Tuesday, June 28, 2005

Being Hank Hill

Being out of executive power is a universal cause for soul-searching among political parties. Normally, in such situations, there really are three possible courses of action: 1) change the way the you market yourself, 2) change some of the people and ideal systems running the party, or 3) don’t change much of anything.

Barring some freak situation which caused the loss, a smart party does some of the first two and tries to avoid the third. Despite the fact that evidence has shown that the 2000 presidential election shouldn’t have been as close as it ended up being owing to the last-minute disclosure of George Bush’s DUI record, one cannot begrudge Democrats who believed that Al Gore’s loss was not portentous, and thus not necessitating drastic changes.

I bring all this up because after John Kerry’s defeat (which really began the moment “reported for duty” in the summer of 2004), it appears as though the Democratic Party elites seem to believe the national party is only in need a marketing makeover when more sweeping changes are what’s needed. This sentiment has been voiced in a variety of terms ranging from Howard Dean’s “God, guns, and gays” remark to the term NASCAR dads.

The latest rephrasing of all this comes in a New York Times Magazine piece which posits the idea of “King of the Hill” Democrats, after the long-running Fox network cartoon hit about Hank Hill, a man living in a medium-sized Texas city and how North Carolina’s Democratic governor, Mike Easley, is trying to take political cues from it.

The idea is a great one—in theory. “King of the Hill” is probably the smartest and most original television show in decades and a good deal more realistic than the repackaged contest shows currently being marketed as “reality television.” And Democratic politicians do stand to learn to write television ads that don’t automatically assume the viewer cares about the Iraq war and thinks Bush is a liar.

Still, though, the author, former Newsweek political reporter Matt Bai, fails to grasp that not only do Democrats need to learn to talk more like Hank Hill and his neighbors, they need to be more like him, or at least not be so inhospitable to those within the party who are: respectful of the private sector but not afraid of governmental regulation, distrustful of political correctness, socially traditional, tougher in foreign policy. In other words, true American centrists. Democratic politicians of this caliber, think Scoop Jackson or Bill Casey, existed for the longest time up until the late 1970s when most of them seemingly went the way of Jimmy Carter (who, incidentally, was lampooned in a 2001 episode of “Hill”)

Things are much more different now. The idea of a Democratic politician even being hypothetically considered manly is really somewhat of a joke. Part of that is due to Republicans’ success in portraying Democrats as wimps, but successful marketing must always be based on some truth. The fact of the matter is, none of the recent Democratic presidential candidates have been rough-and-ready guys, nor have they possessed the ability to fake it.

All of this matters because the much-discussed “gender gap” is actually more of a Democratic “man problem” than it is a Republican “woman problem.” And no Democrat of stature seems willing or able to do anything about it. Bill Clinton often talked like a regular guy but was, in the end more Lothario than Hank Hill. What wisdom Clinton did possess on this account, however, has seemed not to have filtered downward.

The fact that he founded the Democratic Leadership Council, a group which seeks to move the party more toward the center, shows Clinton is aware of the problem—called the party’s “wuss factor” by one Democratic strategist—but the fact that he has not returned there seems to suggest his motivations were more about boosting his own fortunes rather than putting his stamp on the party as Ronald Reagan did with the Republicans.

This is why I can’t, for the life of me, figure out why Senate Democrats, the de facto face of the party, and their press allies are so eagerly pushing to talk about real and imagined abuses of prisoners. This is perhaps the stupidest long-term strategy the Democrats could take—while it does have the immediate effect of driving down President Bush’s approval ratings, it does nothing for their own, especially since most Americans seem to believe foreign terrorist suspects are being treated fairly.

Worse than that from a Democratic perspective, however, is that all this incessant talk about foreign policy is just the sort of thing that makes people hate Democrats. It is axiomatic: when Democrats talk about foreign policy they drive their numbers down. When Republicans talk about domestic spending, they do the same to themselves. Why? Because, generally speaking, Americans trust Democrats more with protecting their social safety net and Republicans with protecting the country from external threats.

Up until recently, the Bush White House has, consciously or unconsciously, virtually lived by this principle. Except for tax cuts, the president has largely gone along with the Democrats, at least on all the high-publicity domestic issues such as prescription drug subsidies, education spending, or campaign finance regulation while pursuing a foreign policy more to his own personal liking.

No doubt world events since September 11, 2001 have played a part in the administration’s policy direction, but recall, however, than much of Bush’s concessions were before the terrorist attacks. And it has been effective as a strategy. Only until the president decided to begin pushing for partial privatization of Social Security did his approval ratings head southward. He ventured onto Democratic turf and has begun to pay the price for it.

Democrats, meanwhile, have been making war on Republican turf for over two years now and have absolutely nothing to show for it. Besides riling up a bunch of their base, they have achieved nothing. The current strategy has lost a presidential election, failed to gain seats during off-year congressional races, and lowered the public’s opinion of the party leaders. And all people like Howard Dean et al. have to offer is repacking more of the same stupidity? Karl Rove couldn’t ask for a better opposition leadership.

Suffice it to say: until Democrats start at least reserving judgment on Iraq and the war on terrorism, put a gag on Michael Moore, and make room for people who aren’t social leftists within the party elites, they don’t have a chance of being a national force. Can or will anyone be able to pull the switch and set Democrats back on the track toward electoral solvency?

Others' thoughts on the Bai piece: