Keeping your mouth shut
I want to piggyback on a Gadflyer post by Joshua Holland on rumors of a possible Democratic plan for Social Security because Joshua brings up a point that I think is vitally important for Democrats to understand.
I caught hell for saying the Dems should come up with a counter-non-proposal a couple of months ago, and it certainly pains me to be on the same page as Al From and Bruce Reed on any subject.
But my take is that if we're going to end up with a stalemate anyway--which is the best we can do with this administration, let's face it--why not get our values into the debate? Why not shed some light on the disparities that are growing out of control under our current economic policies?
My concern, though, is that we don't have the communications infrastructure or message discipline to do it right and opening up to a discussion will just blow the Dems' rare unity on the issue. We'll see.
Joshua is talking specifically about Social Security, but the same concern applies in the case of Terri Shiavo. I agreed, for the most part, with the criticism of some that Democrats didn't offer enough opposition to the Right-To-Dictate-How-You-Live-Your-Life policies that lead to Tom DeLay's intervention in the Shiavo case. While the situation has turned out pretty well for the Democrats, relying on the Republicans to fuck up is not a viable long-term political strategy. Democrats need to be able to offer an alternative other than "we aren't like the Republicans".
But therein is the problem that Joshua highlights: Democrats just don't have the "communications infrastructure" or the "message discipline" to make a good case for a Democratic alternative. When they do oppose Republican initiatives, they either come off looking just like obstructionists or their justification for their opposition is all over the map. Democrats are unskilled when it comes to coordinating their message.
The old maxim holds true in this case: better to be thought a fool then to open your mouth and confirm it. Thus, while I would have preferred that the Democrats had a coordinated response to the Shiavo mess, the reality is that they didn't. So the most viable political course for them was to just step back from the mess and let the Republicans own it.
I happen to think that Social Security is an issue that Democrats can present a coordinate message on because it is the core of the party. The unity Democrats have shown so far is not simply a matter of opposition to Bush's policies. They are unified because this is an issue at the core of the Democratic value system. Democrats can express their values on this issue, so I am not as concerned as Joshua that they won't be able to keep the momentum on their side if they start to make proposals (though I think that it would be best to at least wait until Bush's bamboozlepalooza tour concludes.)
But on the wider range of issues like the "Culture of Life" and the "War on Terror", Democrats need to be more cautious. Until they can get back in touch with their core values and coordinate their message on these issues it is better to simply let the Republicans own the issues for now. But not for to long. Training is needed now so we can take them back soon (preferably we can be beta testing ideas on how to do it by the 2006 election).