The Democrats’ new adversary

An election year that was looking hopeless for Democrats has taken a slight turn for the better. The generic ballot measure has tightened up. Since Labor Day, President Barack Obama has marked off a new, more aggressive political stance that is perking up the ears of demoralized Democrats. The interest level of younger voters, a key Democratic constituency, is picking up. Statewide races in California are looking better for Jerry Brown and Barbara Boxer.
October 13, 2010

An election year that was looking hopeless for Democrats has taken a slight turn for the better. The generic ballot measure has tightened up. Since Labor Day, President Barack Obama has marked off a new, more aggressive political stance that is perking up the ears of demoralized Democrats. The interest level of younger voters, a key Democratic constituency, is picking up. Statewide races in California are looking better for Jerry Brown and Barbara Boxer.

In short, the Democrats are now getting engaged. This is nothing new. Democrats usually come late to the dance. With a base of working-class voters, who are less politically engaged, Democrats have to make a lot of noise to wake up their base. Presidential elections are better for Democrats because the noise is so loud that it reaches down into the poorest Democratic precincts. It’s especially hard to rouse the troops in a midterm election when the White House is already in Democratic hands.

Take a state like Pennsylvania. Right-wing Republican Senate nominee Pat Toomey has been leading Democrat Joe Sestak in the Senate race for months. But Pennsylvania is one of those blue-collar states where Democrats surge late. Republicans thought that state would be the key for John McCain to beat Obama, but in the end Obama crushed him there. Sestak will likely benefit from a late party revival to at least give him a chance.

Now, the year still looks terrible for Democrats. Midterm elections after a big presidential and congressional win on the scale of 2008 are usually bad for the incumbent party. One or both houses of Congress are at risk of party turnover. The unemployment rate is stubbornly high, and the Democrats will surely pay a very high price at the polls.  But Democrats can at least hope to stanch some of the bleeding before November by getting into the fight.

As Democrats rise off the mat, they face a new and different Republican Party. And this is the new political reality that Democrats will face not just in 2010, but in the 2012 election — and beyond. It is dangerous to be distracted by Christine O’Donnell’s ventures into witchcraft, by Meg Whitman’s housekeeper and other entertainments of 2010, and in the process, miss the significance of these changes.

The new Republicans are a combination of corporate money and a cable news television network, backed by five members of the U.S. Supreme Court. No one in this group is an elected official. The traditional Republican Party of elected officials and party committees is now along for the ride. This has important implications for how Democrats can deal with their political rivals. The new reality also has alarming implications for Republicans, as their party is no longer run by candidates and elected officials who must face voters and win their approval in a general election. What works in a terrible year for the out party may be a poor formula when the political climate changes.

A good way to understand this change is to notice that Michael Steele, the hilarious chairman of the Republican National Committee (RNC), recently took off on a 48-state bus tour to meet with state party officials. At the same time, the RNC announced that it would have to cut back on get-out-the-vote funds to state parties. While Republicans complain about Steele, his embarrassing tenure has actually helped lay the groundwork for the inevitable irrelevance of the RNC. In the Citizens United case (2009), which granted unlimited scope for secret corporate contributions to support or defeat political candidates, the rump majority on the Supreme Court made the RNC irrelevant.  Who wants to give small dollars to the RNC and have it publicly reported when there is a much better option available? The weaknesses of Steele’s tenure have actually helped Republicans move to the corporate model more quickly than had they had to elbow the RNC aside.

Karl Rove, the impresario of the Bush political machine, quickly recognized the potential of the new terrain and established a national organization to funnel money from a handful of billionaires to attacks against Democrats. The Koch brothers, owners of the third-largest fortune in America and among the nation’s worst polluters, are moving all over the nation — fighting to pass Proposition 23 in California to overturn the state’s new global warming law and who knows what else.

The Supreme Court has their back. As Erwin Chemerinsky, dean of the law school at University of California, Irvine, shows in his new book, “The Conservative Assault on the Constitution” (Simon & Schuster, 2010), the court today is far more solicitous of the free-speech rights of corporations than of ordinary citizens.

Corporate money will flow to the most vulnerable spots in the system. Organizers will look for small states where well-funded, late-hit pieces can be powerful. They are having trouble in big, brawling California, where even Meg Whitman’s money can’t ensure her election. But even here, they are seeking soft spots, such as Propositions 23 and 26, which would require a two-thirds supermajority vote to pass new taxes and fees, most of which will be placed on polluting corporations.

It will take a lot of work to keep up with the machinations of the new money machine, but requiring transparency, even if enforced against their will, is the best way to stop them.  The U.S. Chamber of Commerce is nervously fighting a defensive battle over reports that it is channeling foreign money into American elections.

Then we have Fox News. Fox News bears the same relationship to a news operation as actors playing doctors in commercials bear to actual doctors. They are basically the television platform for the Republican Party. In a startling development, the parent corporation of Fox, Newscorp, has made million-dollar contributions to the Republican Governors Association, as well as to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which itself can help mobilize and apply secret corporate and possibly even foreign contributions. Most of the potential 2012 Republican presidential contenders are now under contract to Fox News and are forbidden by contract to speak to other media outlets. In effect, the 2012 primary is being conducted by Fox News.

Fox News also acts as a mechanism to inject useful madness into the political bloodstream. Glenn Beck is the most bizarre and popular of the bunch, but most of the Fox spectrum is a nonstop assault on the Obama administration. It would be helpful to stop treating Fox as a news operation and simply refer to it as the Republican Party headquarters of the air.

Democrats draw comfort from the declining numbers of registered Republicans. In California, Republicans have lost “market share” badly since 2006. The eight-point gap between the parties in 2006 is now a 14-point divide.  Four years ago, 34 percent of California voters registered as Republicans, compared to 30 percent today. Democrats are also pleased that right-wing Tea Partyers are hijacking the party and nominating wackos for office. But Democrats should recognize that the Republicans no longer belong to a party run by elected leaders and candidates. They are all interchangeable parts of the new machine. And the nuttiness of the Tea Partyers, much of whose organizing has been financed by corporate forces, is all at the hand of corporate power. Even they are not nearly as unpredictable as they might appear. And as Frank Rich pointed out recently in The New York Times, they are also a useful diversion from the corporate power play now under way.  And the Tea Party extremism masks the degree to which all moderate positions are now risky for formerly mainstream Republican officeholders.

In short, today’s Republican Party is smaller, meaner, better-funded, more covert, than before. A small, militant party with little control by people who actually run for office and govern is a catastrophe for the country, but it works in the short term as a model to enhance corporate power and hold back Democrats.

Democrats need to realize that they are facing an adversary who is not a mirror image of themselves. The Democrats, for better or worse, remain a party dominated by elected officials and candidates. That is why it is so troublesome to assemble Democratic congressional majorities into a governing party. Sure, labor unions are powerful in the party, but they don’t have the kind of sway that corporations now have over the Republicans. Democrats keep thinking they can peel off moderate Republican officeholders like Sen. Lindsay Graham. Graham was one of Rahm Emanuel’s obsessions: “We have to keep Graham on board.” But Graham could not stay on board and survive a Republican primary in South Carolina in 2014. When President Obama did a favor for John McCain by appointing Arizona Gov. Janet Napolitano to the Cabinet, thereby removing one of his strongest opponents for re-election, McCain responded (rationally) by open opposition to the president in order to win his Republican primary.

As the new Republican Party spreads it wings in 2010, there may not be enough time for Democrats to really focus on their new opposition. Democrats need to fight effectively and with heart to cut their losses in 2010. But, realistically, much of the work will have to be done after the election, in preparation for 2012. 

Any significant Republican gains will lead the insiders in Washington to declare that the Democrats must accommodate to the new Republicans.  But that is not the way to go. Instead, Democrats need to sharpen the public explanation of what the Republicans are doing. That means identifying and challenging the unholy trinity of secret corporate funding, Fox News and the Supreme Court’s gang of five.

No matter how many offices Republicans win in November, they are still playing a weak hand when it comes to public support, an electoral foundation and the nation’s changing demographics. They are brilliant at making noise, but they cannot easily mask the unpopularity of their governing solutions. A confident Democratic party, even if in defeat, will realize that. A Democratic party that treats setbacks in 2010 as a reason to panic will only ensure more heartache and pain.

While focusing on holding their morale in the ranks, Democrats still must keep the doors open to moderate Republican officeholders and moderate Republican voters without being naïve about the pressures on them to hold the new party line.  While many Republican voters, according to recent polls, rely exclusively on Fox News for information, there are still many who do not, and they are not a lost cause.  Not all Republicans understand what is happening to their party, but some who do are extremely unhappy about it.

It pays to understand the immense pressure on Republican moderates to hew to the new party line. As a party of officeholders and politicians, Democrats are still used to thinking that their friends across the aisle are ready to deal. But it’s not so easy for them to independently deal as it might appear. “Gangs of five,” or six, or seven are based more on hope than on reality.

While Washington conventional wisdom accords profound power to these “centrists,” they are actually terrified and hanging on by their fingernails. Olympia Snowe of Maine can read the polls that show her losing the next Republican primary to an unnamed conservative. Charlie Crist has already gone independent in Florida. Democrats need to give them a reason to reach across the aisle, in their own self interest, that is as effective as the counter pressures they face.

Democrats need to convey confidence about the long run, no matter what happens in November, and that there will be considerable political value in supporting a better health care system and regulation of corporate excesses. No matter how bad things look now, this is the path that will lead to success.

Raphael J. Sonenshein is chair of the Division of Politics, Administration, and Justice at California State University, Fullerton.

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