurt because the base was discouraged and disengaged. Turnout among young voters was down dramatically (from 18 in 2008 to 11 in 2010), and they gave Democrats a lower percentage of their votes (56% down from 63%). [All data from a Campaign for America's Future-Democracy Corps poll by Greenberg Associates found here.]

Turnout among African Americans was down (from 13% in 2008 to 10%) and they too offered up a somewhat lower percentage of their vote. The rising American electorate (single women, minorities, and the young) that constituted 46% of the electorate in 2008 declined to about 40% in 2010, and again gave Democrats a lower percentage (60% compared to 67% in 2008.) The electorate that showed up in 2010 probably would have elected John McCain. Had the base been engaged, Democratic losses would have been far smaller. As it was, Latinos, roused by the right, helped staunch the tea party wave in the West.

No, say the conservatives, Democrats lost because independents went south. Independents gave Democrats 57% of their vote in 2006, 51% in 2008 and only 38% in 2010. It is vital that Democrats appeal to moderates and centrists to win. Rep. Heath Shuler, a surviving blue dog, calls for a turn to "incrementalism," and helpfully offers to recruit moderate candidates in conservative districts, if Nancy Pelosi is displaced from the leadership. New Democratic groups trot out "reforms" -- more trade accords, various business tax breaks, fixes for Social Security - that will make common ground with Republicans (if they were of a mind to cooperate), and appeal to "moderates."

But the debate ignores what I'd call the magnetic theory of politics: passion attracts. A passionate base means that the choir knows the words to the songs and is belting out the tunes everywhere. A passionate base not only gets to the polls, but supplies workers, generates volunteers, unearths exceptional talent. A passionate base insures that opponents are challenged across the backyard fence, at the neighborhood picnic, at the local bar. A passionate base invents new ways of communicating that break through to the disengaged.

On the other hand, a discouraged base is frustrated, more confused and thus less forceful. They don't get the words of the songs. They are, in the now famous words of Velma Hall, "exhausted of defending you, defending your administration." Like Republicans in the waning years of the disastrous Bush administration, they wince, duck their heads, choose not to engage the argument with boisterous cousins, or obstreperous brothers in law.

Independents are not a solid group of folks with fixed opinions equidistant from both parties. Most independents, as pollsters know, tend towards one party or another. Most don't pay much attention, have less information and aren't as involved in politics as party activists.

For them, passion attracts. If one side is aroused, engaged and making its case and the other is defensive, distracted, hesitant, we have a good sense of which way independents will trend. The passionate base will rouse those independents that tend to vote for their party. They will attract even the true independents trying to make up their minds.

The whole notion that you attract independents by moving to a mythical "center," by lowering your sights, trimming your sails, and tacking to prevailing winds needs another look.

Surely this election -- with the tea party mobilization both the authentic and the corporate Astroturf parts -- is demonstration of that. Conservatives were passionate and hardly moderate in their assault on Obama. They came out in large numbers. And I would argue they attracted their independents to the polls, as well as convincing a few of the truly independent. The same was true in 2008 in reverse. The Democratic base was roused and engaged; conservatives were discouraged and defensive. The rising American electorate came out in large numbers, and demonstrated the power of an emerging progressive reform majority. And independents "voted" Democratic. That is, more Democratic leaning independents came out, and more Republican leaners stayed out. It wasn't that Obama ran as a centrist. He was an African American liberal, against the war, for health care, for new energy, from a Midwest state campaigning on change. Independents didn't go with him because of his moderated policies - they went with the passion.

Obviously reality counts. Under Karl Rove, Bush largely ran a strategy designed to rouse his base. But Iraq, Katrina, economic collapse -- it just got too hard to defend the guy. Similarly, Obama's supporters must defend him in the midst of high unemployment. a foul economy and a predator's ball restarted on Wall Street. Even if he were more engaged, they might be getting tired.

But at least we ought to challenge the terms of the argument that suggests that rousing the base is somehow antithetical to appealing to independents and the center. To win reelection in 2010 and reverse the shellacking Democrats took this cycle, President Obama will have to win more self-described independents. But the best way to go about that may well be to rouse the base, re-engage with them, argue their case and get them excited. Work with Republicans when they will cooperate to help boost the economy (an unlikely prospect) but lay out a big vision, a clear argument, call out those standing in the way and excite and reengage his own supporters. He's likely to find independents coming his way.

None of this will be easy if the economy doesn't improve, of course. Bill Clinton wasn't re-elected because he carefully repositioned himself to the center. Much of what now is seen as recalibration was an embarrassingly public flailing about as he figured out what to do. He was re-elected far more because Gingrich roused the liberal base, the government shutdown made Clinton into the defender of Medicare, Medicaid, education and the environment, and an improving economy helped build the wave. If the economy doesn't revive, the obstacles grow -- but there's no chance they can be overcome unless Obama rouses his base to carry the argument to independents. One thing: the perpetually tanned Speaker John Boehner and his tea party majority are likely to make that a lot easier.