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Saturday, February 03, 2007

Review: Whistling Past Dixie

This book is an excellent companion and counter-point to Gene Sperling's The Pro-Growth Progressive. Rather than pontificate on policy that would be good ideas if the Democrats regained control of the government, Schaller focuses on how to win.

Schaller's thesis is that the Democrats have shot themselves hard in the foot by trying in vain to appeal to the South, the most racist, backwards, and evangelical part of the country. Since that requires the party to hew harder to the right than its base wants to be, you get two problems: first of all, you get the general population thinking that there's no difference between the two parties (which is as wrong as you can get), since the Democrats try to blur the differences between them and the Republicans in the South, and secondly, the public gets the impression that the Democrats don't stand for anything by pandering to whatever the public says it wants through the polls, rather than leading the Nation.

Schaller brings plenty of evidence to the table, with charts, graphs, and statistics and numbers peppering the book. His answer is that the right thing to do is to stand strong on the Democratic progressive values by pointing out that the Republicans want to reach into America's bedroom by proscribing behavior ranging from sexual preferences to what women are allowed to do with their body. These themes resonate everywhere in America except the South, and the Democrats do not need the South's electoral votes to win (and they're not going to get them anyway, so why tarnish your brand by seeming desparate). Schaller proposes vilifying the most racist and evangelical and backwards citizens in the South the way the Republicans have turned all Democrats into latte-drinking liberals, and using that as a wedge issue to force the Republicans to defend themselves in the rest of the country.

Fortunately, I think the current Democratic candidates for the presidencywill have no choice but to follow Schaller's strategy: Hilary Clinton is too hated in the South to even have a chance there, and she knows it. Barack Obama is black, and doesn't stand a popsicle's chance in the South, and he knows it. So unless there's an unexpected entrant who beats out these two, we'll get a chance to see Schaller's theory in action. This book is highly recommended.

To build and unify themselves, and begin to drive a wedge straight through the heart of the conservative base of the Republican Party, the Democrats need to spend a little less time micro-targeting messages to this or that group based on the latest focus group results. Chasing voters only scares them away, and so Democrats ought to spend less time in pursuit and more effort luring voters by staking out firm positions and showing the resolve not to budge... No party should define itself entirely by its base, but neither should a party define itself by starting with the elements of its coalitionfarthest from that base. That said, it is time for Democrats to replace the party's passive, confused, and muddled national message with a muscular, unapologetic advocacy of an elevator pitch that will not only poll well in the swing states and regions of the country but, properly politicized, can win elections too.

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