The Facebook fights are raging these days.
Democratic loyalists fall into two strategy camps: progressive and old school. The progressive camp believes in the power of unabashedly progressive candidates, fueled largely by small-dollar donations and shoe leather, to inspire thousands of new voters from the ranks of those demographics whose participation rates have lagged those of older white Americans. The old school camp, fueled largely by major donors and establishment political operations, believes in the Bill Clinton recipe of winning the votes of supposedly centrist white voters, including suburban pro-choice women and the “socially liberal but fiscally conservative” crowd.
There’s nothing inherently wrong with either strategy. Each has its own logic. Each has had its victories.
The dilemma is that the two strategies are nearly always competitive and almost never synergistic. Hillary Clinton whiffed badly with millennials, for example. But how would Bernie Sanders have done with the country club crowd?
Is it possible for the two strategies to work together?
Yes, but only for a candidate with rare talent in just the right circumstances and, even then, not in a sustainable way. Barack Obama pulled it off in 2008, but I can’t think of a second example. Was the Obama formula sustainable, such that other candidates, including congressional candidates, could use it? I’d say no, for three reasons. First, Obama had exceptionally rare talent. Second, his timing was perfect, coming off a disastrous Bush presidency with the economy cratering and Sarah Palin on the opposing ticket. Third, his tone and his words sounded more progressive than they really were. As a candidate, he was beyond inspiring. But as president, he was less so. Whereas Roosevelt welcomed the hatred of the economic royalists, Obama played nice with them, while drone bombing weddings in Pakistan. He also did a lot of good things, and still is plenty inspiring, but not even close to his 2008 level.
What drives a Democratic loyalist to one camp or the other? Fear? Inertia? Idealism? Pragmatism? Ideology? Probably all of the above. The old school crowd undoubtedly believes its approach is more pragmatic, but I’m guessing they’re ideologically more centrist than the average Sanders supporter. And if you’ve worked a bunch of elections and know the cost of a traditional campaign, supporting a candidate who won’t appeal to traditional funding sources is kind of scary.
Should one of the two strategy camps prevail? I hope so, eventually. I’m a believer in the progressive approach. But I favor it not because I dismiss the old school approach entirely. Rather, I think the old school approach is beneficial only in the short-term. Yes, in any given election, it can work. But there’s a trade-off. If a progressive candidate runs and inspires a bunch of new voters, but loses, there’s still a lasting benefit. I was inspired at age 16 by George McGovern, and here I am, as an aging boomer, still progressive in my views. If an old school candidate runs and wins the votes of just enough “swing-voters” to eke out a win, far fewer new voters are inspired and the immediate benefit, an additional House or Senate seat, likely will be lost in the future.
Further, when old school candidates win, they tend to be timid in the policies they pursue when in office. They’re always looking to the next election, with an eye towards employing the same strategy that worked for them previously. Which means they will curry favor with the socially liberal, fiscally conservative crowd. And that socially liberal, fiscally conservative crowd tends to favor more muscular foreign policy.
Over time, the old school approach weakens. It worked wonderfully in 1992 and 2006, but it’s struggled since 2008. Those swing voters are getting harder and harder to find. Which means that even in the short-term the progressive approach may succeed where the old school approach fails.
Does that resolve the dilemma?
Not entirely. In the upcoming mid-terms, there may be races where old-school candidates can thread the needle. And with Trump in the Whitehouse, eking out a few victories is beyond important.
But the returns from a tired, fear-based strategy are rapidly diminishing, and the time for Democratic loyalists to confront that reality is upon us.