Apparently there's this thing called a diary, which is like a really long comment or maybe a bunch of shorter ones, and then people come and read it on purpose rather than just stumbling upon it while checking to see if their own comments have been posted. Since I have made a number of comments in the last few days about the present and future of worldwide proletarian revolution--or at least about its vanguard party, the Democrats--and I'd like those comments to be read, I am going to put it all together below. Mostly from scratch, but I'm not above cribbing from myself.
First, we need some context. We didn't lose a country, and while we did lose some states (a few Senate seats, a few Governor's mansions or at least glorified shacks), the losses everyone is yapping about today are local, and they're finite. And here I will paraphrase a comment from earlier today, now with more details: Take the difference between the seats we needed and the seats we lost, add up the margins of defeat for that number of seats (smallest to largest), and that was our deficit. That means the 34 smallest margins of defeat, and the CBS election website gives us what we need. I've just done it on the fly, and I don't have to go past a 20k deficit per district. Total--with rounding and minor sloppiness errors--is 399k. We lost control of the House because 400,000 votes didn't go our way, or more realistically, because we didn't get 400,000 additional people in those districts to come out to vote (Democratic). Just in my state, the Democratic candidate for governor lost by almost that many votes (360k), and it wasn't even a historic blowout (55-45). So we're not talking about a huge number of votes by any means.
This isn't meant as rationalization; rather, it's a reminder that our losses don't need a meta-narrative, whether it's the pernicious MSM or the bad economy (too little stimulus, too much stimulus, whatever) or Citizens United or hatred of a black president. We were pretty close to laughing ourselves to sleep and waking up laughing as well. Obviously the metanarratives all have some merit (OK, except for the mutually contradictory ones, where you need to make a choice!), but they're well within the margin where actual electioneering can make the difference one way or the other. So that's what I'll talk about next.
Second, Democrats ran away from their record. Let's say I don't pay much attention to politics. It's not intrinsically interesting to me and I'm busy with my three jobs and whiny kids and fantasy football. But I'm a good egg so I vote, if I can squeeze it in on the way to work. Republicans tell me, in a very coherent way, that particular Democratic policies (and leaders, Obama and Pelosi) are immensely destructive and my local Democratic candidate buys into that destruction 100%. What do Democrats say in return? They say bad things about the local Republican candidate and that's all. They don't say that Obama and Pelosi are actually working on behalf of the country, they don't say that health care reform and the stimulus and the bailout were good and necessary things, and they don't tie the local Republican to national Republicans who are, by all measures, almost parodically disliked.
If that's what I'm seeing, chances are I won't be voting Democratic: if Democrats won't defend their works and their leaders, why should I defend them with my ballot? If I'm independent I'll vote Republican, and if I'm a Democrat I'll stay home. Nobody likes a wimp, especially in politics. OK, so you as a Democratic candidate weren't too keen on the stimulus, or the bailout, or health care reform? Who the hell cares? You're going to be tied to them anyway, so you might as well defend them. It's not like you're defending something insane, like privatizing Social Security, or criminalizing abortion even in cases of rape and incest, or invading Venezuela. The reason Republicans can say those things largely without consequences is that people like candidates to advocate for something. Democrats didn't.
But wait, what about Alan Grayson? Well, a few things to say about Alan, whom I like and admire for the most part:
- Everything in moderation, and let's admit that he sometimes falls down in that department.
- He's just one case and you shouldn't generalize from one case vs. the many in favor of my argument.
- Relatedly, Grayson looked so kooky to voters in large part because he was the only one campaigning that way: because there weren't other Democrats aggressively doing what I've described (and what, in his hyperbolic way, Grayson acted on), his constituents not unreasonably took his campaign as a vanity trip. If all Democratic candidates were at least somewhat like Grayson, he would have done better because he'd be seen the way Republican versions of Grayson were seen: as strong advocates for Republicanism.
Let's not forget Tom Perriello in VA-5, who was like Grayson in his strong advocacy for Democratic policies but without the bombast, and if anything he was stronger in his embrace of Obama. Tom was elected in 2008, in a very Republican district, only because the incumbent was dragged down by scandal. He lost in 2010, but only by 51-47, under 10k votes: just in my state we lost several (forgettable) Democratic representatives in historically Democratic districts by much wider margins. If they ran like Perriello, I'm entirely convinced they would have won. Lastly on this point, let's remember Russ Feingold, the only incumbent Democratic senator to lose besides the dead-woman-walking Blanche Lincoln. Feingold aggressively presented himself as entirely his own person, a Democrat because you have to be something, but someone who came up with positions on every issue from scratch according to his sense of what was right. Even though those positions were always admirable, he lost against an idiot, in an historically Democratic state! So much for the notion that the national party and its leadership was an albatross, although (again) it's just one case.
Third, and less 2010-specific, political advertising is very primitive and the first party to realize this is going to kick ass in 2012. Here I'll renege on my promise of originality and just paste my comment from earlier today: Nobody, and I mean nobody, would try to sell an actual commercial product the way we try to sell candidates. Even the tiniest nod to the product-advertising innovations of the last 50 years would bring huge rewards. McAdams understood this up in Alaska, and his bad result was more a three-way strategic-voting issue than anything else; in a straight-up contest he might well have won despite the state's conservatism. It's amazing that expensive national political ads have less imagination and craft to them than a locally-produced cable ad for a bar and grill.
Let me "revise and extend," as they say in the Senate. Politics, as noted above, is boring to most people, but we want and need them to come out and vote for our side. When I look at that sentence, I think "Wow, maybe we should have less boring political advertising!" As George Costanza might say, "maybe something funny....people like funny." Republican advertising, in all of its lugubriousness, was gold (gold, Jerry, gold!) for Democrats and they let it slip. An ad with Obama and Pelosi having lunch laughing at the nasty black-and-white image of them scowling, and Biden could barge in complaining that he was being left out...that would have been cool. Obama is widely viewed as a cold fish (which, except in the friendliest settings, he actually is), and not one person in ten knows Pelosi except through Republican ads, so that would have been not just a good chuckle but electorally useful.
Even if you're not much for funny, the wider problem is that political advertising (for reasons that I'm sure have been studied) has developed largely in isolation from commercial (product) advertising: it's got its own pipeline from creative talent to production, as I understand it. It's totally in a bubble, non-ironically enough. I'm sure there's some residual high-mindedness at work there: it would be vulgar to sell a candidate or a party the way we sell soap. But meanwhile, political advertising has gotten plenty vulgar on its own, while product advertising has gotten more sophisticated, self-deprecating, and effective. If the Democratic party resolved tomorrow that all future electronic advertising would be contracted to Madison Avenue agencies or their regional competitors, we'd revolutionize how people look at our party vs. the Republicans. They'd all look as utterly, hopelessly dated as John McCain.
I should say, in fairness, that there was some really good advertising this year by Dems: Jerry Brown seizing upon Whitman's "30 years ago" line, Joe Sestak with Belle, and of course Scott McAdams being himself. I'm just saying there is a LOT of scope for going beyond mere excellence-in-the-traditional-idiom.
In closing (finally!). It's sometimes said, and I sometimes say it, that Republicans understand politics better than Democrats. I'd take that a step further: Republicans acknowledge the existence of politics as its own largely autonomous and stylized realm of words and symbols, while Democrats naively believe there's a direct mapping between social reality and election results. There isn't, except in the broadest terms that we almost never get to in our relatively closely divided polity. Democrats have started to think, in the OFA era, that they understand politics because they're getting good at grassroots GOTV logistics. That's great but it only works on people you've already won over. The key is to win over more people, and every time I read a diary (or, to come full circle, a comment) that focuses on better policies as the key to electoral success, I cringe a little. That's not the key at all. Better policies are important because our goal as political beings is to bring about the betterment of society, but you don't get to formulate policies unless you win elections, and you win elections with coherence, commitment, and some entertaining novelty in your message.