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No topic is as important to the Democrats’ future - and present - as the topic of backbone.

Democrats need to stand up for

  • Their principles,or it looks like the don't believe them
  • Their policies, or it looks like Republicans have a point about their weakness
  • Their character, or the smears stick - and the taint of weakness gets added

But, as we all know, too many Democrats aren’t standing up.

On the positive side, in the last two weeks the topic of backbone has gotten a lot more air time. That’s good - and necessary. On the negative side, so far, most of what has been said has been focused on individuals. While we definitely should castigate spineless Democrats for their weakness, that does not get to the root of the problem.

When people talk about bold Democratic leadership, they almost always go back to FDR for their example, or sometimes to LBJ. But think about this: if we have to go back 50 or more years to find an good example of high-profile Democratic backbone, then the problem isn’t just with a few individual "invertebrates" – it’s much deeper than that.

Here are a few examples of both the increasing emphasis on backbone (emphasis added) and how the attention has been focused on individuals:

Does the President have the courage to do what's right?(source)

No party had faced so great a challenge -- or had so great an opportunity -- [as the Democrats did] in more then seventy years. There was quite literally nothing to fear but their own shadows and nothing in their way but their own egos.
Sadly, that proved more than sufficient....
We put you [Democrats] there to fight for our causes, dammit, and we expect results. (source)

After Massachusetts, Democrats were looking for leadership; they didn’t get it. ...It’s as if Obama checked out.
Look, Obama is a terrific speaker and a very smart guy. ...What’s now in question isn’t his ability to talk, it’s his ability to lead.(source)

Two questions remain from President Obama's first State of the Union address: Did he succeed in persuading nervous Democrats not to cut and run on his presidency; and will he succeed in making Republicans think twice about their united opposition to almost all things Obama?
[In Obama’s State of the Union address] He needed to stiffen the spines of Democrats.

But as I said earlier, if we have to go back 50 or more years to find an good example of high-profile Democratic backbone, then the problem isn’t just with individuals.

So let’s look at why it is that Democrats have such a backbone problem.

Fundamentally, there are three main reasons:

Reason 1: The way Democrats think.
For example, Democrats do less oversimplification: Democrats see more of the world’s true complexity and are less invested in a completely black-or-white worldview. Not oversimplifying is good, but one result is that Democrats are less absolutely certain that they have exactly the right answer, so they’re less committed to any one policy than they are to the goal of the policy. (For example, there are lots of different Democratic opinions about the best kind of health reform, though there is agreement on the goals of increased coverage and decreased cost growth.) Because of the fact that most of the public doesn’t pay intense attention to politics (outside of the few months before an election), they see shifting policy ideas as weak belief in the ends, not as part of the search for better means.

Reason 2: The issues Democrats tackle.
For example, Democrats are ahead of their time: Progressives try to tackle issues sooner than Republicans (or Independents) do – that is, instead of accepting the way things are, they try to create progress. When progressives began advocating for women to have the right to vote and for the end of discriminatory Jim Crow laws, the country wasn’t yet ready to agree. When they began to advocate for laws against child labor, the country wasn’t ready to agree. And when they began to say that the government shouldn’t prevent some people from getting married (interracial couples, gays and lesbians) but not others, the country wasn’t yet ready to agree.

All these are examples of where Democrats pushing progress were on the right side of history from the beginning , but they weren’t on the side of a majority of public opinion until much later (in fact, the country is still catching up on gay marriage). So Democrats weren’t able to pass laws righting the wrongs of discrimination and child labor until they had enough support to succeed

The result is that when Democrats get massive pushback, they are used to withdrawing and waiting until they build up more support, because usually extreme pushback means they’re too far ahead of the country to succeed. Unfortunately, Republicans have learned exploit this by pushing back with all the intensity (and insanity) they can muster – and this frequently works, because both Democrats and their audience (the media, pundits, people who follow politics) think this means it’s not time yet, when in fact it just means that Republicans are calculating that being the party of "No!" is good for them politically.

Reason 3: The Democrats’ norms of combat.
For example, Democrats are less ruthless: Witness a 2004 article in a popular right-wing publication, "But if there is one characteristic of Kerry's life that should disqualify him absolutely as a candidate for president, it is the fact that he has sought out millionaire wives to take care of him. Not to put too fine a point on it, he's a serial gigolo." No surprise, I imagine, that Limbaugh got in on the "Kerry is a gigolo" act. When McCain, who married a rich heiress (just as Kerry did) was the nominee, did the #1 Democratic media personality call him a gigolo? Were there articles are in major Democratic publications that did?

How about the South Carolina GOP primary between W and John McCain in 2000: McCain was campaigning with his daughter Bridget, who he adopted from Bangladesh, so GOP operatives called voters and asked them, "Would you be more or less likely to vote for John McCain if you knew he had fathered an illegitimate black child?" Charlie Condon, the former South Carolina Attorney General told the New York Times that the primary’s descent into dirty tricks was not surprising: "Our primaries have a way of doing that," Condon said. "There is a tradition of it, it is accepted behavior, and frankly it works."

It’s not "accepted behavior" among Democrats, so they are not ready for things like this when they are in the crosshairs of ruthless Republicans. And they don’t know how to fight back, so they end up proving Condon’s point that, frankly, it works.

So what's next?
We need to pressure Democrats to have more backbone now. But we also need to lay the foundation for fixing the backbone problem long-term. Upcoming posts will examine in depth each of the three reasons for systemic lack of backbone, looking at why and how each contributes to the Democrats’ problem.

Importantly, the posts will also look at how all three topics – how Democrats think, the issues they tackle, and their rules of combat – also have beneficial aspects and are, in fact, part of what makes Democrats worth supporting over Republicans.

And finally, we’ll look at what we can do to change things – without losing the beneficial aspects of Democratic ways of thinking, issue selection, and rules of combat – so that have a system that leads to more Democrats with backbone.


Originally posted to Backbone Project on Mon Feb 01, 2010 at 01:15 PM PST.

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Comment Preferences

    •  Even simpler than your theory. (3+ / 0-)

      They have no spine because their base can't all agree on the same thing.  The Republicans unfortunately don't have this problem with a few exceptions.

      Let Obama be Obama.

      by Yoshimi on Mon Feb 01, 2010 at 01:44:18 PM PST

      [ Parent ]

    •  Thanks! (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      never forget 2000

      good post. Tipped and rec'd.

      Grab a mop or shut up, dammit!

      by SouthernLiberalinMD on Mon Feb 01, 2010 at 02:10:08 PM PST

      [ Parent ]

    •  Why is it so difficult (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:

      for people to understand that backbone is not the issue. The Democrats are doing what they are there to do - which is to serve the interests that put them there.

      The idea that the Democratic leadership's betrayal of their constituents and the country is somehow a result of lack of conviction is just not supported by any credible evidence.

      Far more convincing is the empirical evidence that they have no convictions, are merely corrupt, and are doing exactly what they set out to do.

      I have been in politics professionally for 30 years. I have worked for several labor unions and have politicked for, negotiated with, and fought against more Democrats than I can count. There are good people in our party.

      But the good ones rarely make to the top. SOrry. That's just the truth. The higher you go, like the Senate, the more corrupt they are.

      You see these people on television and at political events and you believe the theater. These people are NOTHING like their public personas. It's an act.

  •  No matter what decision Obama makes, some (5+ / 0-)

    portion of the collection of interest groups that comprise the Democratic Party will be piss off and want to "take their ball and go home". "Backbone" isn't the issue, party discipline and the lack of a longterm view is.

    "He that troubleth his own house shall inherit the wind."

    by lordcopper on Mon Feb 01, 2010 at 01:26:45 PM PST

  •  Actually, Ben Nelson et al. show plenty backbone (7+ / 0-)

    ..when standing against progressives. So does Rahm.

    The problem is that the Blue Dogs want to play "I can take corporate bribes too," but blame the policies that thus emerge on the GOP.

    People like Leahy, Grayson, Feingold, etc. have plenty of backbone. Just not enough power. If they wanted to get shitty and be as demanding and obstreperous as the Blue Dogs about their agenda, then it would add to gridlock in the short term, but in the long term might be needed.

    If you can find money to kill people, you can find money to help people. --Tony Benn

    by rhetoricus on Mon Feb 01, 2010 at 01:36:56 PM PST

  •  See "Howard Dean". n/t (0+ / 0-)
  •  Backbone = Nothing to lose (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Quicklund, lordcopper

    Progressives are at a bad position when it comes to negotiating.  They actually too much to walk away.

    Let Obama be Obama.

    by Yoshimi on Mon Feb 01, 2010 at 01:45:53 PM PST

  •  Not 50, Closer to 40 Years to LBJ (3+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    susanw, Quicklund, rubine

    And then the country gave rights to blacks and launched an illegal war that the draft pool resisted.

    Those rights and that resistance so enraged America that the Democratic party became a conservative party, shifting to representing business and the rich for big gains and offering more modest gains and eventually outright losses to the people.

    The lack of backbone was because Democrats were not going to run against big money, so they couldn't be bold for the people any more.

    Democrats didn't attack issues "sooner" they attacked them at all. Republicans opposed 40 hour week, social security, the Marshall Plan, GI Bill, Great Society, Medicare, civil rights, voting rights, the women's equal rights amendment, environmental law. It wouldn't have mattered if we'd waited till 3564, they'd have still opposed government ever tackling those issues at all.

    We've lost progressive thinking because we've become a solid conservative party whose leadership policies favor big money more than the people. Progressives are only a small minority and as you see from the White House to Congress they're generally held outside the loop for hearings, conferences and such.

    You've got the cart before the horse here. Democrats are not failing to perform, they're performing as they intend to perform. What's needed is to change the core policies of the party to make it a progressive party.

    We are called to speak for the weak, for the voiceless, for victims of our nation and for those it calls enemy.... --ML King "Beyond Vietnam"

    by Gooserock on Mon Feb 01, 2010 at 01:46:13 PM PST

  •  Backbone equals corporate agenda. (0+ / 0-)

    The the demo leadership show backbone when they are pushing the corporate agenda and they get all spineless when it comes to supporting the middle and lower classes (the actual people).

    This relates to what they do, not what they say.  What they say is related to how much flak they're getting and is mostly meaningless bullshit.  

    Corporate PACs, not just bribery but a lifestyle!

    by rubine on Mon Feb 01, 2010 at 01:52:54 PM PST

  •  Macro view (0+ / 0-)

    The GOP represents a relatively cohesive core group.  It is the party of the Status Quo and it has a simple job: retain as much wealth and power for those people who have it. Everyone who matters in the GOP is foresquare behind these goals.

    The Democratic Party represents Everyone Else. Everyone not of the 'ins' ends up in the Democratic Party.  There is a mealnge of goals and priorities and party leaders do not all agree on these points. TheDemocratic Party is thus easy to fragment and waste energy in factional struggles.

    Meanwhile the beat goes on...

  •  You said... (0+ / 0-)

    Democrats see more of the world’s true complexity and are less invested in a completely black-or-white worldview.

    While I agree with your statement, I would add that your use of the word "see" could better be replaced by the word "think".  Democrats think. Republicans "feel". That, in my estimation, is one of the primary differences between democrats and republicans.

    Republicans "feel"...feel for themselves.  They are the party of selfishness. Democrats are the party of thinking and compassion.

    Observing the world in terms of "black and white" and "either or" is a characteristic of republican philosophy as you indicated.  There is something about their genetic make-up that makes them that way.  Simarlily, there is something about democrat's genetic make-up that makes them see "shades of gray".

    In the real world, "shades of gray" makes more sense than "black or white".  At least to a thinking person.

  •  It's eaiser than that far too many of them are... (0+ / 0-)

    ...bought off by special interests that are at odds with the economic and security interests of the majority of the voters. That is the problem.  I don't see that as spinelessness. I see it as old fashion corruption. Giving them the out of spinelessness is far too charitable.

    The young man who has not wept is a savage, and the old man who will not laugh is a fool. George Santayana

    by Bobjack23 on Mon Feb 01, 2010 at 03:05:13 PM PST

  •  Failure to control the message (0+ / 0-)

    Remember the bad old days when you could turn to any Sunday talk show and hear every GOPer repeat ad nauseum the meme du jour. The Dems always appear ill prepared, unwilling to interrupt, unable to repeat the message.
    Can you imagine the GOPers allowing George W. Bush to be treat the way Obama has by the Tea Party, Limbaugh, et. al. Even at his lowest approval, the GOP would not have tolerated it. The Dems were...crickets.
    That said, given the hyperpartisan nature of D.C.,I truly wonder how much a steely spine would get you. The reason why Reagan and W could get stuff done is because there were always a few Democrats that they could pick off. The GOP is on lock-down and Snowe, Collins, Lugar or Voinovich do not appear persuadable.

    Never underestimate the ability of the Right to over reach.

    by never forget 2000 on Mon Feb 01, 2010 at 03:15:12 PM PST

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