Principles: Not What You Do, But What You Say?

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Bush Administration, Democratic Party, Republican Party

Win or lose, the GOP talks about three core principles: less government, lower taxes, and a strong military. It doesn’t matter that, when in charge, Republican politicians have been known to grow government, raise taxes, and stretch the military too thin. Party leaders have decided that less government, lower taxes, and a strong military is what they stand for and what they run on. That’s their story and they’re sticking with it for good reason — because more often that not, it has helped them win. [Bill Scher, Wait! Don’t Move to Canada! (Rodale, 2006), p. 13.]

I’m starting off with a quote from Bill Scher’s new book to contrast it with what Sebastian Mallaby writes in today’s Washington Post:

After years of single-party government, the prospect of a Democratic majority in the House ought to feel refreshing. But even with Republicans collapsing in a pile of sexual sleaze, I just can’t get excited. Most Democrats in Congress seem bereft of ideas or the courage to stand up for them. They clearly want power, but they have no principles to guide their use of it.

The implication is, of course, that Republicans do have principles to guide their use of power. And Mallaby’s error is, of course, to confuse principles with talking points.

In today’s New York Times Paul Krugman writes,

At its core, the political axis that currently controls Congress and the White House is an alliance between the preachers and the plutocrats — between the religious right, which hates gays, abortion and the theory of evolution, and the economic right, which hates Social Security, Medicare and taxes on rich people. Surrounding this core is a large periphery of politicians and lobbyists who joined the movement not out of conviction, but to share in the spoils.

This is an example of what we call “reality,” as opposed to “appearance,” a.k.a. “bullshit.”

Many argue that the impact of “values voters” in recent elections is greatly exaggerated. But I think it’s plain that people who have marched to the polls to vote against abortion, evolution, and gay marriage have handed many victories to Republicans. Professor Krugman continues,

… the religious and cultural right, which boasted of having supplied the Bush campaign with its “shock troops” and expected a right-wing cultural agenda in return — starting with a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage — was dismayed when the administration put its energy into attacking the welfare state instead. James Dobson, the founder and chairman of Focus on the Family, accused Republicans of “just ignoring those that put them in office.”

It will be interesting, by the way, to see how Dr. Dobson, who declared of Bill Clinton that “no man has ever done more to debase the presidency,” responds to the Foley scandal. Does the failure of Republican leaders to do anything about a sexual predator in their midst outrage him as much as a Democratic president’s consensual affair?

Brian Ross of ABC News found a former congressional page who says he was warned about Rep. Foley’s, um, predilections back in 2001. The “principled” party has been tolerating an alleged sexual predator in their midst for quite some time.

What was that you said about principles, Mr. Mallaby? I think the only Republican principle is “say anything that will get you elected.”

I’m not letting Dems off the hook. As Mallaby says,

On Friday, Harry Reid, the Democratic leader in the Senate, correctly denounced a border-fence bill as a concession “to the radical anti-immigrant right wing” of the Republican Party. It’s absurd to fence off 700 miles of the border and leave the other 1,300 miles open; besides, the government lacks the manpower to prevent migrants from defeating the fence with tunnels or ladders. But if blowing billions on this symbolism is a sop to right-wing nuts, why did 26 Senate Democrats vote for the bill while only 17 opposed it?

And the answer is, they don’t want to give the GOP grist for their talking point mill. And I would like to know how many of the Republicans who pushed for the fence have supporters and contributors who hire illegal aliens. But how many times have we discussed why support Democrats when we can’t trust them to support our values and principles? There are reasons for doing so, but they aren’t reasons that the Party would want to put in its campaign literature. “Because we don’t have a choice” isn’t all that inspirational.

[Update: Brad DeLong has a better answer:

As Sebastian Mallaby knows well–but hopes to keep his readers from realizing–the Democratic Senate leaders judged, correctly, that no Republicans save possibly Chaffee would join them in a filibuster, and that they could not hold enough Democrats to make a filibuster stick. What they decided to do, again correctly, was support Arlen Specter’s effort to amend the bill, as their best chance to make it better. That attempt failed by three votes.

There was not “allow[ing] it through” on the part of the Democratic Senate leadership. As Mallaby knows as well as anybody.]

Bill Scher explains,

There is no clear consensus within the Democratic Party on how to address fundamental policy matters such as the role of government, the ideal level of taxation, and the proper direction for our foreign policy, not to mention how to approach hot-button social issues such as abortion and gay rights. And that makes it harder to be defiant in the face of defeat. How can you confidently jump back into the fray if you can’t be sure that your buddies have your back? If Democrats clearly and consistently articulated a set of principles, and if they supported those principles in good times and bad, people would know what they were fighting for and be willing to fight that much harder.

We liberals tend to rate our candidates on campaign performance, which mostly boils down to how effectively our candidates smack down whatever lies the Right is spreading about them. It can be hard to explain to voters who you are when most of your time is taken up explaining who you aren’t. But that’s how it is, and we need to be better prepared for it. One way we could be better prepared is if the Democratic Party collectively used the time between elections to articulate a short list of basic principles. And, once articulated — repeat, repeat, repeat, repeat. Until every voter in America can recite that list by heart.

It’s been a long time since Democrats have done that. Even Bill Clinton won mostly on conservative talking points about ending welfare and reducing deficits, not on uniquely Democratic Party principles.

I’m not saying that the short list of principles should be just words without conviction, as are Republican talking points. The Dems can’t copy the GOP and say anything that sounds good, because the Dems do not have a base of robot followers who will believe everything they’re told and ignore reality. Dems will have to deliver, and fast, or they’ll find themselves in the minority again very quickly.

As soon as Dems get some power in Washington (assuming they ever do), a clock will start ticking. And that clock will be marking a short period of time the Dems will have to prove themselves. They will have to deliver something tangible, something big, something Americans can plainly see with their own eyes, that they can point to and say, look, we did this. Republicans had their chance and didn’t do it, but we did it. That something might be getting out of Iraq, providing national health care, or making significant progress in rebuilding the Gulf Coast. What’s important is that it has to be something that voters can see is real so that it can’t be explained away with lies and fuzzy math by the VRWC.

I have long believed that clarity of language and clarity of thought go hand and hand; muddy writers tend to be muddy thinkers, and vice versa. You can impress some people with sheer volume of verbiage (this explains Victor Davis Hanson’s following). But I find that putting thoughts into words sharpens the thoughts. For this reason the exercise of articulating principles should not be contracted to speechwriters and PR people. The list must present genuine core convictions and the most basic expectations We, the People, have of our government.

Most of Mallaby’s soft-headed column is spent criticizing Dems for refusing to enter into new “bipartisan” talks on Social Security reform. Of course, the Dems are right to refuse; it’s an obvious trap. It takes a pundit not to see that. It also takes a pundit not to notice that right-wing “principles” are all smoke. Let’s hope voters are smarter. A new McClatchy Newspapers / MSNBC poll suggests maybe they are. But it would be nice if the Dems could say something more for themselves than “we promise not to screw up as bad as the GOP.” As we see from the Republican example, what you say about yourself matters a lot.

Now, what should be on the list? Please add your ideas to the comments.

Update: See also TAPPED.

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16 Comments

  1. grayslady  •  Oct 2, 2006 @10:42 am

    Thanks for calling attention to Mallaby’s egregious article. His comments were idiotic, in a word. You have raised an important point about principles. One that I see as being fundamentally a Democratic principle is the right to privacy, even though it doesn’t seem to be enshrined anywhere in the Constitution or the Bill of Rights. But when I think about which party is more likely to protect my right to have a private conversation, my right to determine what I do in my bedroom, my right to prevent the government–or private citizens, such as pharmacists–from interceding in my medical decisions, I think of Democrats.

  2. diane  •  Oct 2, 2006 @10:44 am

    WHat should be on the list:
    1)We will be honest with you. We will evaluate the bills brought before us and vote on them becasue they benefit you, the people.
    2)We will rid our houses of corruption. We will hold ALL members accountable for any action they take that is illegal AND we will have ethics hearings.
    3)We will demand the truth from our president. We will demand that he answer our questions and put the WHite House on notice that there will be no more money for Iraq, not one cent more untilll they can justify where the billions of dollars have gone that are unaccounted for.
    4) we will not allow the president to alter anymore ‘right” that we anjoy now and let him know he will be held accountable for any laws he breaks.
    5) We will double the number of days we have met this year for next year so we can focus on the war, the economy and health care.

  3. k  •  Oct 2, 2006 @12:04 pm

    what diane said.

    also I do want to thank Bob Woodward for one thing. He said they were using Slogans instead of strategies, instead of policies. This is so important for the public to get. In some ways I really don’t want Dems to get a few slogans becuase they do shut off thought and logic. Civil discourse or discourse about our civic society ,cannot occur as long as slogans are used to shut off discussion.

  4. faux facsimile  •  Oct 2, 2006 @12:05 pm

    Sebastian Mallaby is a free-market fundamentalist. Hence his real animus toward the Democrats is that they don’t share his neo-liberal orthodoxies. Smacking him down is fine, but the guy really is pretty simple.

    But the problem with the Ds is that all issues lead back to the one big problem: we are bankrupt. No money to pay for new things, not enough even to pay for what already have. Balancing the budget might fix that problem, but doing that requires axing GI-Joe or drastically raising taxes. Which Ain’t. Gonna. Happen.

    In an ideal world, I’d really recommend some type of massive public infrastructure program. Both visible, and economically stimulating. A crash project for oil independence would be cute too, but that’s more of a medium-term goal.

  5. Dr. Mark H. Shapiro  •  Oct 2, 2006 @12:59 pm

    Those core “principles” that Mallaby talks about are nothing more than Republican “talking points”. The reality is that when they actually are in power they do the opposite – they actually give us more government, they shift the burden for the cost of government onto those least able to pay, and they have just about destroyed the military with their unwise adventure in Iraq. In short, they talk the talk, but they don’t walk the walk.

  6. Caroline Usher  •  Oct 2, 2006 @2:12 pm

    We don’t need a list, we need a Narrative and a Plot. Once we have those, the short list can be extracted.

    Our narrative begins with Tom Paine, Ben Franklin and Thomas Jefferson. It runs from the Declaration of Independence through the Gettysburg Address and Lincoln’s Second Inaugural, to Roosevelt’s Four Freedoms, to Kennedys “ask not what your country can do for you,” to Martin Luther King’s Letter from Birmingham Jail.

    Our core principle is, “Democrats welcome people of many differing views who share the belief that it is the role of government to serve and protect the people.”

    Therefore, we support:
    free and fair elections
    campaign finance reform
    Roosevelt’s Four Freedoms: freedom of religion, freedom of speech, freedom from want, freedom from fear
    the right to live one’s private life without government interference – live and let live – tolerance.

    Thence flow civil rights, separation of church and state, worker’s rights, the right to a fair trial, a social safety net for the needy, protection of the people’s health by environmental regulation, preservation of national parks for the people’s recreation, and other traditional Democratic values.

    The Republicans are now the party of Big business, wasteful spending, corruption, self-dealing, government-imposed morality. We can turn their abandoned ideals of limited government and fiscal discipline against them.

    We are the party of the people. Democrats can be the party of fiscal discipline, prudence, open government, balance of powers, responsibility–all in the service of the people. Our theme song: Copland’s “Fanfare for the Common Man.”

    I think that Bush voters are mostly sincere Christians who would go out of their way to help a neighbor, who believe in charity towards the needy. They are the kind of people who would stop to help you change your tire and who put together presents for needy families at Christmas. They find many social changes troubling, they like security and certainty, and the Republicans have fed them a worldview that appeals to their fears and self-righteousness.

    We can use biblical language to talk about helping the poor rather than the rich, the widow and orphan rather than the fat cat, forgiveness rather than punishment, justice for all.

    We can revive the words of the founders. We have allowed the far right to take biblical and enlightenment language and twist it into a new meaning. We need to take it back and use it as Lincoln used it. And we need to start talking about common sense. Horse sense. Pragmatism. Can-do. The American way. Working together to solve problems. Barn-raisings. Town meetings. Neighborliness, not passing moral judgment on others. The values of a proud, courageous, free people.

  7. wmr  •  Oct 2, 2006 @2:30 pm

    Publicly funded election campaigns

  8. maha  •  Oct 2, 2006 @3:13 pm

    Caroline has the right idea. This exercise should begin by thinking deeply about who we are, and the list should flow from that. Don’t just come up with a list of stuff we want.

  9. AnnieCat  •  Oct 2, 2006 @3:31 pm

    I like what Caroline said, too. Here’s another thought, in slogan form:

    Policies to benefit all Americans, not just the richest one percent

  10. Caroline Usher  •  Oct 2, 2006 @5:39 pm

    Thanks for the compliment, Maha (#9). Just one caution: while thinking deeply about who we are let’s not get lost in the weeds of wonkery or endlessly navel-gaze about which value is the most important (not that you were recommending that).

    IMNSHO, the keys to this are Narrative and Plot. We are not defining the policy initiatives here, we are defining the backbone of the message, our story, upon which we can hang any number of policy initiatives. We can argue forever about stuff, what we want to do is define a story line that every Democrat can identify with.

    So, Keep It Simple, Stupid. Tell stories, create images that convey our message and make people feel good about America. Call people home to our true values. Johnny Appleseed. Liberty Ships. Lending a neighbor your hose when his house is on fire. . . .

  11. MNPundit  •  Oct 2, 2006 @5:39 pm

    It’s simple at least in my view:

    Create a Nation where the average citizen is willing and able to take a risk on their own intelligence, tallent and luck (entrepreneurial spirit) because they know that even if they fail, the Democrats have created a society that won’t destroy them if they’re not an instant success.

    In other words “I want to make a country where people can chase their dreams without being crushed if you miss.”

    That’s what involves better medical care, better security, repealing the tax cuts and patriot act, enforcing environmental regs, reducing wealth disparaty etc.

  12. Swami  •  Oct 2, 2006 @6:04 pm

    Very nicely expressed wisdom, Caroline. I like the way you listed Thomas Paine first…To know Thomas Paine is to know what America is supposed to be.

    Where freedom isn’t, there is my country.- Thomas Paine…Makes one think, doesn’t it?

  13. Bill  •  Oct 2, 2006 @7:07 pm

    Nice. So, basically, Democrats have to PRETEND to not be against the wall on the border, not be against raising taxes, not be against free trade, not be against reforming entitlements, not to be against spying on foreign telephone calls and emails, and not to be against withdrawing from Iraq so they can win an election to do just the things they SAY they arent going to do?

    NICE! Democracy in action! Lie to the simple minded proletariat so we elite, progressive, intellectuals can “guide” the masses in the correct direction — after all we know what’s better for them right? I mean we went to Harvard, Princeton, Berkeley and Yale! Love it!

  14. maha  •  Oct 2, 2006 @7:34 pm

    Would someone like to translate #14? It makes no sense.

  15. Swami  •  Oct 2, 2006 @8:27 pm

    Here ya go, Maha…compliments of Babel Fish..It was Greek to me also.

    Νίκαια. Έτσι, βασικά, οι δημοκράτες πρέπει ΝΑ ΠΡΟΣΠΟΙΗΘΟΥΝ να μην είναι ενάντια στον τοίχο στα σύνορα, να μην είναι ενάντια στην αύξηση των φόρων, να μην είναι ενάντια στην ελευθεροποίηση των συναλλαγών, να μην είναι ενάντια στη μεταρρύθμιση των εξουσιοδοτήσεων, για να μην είναι ενάντια στην κατασκόπευση στα ξένα τηλεφωνήματα και τα ηλεκτρονικά ταχυδρομεία, και για να μην είναι ενάντια στην απόσυρση από το Ιράκ έτσι μπορούν να κερδίσουν μια εκλογή για να κάνουν ακριβώς τα πράγματα που ΤΟΥΣ ΛΈΝΕ arent μετάβαση να κάνουν; ΝΙΚΑΙΑ! Δημοκρατία στη δράση! Στο απλό απασχολημένο προλεταριάτο έτσι ελίτ, προοδευτική, διανοούμενοι μπορούμε “να καθοδηγήσουμε” τις μάζες στη σωστή κατεύθυνση – τελικά ξέρουμε ποιος καλύτερος για τους δεξιά; Σημαίνω ότι πήγαμε στο Χάρβαρντ, Princeton, το Μπέρκλευ! και Yale! Αγάπη αυτό!

  16. maha  •  Oct 2, 2006 @8:31 pm

    Thanks, Swami! I can always count on you!

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