Tuesday, January 24, 2006


Putting the "Butt" Back in Rebuttal

This past weekend I officially arrived as a blogger/commentator -– I had the unique pleasure of having multiple posters on a prominent blog site refer to me lovingly as an “ass clown.” Indeed, that was just one of the more creative phrase-turns by Daily Kos visitors in response to my op-ed on the Alito hearings in the Wall Street Journal last Tuesday. (FYI: full text of the op-ed is below.)

I read through the 175 or so Kos-posts, and beyond getting a good chuckle over some of the more colorful putdowns, I could not help but feel a small sense of vindication. The outpouring of vitriol and contempt -– and the almost complete absence of rational analysis and real argument – showed just how blind with anger the activist base has become, proving one of my central points far better than my piece itself did.

In fact, the Kosters were so riled up about perceived slights that were not present in my piece and my association with Senator Lieberman that they basically missed EVERY point I tried to make. Instead, they mostly reacted to strawmen of their own creations -– and then verbally lit the suckers on fire.

Nevertheless, I am doing to do my friends at Kos the courtesy they would not afford me, which is to take their (non-profane) contentions seriously, and do my best to clear up any misunderstanding about the intent and import of my critique.

Let me start with the lead rebuttal from Georgia10 (whom I quoted in my op-ed). After saying I was right to call out the Democrats performance in the Alito hearings, Georgia10 chastised me for using the hearings as “an opportunity to insult the Democratic base as being out of the mainstream.” Georgia10 went on to say:

“I like how Gerstein and the rest of the DLCers throw out the term "angry activist base" as if its a derogatory epithet, as if we really have nothing to be angry about but rather are seething just for shits and giggles. The base is rightly angry precisely because the party is being pulled away from the mainstream and towards a GOP-lite by the likes of Gerstein and the other consultants.”

First off, I didn’t insult anyone. I used the term “angry activist base” because it is technically precise in identifying a relatively small but vocal segment of registered Democrats that is agitating to move the party in a more extreme, confrontational direction -– and Georgia10’s own acknowledgment of her and other Kosters’ anger should put the lie to idea that what I said was unfair or inaccurate, let alone a slur. (Though one might say if the Khruschev shoe fits….)

Second, nowhere in my Alito op-ed or in my other writings do I ever suggest that the Democratic agenda should become a pale approximation of the Republican’s. The fact is, I am a free-thinking progressive who left Washington and national politics out of frustration at, among other things, how politically reactionary and intellectually timid the Democratic Party has become. So to try to pigeonhole (and thus try to discredit me) as a mealy-mouthed moderate or an insider consultant is an act of groundless projection.

Beyond being a free-thinking progressive, I am an empiricist as well. Thus I focus on what is effective in advancing our party's core principles and delivers demonstrable results, both in forming public policy and in shaping political campaigns. And that is a prime driver of my critique of the Democrats’ performance in the Alito hearings and the state of the party in general -- what we’re doing now is not working or winning.

We have to remember politics is fundamentally the art of persuasion –- being right doesn’t matter if you can’t get others to see the wisdom of your way. And recent history shows conclusively that our ideas and arguments are just not getting electoral traction with a majority of voters.

So logic would dictate we need to change, adapt, improve, what have you -– especially in light of the evolution of the American electorate post-Clinton and post-9/11. Different doesn’t have to fall into the simplistic categories of “centrist” or “moderate” –- it just at a minimum means not the same as before.

This is a big part of my disagreement with the angry activist base. It seems their conception of doing something different is either to just yell the same unconvincing ideas and arguments of the last few years louder, or even worse, to regress to the obsolete ideas and arguments of the Sixties.

This did not work in the Kerry campaign, it did not work in the Alito hearings, and it won’t work going forward. That’s largely because the “yell louder” strategy does not speak to the current fears and aspirations of the majority of the American people -– especially those swing voters who have been fleeing the Democratic Party since Bill Clinton left office. Nor does it address our obvious and sizeable credibility gap on security and values issues.

The angry activist base for the most part has trouble acknowledging this. As the Kos posts demonstrate, they tend to deal more with how they want things to be than how they actually are, and as such often fall back on narrow poll results to buttress their claims. To wit, consider these statements from Georgia10’s rebuttal:

“While his article laments our inability to connect with "values" voters, he does not refute the fact that 56% of Americans--Democrats and Republicans alike--want Alito blocked if he'll overturn Roe. Is 56% of America out of the "mainstream"? Is a view "mainstream" simply because its held by Republicans, or by those in power? Because that seems to be Gerstein's point. America, he points out, twice elected a pro-life President and Congress.

“Gerstein apparently chases the theory that we must emulate those in power, because they must've done something right by voters to get into the positions of power in the first place. But the fatal flaw in this argument is that the administration--especially this administration--does not represent the mainstream. If that were true, then violating the Constitution would be a "mainstream" value. Destroying the environment would be a "mainstream" value. Waging an unnecessary war would be a "mainstream" value. Yet poll after poll has consistently proven that the ideology of this administration is outside of the mainstream.”

I will stipulate up front that the majority of Americans disagree with the Bush Administration on a number of issues -– which in itself is compelling evidence of just how poorly our party has done in articulating and advocating a strong alternative agenda that connects with the broad middle of the polity. But clearly the President’s positions were not so odious as to motivate a majority of Americans to vote against him.

In fact, in the biggest turnout election in American history, George W. Bush got three million more votes than his opponent. I would argue that alone is prima facie evidence that he and his agenda are within the mainstream of American opinion (not to mention a testament to the complexity of voter decision-making today). Much as I don’t like George W. Bush, I don’t like that fact. But to deny it is to either delude oneself, or to argue that the majority of Americans are stupid simpletons who have been snookered by the Republicans.

Sadly, I suspect that undercurrent of condescension and contempt runs deeply among the angry activist base-- how could those idiots in red states not see that this President is violating the Constitution –- and that it is compounding their blindness to certain realities. (To wit: Georgia10’s explanation is that the Republicans are winning by “sheer trickery and deceit.”)

One of those realities is that perception matters at least as much if not more than the truth in political arguments. In the Alito hearings, the Democrats on the Judiciary Committee, along with the angry activist base, seemingly failed to notice the widely-shared perception was that the nominee was highly-qualified and a decent guy, a poster child for the immigrant success story.

That perception meant the bar was particular high for Democrats to try to take him out by painting his an extremist. And it was obvious to me, as it was to many objective observers, that we did not come close to delivering the goods to back up our claims. Hence we were the ones who came off looking extreme – extremely partisan and desperate.

In pointing this out, I was not suggesting we should have rolled over and played dead, nor was I defending Alito’s record, as some of the Kosters mistakenly concluded. I was simply analyzing and assessing our arguments from the perspective of the casual political consumer, who most likely was not predisposed to buy our wolf cries.

The Kosters also missed or misunderstood my overarching point. I did not say the people who make up the angry activist base are out of the mainstream. I argued that they appear to have a misguided perception of what is mainstream, which is clouding their judgment and I believe hurting the party.

That conclusion was reinforced by Georgia10’s rebuttal, which suggested that “the mainstream” is defined by some fixed objective criteria -– namely the criteria of the angry activist base. For example, in their view, you are not mainstream if you are pro-life or support the Iraq war. But the reality is that what is “mainstream” by its very definition is a fluid concept, which ebbs and flows over time, as do the boundaries of acceptability.

We can argue about what the proper barometer of mainstream is at this moment -– I happen to think election results are not a bad place to start, which is why I think it is silly to suggest that George Bush as a President is outside the mainstream. But one thing that seems certain, especially after the Alito hearings, that the simple act of branding someone an extremist does not prove they are extremist.

The Kosters seem to think that acknowledging this reality is tantamount to surrender. Consider these passages from Georgia10’s rebuttal:

"So how do we become the majority party? By courting white, female, Christian voters, of course! At least that's his suggestion. As for pointing out to America that Republicans are radical and don't hold true American values? Shhhh...shut up! Play nice with the other party. Don't be 'angry', don't label them anti-choice or anti-civil rights. To Gerstein, that's a 'tired dogma.'

. . . 'Mainstream' isn't represented the millions of Democrats online, the students, the teachers, the blue-collar workers. 'Mainstream' isn't reflected in box office sales, or TV shows, or popular culture. No, 'mainstream' becomes a term of capitulation, an excuse to sacrifice our true liberal identity at the feet of pundits and political consultants.

I am hardly advocating waving the white flag. I am simply saying the angry activist base has to do better than throwing empty, trivialized labels at people – especially labels that implicitly disrespect the people we need to convert to our side to regain control of our government.

The fact is, our party is in a multiple-election minority phase, and we just can’t afford to be intellectually lazy (let alone arrogantly self-righteous). So we either have to do a better job of showing the people who are not with us right why a judge like Alito would be harmful to their interests, or in particular, why overturning Roe v. Wade would be harmful to their interests. Or we need to shut up about those things for now and make our case on other issues that matter to voters we need to win over.

As I have said before, in the end this is not about left vs. center – it’s about new vs. old. Are we as Democrats going to cling desperately to the disappearing vestiges of the New Deal coalition and continue to hold our platform hostage to the veto authority of narrow-minded special interest groups? Or are going to vigorously compete on the battlefield of ideas and develop new narratives and new solutions to meet the country where it is 2006?

I am all for raising the minimum wage and protecting people on Medicaid and beating up on Halliburton. But that is just not a responsive governing agenda – or viable electoral strategy -- for a country threatened by global terror and anxious about the globalized economy (among other things).

I want to know, as do many other Americans, what are we going to do to dismantle Al Qaeda and stop the spread of deadly Islamic fanatacism? To clean up the train wreck that is urban public education today? To expand access to broadband technology and promote the growth of the innovation economy? To help our workers cope with the growing pains of globalization? To help parents better balance the demands of work and family? To lower the cost of health insurance for everyone? To reduce the number of unwanted pregnancies? To restore public faith in our broken political system?

I would love to have a healthy argument with my friends at Kos about the best way to answer these critical questions and seize the openings the Republicans have repeatedly given us by ignoring these problems or offering faux solutions. But sadly, our party is not even asking them. We are too busy figuring out ways to impeach George W. Bush, convincing frightened Americans we care more about the rights of terrorists than we do about keeping them safe, and refighting the battles of the Viet Nam era.

So here’s my challenge to the angry activist base: stop hurling invective, and start being inventive. Help come up with the next generation of ideas that will help realize the promise of our highest ideals (equal opportunity first and foremost) –- and that will be embraced by the doubters we need to convert to our cause. Then we can have a real debate.

welcome to dkos. They will not stop at anything to attack the Senator--who I still support.
The Republicans have an angry activist problem also. Remember Pat Buchanan at the GOP convention? Or Terry Schiavo? Or pretty much any day with Rush and Fox?

They've managed to turn their anger problem into profitable media outlets and an electoral smackdown of the Democrats. With a little bit of discipline, the Dems could strike back in a similar way.

I'm as pissed off as anybody about Bush. I hope for the sake of my country that he isn't really the mainstream. But insulting Dan, as fun as it may be, can't be the answer to the problem. (OK, it's part of the answer, but we need more.) Insulting people who voted for Bush doesn't seem that rational either, since these are the people whose minds you've got to change.

I agree with Dan that we've got to focus on the things that will win. Not the things that we wish would win, but the things that measurably, demonstrably can put together an electoral majority. The first step is recognizing that the current tack isn't working. Step two is finding something that will work.

As far as I can tell, that's pretty much what Dan said, and the response was an angry mob with torches trying to run him out of town. Hey mob! Leave Dan alone! You're right to be angry, but let's go chase the bad guys. Let's actually win next time.

the blog looks great. I'll be sure to check in when I can.

Andrew K.
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