Don't Blame The Voters For Being Stupid
In reading the post by Pessimist of Neal Starkman’s theory that Bush is successful due to the “S” factor, namely because voters are stupid, and the resulting comments, many of you made very valid points about voters, Bush himself, and the problems and traps that Democrats fall into when they bemoan their lack of electoral success by blaming the voters. I wanted to weigh in on a variety of these topics myself.
Bush and the GOP
First, let me put out there something I have said before. Bush is not stupid, he is just intellectually lazy. There is a difference. Bush is also a very rigid individual, uninterested in alternate viewpoints or in being swayed by those who disagree with him. To the fawning members of the media, this is interpreted as “moral clarity,” when in fact there is very little moral about the man, nor is stubbornness a virtue. He is very clever and ruthless, holds grudges, and gets even. As Teddy Kennedy, Tom Daschle, and any other Democrat who thought they could do business with him would now tell you, Bush cannot be trusted and is not interested in working together on bipartisan efforts. He has no problem sleeping at night while he and his surrogates smear and question the patriotism and ethics of men who are his superior in every way, like Max Cleland and John McCain. He is not a good father, since his daughters made it their mission to use their time in Austin and in Washington to order people around in the latest pursuit of underage drinks.
He has benefited his entire political career by intentionally lowering the expectations surrounding him with the help of a duped media, so that when he exceeds these expectations he always gets good and glowing press. He also hates details, and doesn’t pay attention to what is important, like national security on August 6, 2001, but would rather pay attention to things that already fit his view of the world, like planning for toppling Saddam and focusing on missile defense from the first days he was in office. He has gotten very far by being just smart enough to surround himself with ruthless “ends justifies the means” types like James Baker and Karl Rove. He also has never demonstrated the slightest ability to manage money or operate anything successfully, but is good at losing other folks’ money and taking advantage of whatever benefits accrue to being a Bush, a family that feels they are entitled to whatever they get. And yes, he has never faced a bare-knuckles campaign opponent who is willing to call him a liar to his face and prove it.
Matt is dead-on correct that the GOP has the advantage of not trafficking in real-life solutions to problems; they would rather boil everything down into red meat, quickly understood remedies that aren’t aimed at solving problems but winning elections. But that only puts the burden on Democrats to speak plainly, speak concisely, and speak the truth to voters.
I disagree with Starkman in tarring voters as being stupid. In fact, the problem is not that voters are stupid, but rather our whole society in this country is underinformed. Voters are only a window into a country where our politicians and our media seem to care little about what they don’t know. Do any of you really think that Tom DeLay or your average reporter knows more about what is really going on in the world than those of us here who frequent the internet for news or commentary? Why was it that I knew more about what claims Bush made about Iraq’s WMDs than the senior foreign policy writer for the Washington Post? Was I, and are we smarter than politicians and the media? Probably not, but it is very possible we are better informed than they are. As a result, you end up with total GOP control and George W. Bush as president, with a compliant media. Do the voters share some of the blame for being uneducated and picking mediocre and craven politicians and accepting a media of sheep? Yup. Does that make them stupid? Nope.
Voters have shown that when given the facts by the media and a choice by the Democrats, they are quite willing to move away from the GOP and George W. Bush. But therein lies the rub. For the voters to make such a movement our way, we as Democrats have to accept responsibility when we don’t provide voters with a clear and better choice. We as Democrats also must shoulder more of a responsibility of keeping the pressure on the media by aggressively pointing out their laziness, lack of accountability and truthfulness, and lack of consistency, guts, and evenhandedness. But we should not blame the voters for being stupid if they don’t vote our way. In doing so, we make it all too easy for the GOP to convince voters that we are smug, looking-down-our-nose elitists, when in fact it is more likely than not the GOP that fits this description. Democrats have to accept the fact that a large number of voters want to be left alone. Sure, they want their government services and to pay as little as possible for them. A large number of voters would rather feel comfortable with someone who is likeable and comfortable in their own skin than to vote for someone who wanted us to know how good and prepared they were to assume power. A lot of it comes down to which candidate you would prefer to have over for dinner.
The Democrats and 2004
We are responsible for whether or not the voters will have a choice to make this year. When running against an incumbent party and president, you have to work a little harder to convince voters to make a change. The whole campaign is like an extended interview process where you must convince swing voters why they should dump the incumbent for you. But again, to get to this point you do have to present voters with a choice and a better alternative than the incumbent does. If you cannot connect with voters and show them why you are better able to run the country and provide a better future for voters and their children, then simply telling them that the incumbent screwed up and you should be mad about that won’t cut it.
Howard Dean is a creature of the 2002 midterm election debacle for the Democrats. Had the Democrats offered a true and vocal choice to voters against Bush and the GOP in 2002, including fighting against the war resolution even if they eventually lost, the dynamics right now might be different. But Dean and Joe Trippi were smart enough to see the lay of the land in the Democratic Party in late 2002. They sensed the anger over a party that under Tom Daschle, Dick Gephardt, and Terry McAuliffe had disappeared into irrelevance and “me too” politics, and fashioned just what was needed to get the nomination from the base: a politics of angry triangulation over the Washington elites. Although they have succeeded up to now in coming from nowhere to grab the base and new voters into a frontrunning position, they have yet to make a strong argument to swing voters in a post-9/11 world to dump the incumbent.
But in looking at the whole field of Democratic candidates this cycle and in being fair to Dean, the truth is that none of this field has done anything yet to give voters a sense that any of them offer a real compelling reason to dump the incumbent. Whereas Howard Dean has run his campaign to get the base and nomination first and worry about making the sale to swing voters to dump the incumbent later, his more senior Washington counterparts seemed to have focused on their resumes as selling points towards their elitist inevitability. Whether it be John Kerry, Joe Lieberman, or Dick Gephardt, each acted as if they were running their campaigns from within the Beltway cocoons totally detached from what aggravated the base about the 2002 midterms and the spineless, message-less party. Enter into this mix a Wesley Clark, who is in this race solely because of his elitist resume in a post 9/11 world and because Howard Dean grabbed the frontrunner position, and what you have are a group of candidates that all have flaws and weaknesses in convincing voters to toss out the incumbent. What is truly needed to topple Bush is an articulate, warm, easy-going but ruthless politician who under the surface is smarter and a better politician than most others. It would also help if he was from the South. But we don’t have anyone in this field that fits that description and the ideal candidate meeting those requirements just left the scene.
With the contests now upon us, the field certainly will be winnowing down as a result. It will be critical for the remaining candidates to move beyond smashmouth internecine warfare to concentrate and refine their appeals and messages towards making the sale with general election voters why they should dump the incumbent. The angry anti-war appeals or arguments about why Dean isn’t electable must be replaced immediately with discussions about why the country has been poorly run and prepared for the future, about why our public interest has been replaced with a pay-for-play private interest, and why each Democrat offers a better set of choices than the incumbent. These appeals must be made to the degree possible by levelheaded men who are comfortable with who they are and not trying to be what they are not, able to tell the truth easily and point out the failings and lies of the incumbent while articulating what each would do differently. And yes, we must appeal to the common sense of the voters and not their emotions in the general election with reasoned arguments and a steadfast resolve to stand up to the lies and distortions coming our way. Remember that Karl Rove lost the last election by 550,000 votes after leading the race four weeks out by double digits, even with a bamboozled media as an accomplice.
No, the voters aren’t stupid. Let’s at least give them a clear choice by telling them why we are better than the incumbent and tell them the facts about what has gone wrong in the last four years. We must show the voters how we as a nation can do better than what the GOP has delivered. Tearing down the incumbent without offering a clear compelling alternative will not do. Real choices and futures of hope, offered by men able to laugh at themselves and connect with voters will help to convince many to make a change.