« Commonwealth Day | Main | what the next president will face »

August 11, 2004

reflecting on the Democratic Convention

The more I think about the recent Convention, the more it seems like an emormous missed opportunity. As I'm sure you have noticed, the country faces some pretty difficult challenges: a foreign war, a terrorist threat, a $7 trillion national debt, an annual deficit of almost half a trillion dollars, an aging population, 44 million people without health insurance, global warming, two million people behind bars (with all the crime and wasted lives that that figure represents), and a continuous loss of manufacturing jobs because developing countries have finally made up enough technological ground that their workers can compete directly with ours. I followed the Convention closely through newspapers and blogs, and I didn't learn anything new about how the Democrats would address any of these issues.

Right now, some liberal bloggers seem eager to show that Kerry gained support as a result of the convention. Conservative bloggers stress the stability of the poll numbers, which is pretty evident if you look at the Rasmussen daily tracking poll. I predict that the discourse will soon change. Unless the Republicans mess up their Convention, they will probably gain a few points of "bounce" in late August, thereby putting Bush/Cheney slightly in the lead for the fall. At that point, all the progressive pundits, bloggers, and grassroots activists will start complaining about the Democratic ticket and its failure to put forward convincing ideas about at least two or three major issues (for instance, Iraq, the deficit, and jobs). I believe it would be better to start that discussion sooner rather than later, and to do it in a constructive way. It's not simply Kerry-Edwards' fault that the Democrats are short of convincing proposals; the whole left-of-center hasn't been adequately focused on policy. They've depended to much on the manifold weaknesses of the Bush Administration.

August 11, 2004 12:42 PM | category: revitalizing the left | Comments


There are a number of problems with your hypothesis.

Kerry-Edwards have *plenty* of convincing policy proposals. Their problems have been an inability to communicate that policy.

First, they lack a government avenue for promoting their policies. They don't have the House, the Senate, or the White House. Combined with a general fundraising disadvantage [only recently matched], this makes it rather difficult to communicate.

Second, when they do communicate, they're not particularly good at it. As much as I think Kerry knows what he's talking about, I wince when he does. I tend to think Clark, Edwards, or even Dean would have been better made-for-TV speakers. My hope is that Kerry can recover for the debates, which are the only things that matter; I've seen footage of him when he has a pre-fab message on occasion, and he's pretty good.

Third, the National Press doesn't like policy, more so in an election year. In one of the WaPo chats with Howard Kurtz, someone asked why newspapers are not factchecking TV ads more and trashing the Bush ads for their dishonesty. He claimed that newspaper editors do not want to take the blame; they don't want to see a headline "New York Times calls Bush ad 'misleading'". He didn't say why, but Occam's razor suggests the answer is 'to avoid retribution by the White House'. Even CBS's "what does it mean to you" segments seem to go out of their way to avoid making any judgements either way.

Fourth, Matt Yglesias, Brad DeLong, and John O'Neill are right. There is no policy discussion at the White House, and by extension in Congress. It is difficult to have a reasoned debate when your private-sector health care propsals are attacked as a "government takeover", your education proposals show that you are "in bed with the teachers union", your med mal reform proposals show you're "favoring greedy trial lawyers", and so on. You can only parry for so long. The Medicare bill is probably the most obvious demonstration of the Bush-Frist-DeLay apathy towards policy discussion.

Fifth, the nomination speech isn't really a policy speech. Pre-convention polls show most voters knew few things about Kerry: he's from Massachusetts, he fought in Vietnam, and he will raise your taxes. In 1992, pre-convention polls showed most of the public did not know Clinton had a daughter. Like it or not, voters do apparently care a bit about candidate's biography. That said, he got in much more policy talk than you'd expect. Compare Kerry's specch to Clinton's 1992 speech; Kerry's was by comparison chock full of policy details:



Post-convention polls show an increase for Kerry v Bush on all issues.

Sixth, the structure of the evening news has changed. The national news now does 12-13 stories in 22 minutes of air time. Some of those are 20 second bits, but still, that's insane. The ratio of journalist/commentator speech to public figure speech has also increased, from I think 1:1 to 4:1 over the last 35 years. Your average episode of E.R. doesn't have 13 storylines. The Daily Show is in part so good because they only do three or four. Given the trend towards 1-hour TV shows, I really wonder if one of the networks might succeed by making a gutsy format change to, say, only doing news two nights a week, covering fewer stories, and having it last one hour. Essentially, running "60 minutes" twice a week. In any event, the current national news structure makes messaging on issues very difficult, especially when coupled with an unwillingness for journalists to make evaluations on the issues.

Seventh, the closer you follow the convention, the *less* you are going to learn, since you're really only going to hear the same five or six points again, and again, and again, repeated for the local audience of whatever mayor, congressman, senator, or governor happened to be speaking.

That said, you're right that issues aren't terribly prominent. I've seen several articles on focus groups of undecided voters that say they are very upset that they can't find out how candidates stand on the issues. But I don't think that's because there's been some insufficient left-wing focus on issues.

August 11, 2004 8:40 PM | Comments (3) | posted by niq

I should append one thing: the waning influence of the DLC probably does have an impact here. Regardless of one's politics, the DLC does have a number of level-headed policy wonks, and they come up with some very innovative ideas that are quite progressive. I hope the DLC policy folks do not disappear off the map.

August 11, 2004 8:43 PM | Comments (3) | posted by niq

And I meant former SecTreas Paul O'Neill, not John O'Neill, who is I think one of these Swift Boat Veterans for Scumbaggery.

August 12, 2004 11:38 AM | Comments (3) | posted by niq

Site Meter