Kondracke: Greenberg Book Shows Democrats Way to Win — in 2008

Posted January 15, 2004 at 9:36am

What’s the best way for Democrats to regain the White House? Bash President Bush? Attack “crony capitalism”? Excite the party’s base? Or retool the Democratic message to appeal to a broader constituency?

Democratic pollster Stan Greenberg’s new book, “The Two Americas: Our Current Political Deadlock and How to Break It,” argues that his party can win any of those ways, but he’d prefer a “strategic change” that wins back voters who’ve fallen away, including rural voters and white males.

[IMGCAP(1)] Greenberg, who polled for Bill Clinton in 1992 and Al Gore in 2000, thinks Democrats should revive the broad appeal of John F. Kennedy with a program that includes universal private health insurance, guaranteed college, a strong defense, public financing of campaigns and an “Apollo project” for energy independence.

At a discussion session on the book last week, Republican pollster Bill McInturff said he doubted that any Democrat could implement Greenberg’s change in 2004, but he said it might happen in 2008.

It could be done, he said, “by someone who supported the Iraq war and the $87 billion budget request to finish the job, went to Iraq to visit the troops, comes from a religious tradition, was raised in the Midwest and is interested in the recovery of rural areas in New York state.”

He was talking, of course, about Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.), but he said, “I hope that the battle between the [Howard] Dean wing of the party and the Clinton wing will be sufficiently bitter that we [Republicans] can survive in 2008.”

Indeed, looking at the 2004 Democratic field, each major candidate seems to be emphasizing one or another of Greenberg’s less-preferred strategies. None is trying what he calls the “100 percent America” strategy of reuniting the whole country.

The basis thesis of Greenberg’s book is the familiar one — that the U.S. electorate is split down the middle, largely on cultural issues, and that each party is striving to win elections by energizing its own base and wooing swing voters.

“We are trapped in an ugly parity that drives both parties, each tantalizingly close to tasting the fruits of victory, to more intense battles that leave the country more divided and its citizens forced to choose between contending cultures,” he writes.

Republicans, with an appeal based on piety, foreign policy assertiveness, traditional values, opposition to abortion, individualism, “greed,” and lack of concern about minorities and women’s rights, Greenberg contends, have a solid hold on 46 percent of the electorate.

Their core consists of white evangelicals (17 percent of the total vote, splitting 72 for the GOP), rural voters (21 percent of the total, 53 percent GOP), the Deep South (20/ 59), exurbanites (8/56), angry white males (13/60) and upper-income males (13/61).

Democrats also hold about 46 percent of the electorate, with an appeal based on minority rights, tolerant, secular “post-modernism” on gay rights, abortion and other lifestyle issues; a multilateral foreign policy; and use of government to solve problems.

The Democratic base consists of blacks (10 percent of the electorate, 86 percent Democratic), Hispanics (7/55), women with post-graduate degrees (7/63), “secular warriors” (15/63), “cosmopolitan states” (24/ 52) and union families (15/53).

The groups that are up for grabs include men with post-graduate educations, college-educated women, young people, older women, Roman Catholics and non-college women, married and single.

Greenberg anticipates — logically enough — that Bush’s political guru, Karl Rove, has designed a 2004 strategy designed to hold the GOP base, turn out every GOP voter and appeal to swing voters and Democrats through steel import quotas, the Medicare prescription drug benefit, immigration reform and various “compassionate conservative” initiatives.

Greenberg admits that Bush has a tactical advantage in 2004 by controlling all three branches of the federal government and a majority of state governments and also has benefited from the nation’s preoccupation with terrorism.

But he posits five tactical ways for Democratic success under the “two Americas” strategy that’s like Rove’s — or a “100 percent America” strategy that he claims could lead Democrats back to dominant status.

The five tactics are being tried by some or all of the current Democratic candidates. All emphasize the “agenda gap” between Democrats and Bush — on health care, the environment and foreign policy. Dean emerged as the frontrunner by opposing everything Bush stands for.

Most Democrats hope to win by exciting core Democrats — blacks, feminists and union members — by bashing Bush. Sen. John Edwards (N.C.) has made a special appeal based on Bush’s corporate connections, but others have as well.

All the Democrats are also trying to outbid Bush for the support of Hispanics and seniors. And some of them, notably Sen. Joe Lieberman (Conn.) and retired Gen. Wesley Clark, want to offer “reassurances” that Democrats can match Bush as strong foreign policy leaders.

Greenberg hopes Democrats will reach beyond these tactical approaches by adopting his new agenda. In fact, in the position papers the candidates have put out, most of them do have new plans on health care, college aid and energy independence. And most of them promise a “strong” foreign policy.

Two things are wrong with the Greenberg formulation. One is that most Democrats simply aren’t trusted on foreign policy. John F. Kennedy was a hawk and most Democrats are doves. And, Greenberg argues for a positive “opportunity agenda,” but still wants Democrats to bash Republicans as greedy, corporate and insensitive.

Bush is on his way to winning this election because Democrats spend so much time sounding angry and negative that no one hears any positives. And, Bush is an optimist.