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12/05/2004

"Dean" Broder

That David Broder passes as the "dean" of the Washington press corps is bad enough without contributions like today's column, "A National Pledge of Party Allegiance." After a promising start, he manages to repeat some of the worst sins of the press corp in his exactly 750 word column.

First, lets look at the promising part: "Democrats did a first-class job of mobilizing their supporters and bringing them to the polls. But Republicans did an even better job, and that is essentially why they won." This seemingly banal observation is actually extremely important. Democratic values won more support in 2004 than ever before in history. People voted, and Democratic political organizations were effective: we met, or exceeded our turnout goals. The GOP, unfortunately, also met their goals, and theirs were higher. The story of the 2004 election is how Republicans managed to turnout so many new people - who did GOP organizers talk to, who actually were the operatives of the GOP field operation, what was their GOTV message, what were the channels of communication? Those questions are all fundamentally important, but with the important exception of Matt Bai at the New York Times, few have even raised them. I was on the ground in Louisville KY, and I saw no Republican volunteers going door to door. I heard of no non-robotic phone calls, saw no GOP literature in the doors of any voters, much less the undecideds wee were targetting. I have friends throughout the Democratic field apparatus, and they have uniformly related the same stories: the GOP field operation was completely invisible to us.

We have inklings of how the GOP did it, based again in large part on Bai's NYT magazine piece from last summer. They employed peer-to-peer communications to an unprecedented degree, and otherwise used loyalists that held positions of trust in their community: preachers and pastors, employers, and government officials themselves. Yet we are astonishingly ignorant as to specifics - we don't have actual examples of community leaders talking to the eventual GOP voters, we don't know how they were communicating (email? direct mail? phone calls? face to face?), we don't know where they were communicating (pulpits? church steps? lunch rooms? internet sites?), and most of all, we don't know what was being said. No one can get to the bottom of the spectacularly successful GOP field program without being able to answer some of those questions.

But back to Broder. He gets the question right, but immediately draws a very contestable conclusion: "[The Nov. 2 voting] signals a protracted period of two-party competition and means that Republicans and Democrats alike will face intense pressure to keep their coalitions intact." This could be true, but it probably isn't. We don't even have a real idea of who belongs in which coalition - were the bulk of new GOP voters actually PIPA, voters who received (or believed) only the GOP message, and actually thought the Party stood for values opposite those it actually holds? These new voters obviously weren't talking to Democratic organizers or the mainstream press, so it is nigh impossible to glean, for now, what they thought they were supporting. Democrats operated entirely above ground, through at times too public organizing efforts: everyone who voted Democratic knew the values they were supporting. Without understanding the mechanics of the Nov. 2 election, it is foolish to pontificate on its meaning.

Here's where Broder goes obviously wrong:

Democrats, who came out on the short end of the 51-48 percent presidential popular vote and lost seats for the second election in a row in both the House and Senate, cannot afford any more defections. Losses among women, minorities and what remains of their Southern base would make the task of a comeback all the more difficult.
The numbers do not support the idea that there were many defections from the Democratic Party (Southern whites may be the exception). More women, more Blacks, more Hispanics, more labor members, voted for Democratic values than ever before - unfortunately, even more people turned out, and those new turnouts voted GOP. The Democrats lost share among these groups, but they didn't lose numbers, facts which do not support a narrative of defection.

The remainder of Broder's malum opus perfectly exemplifies the mainstream media practice of attributing responsibility for political maladies to disembodied sociological forces, rather than to what all of their own evidence points them to: bad people. We are in a period of intense partisanship, but it is because Republican leaders are vicious partisans, willing, even eager, to sacrifice the national interest for short term political gains. That Democrats take umbrage at such devious tactics should surprise no one.

Broder notes that President Bush "began taking steps to split that Democratic coalition" by appointing or elevating members of identity groups traditionally associated with Democratic values - Rice, Gonzales, Gutierrez, and Spellings. This is pageantry, of the type the GOP has falsely accused Democrats of for decades (usually labelled "pandering"). Bush learned well from his father's Clarence Thomas experience, that friendly faces make poisonous politics more palatable. Bush is appointing people to the most powerful positions in our government not because of their abilities, but regardless of them (Rice and Gonzales certainly aren't fit for promotion, based on their track records and skewed moral compasses).

Broder then argues that the GOP is equally concerned with coalition maintenance, using as proof the strength of Bush's support among Republicans and the new "Hastert Rule," which doomed intelligence reform because some Virginia Republicans, working with Don Rumsfeld, opposed it. Broder says "To [let Democratic lawmakers pass the president's intelligence reorganization plan over the opposition of many Republicans] would alienate [Hastert] from his flock and perhaps put some of them at risk with their voters." This is simply not true. Bush stole Lieberman's Homeland Security Department proposal, yet nonetheless used it to bludgeon Max Cleland and other Democrats. His education and medicare plans passed with bipartisan support, yet were clubs in 2004. The GOP doesn't care about the reality of support or opposition, they are aware of the supremacy of their megaphone and confident in their ability to turn everything, even memorials, into a weapon. Moreover, Broder says nothing about the merits of the GOP's scuttling of intelligence reform. According to Broder, they have hindered the establishment of a modern national security system for partisan gain, yet he spends no mental energy on outrage.

Broder ends with the typical declensionist line, noting that we weren't always so partisan. I would like to add a few examples to his litany. First, from 1992-2000, the Democratic president passed NAFTA and "changed welfare as we know it," among other things, despite serious opposition within his own party, and regardless of the fact the Republicans would continue to villify Democrats on the same issues. In 2001, Democrats stood side by side with President Bush, supported his responses to 9/11, and gave him the benefit of the doubt. That capital was again used to beat Democrats senseless.

There has been a rise in partisanship. But that rise isn't due to sociological changes. President Bush, Karl Rove, Denny Hastert, Tom Delay, Mitch McConnell, Grover Norquist, Jerry Falwell, James Dobson, and others generate it and benefit from it. Cui bono. Broder either can't, or doesn't see this. Maybe he's too buddy-buddy with the GOP insiders, maybe he's quelled by fear of conservative lashings, or maybe he's just past his prime and lost whatever clarity of vision he once had. But he's wrong, and his "fair and balanced" take on the news enables continued GOP machinations and hurts the polity.

 

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