Sunday, October 23, 2005

# Posted 12:21 AM by Ariel David Adesnik  

WHAT DEMOCRATS BELIEVE: Earlier this week I participated in a sort of focus group for Democratic activists designed to clarify the party's core beliefs. Not that I am a Democratic activist, but I took part because the participants in the focus group consisted specifically of moderate/DLC types committed to restoring the party's credibility on national security issues.

Liberal commentators, including OxBlog favorites such as Kevin Drum and Matt Yglesias , often observe that Democrats, unlike Republicans, don't have a simple set of core beliefs that can be summarized in an "elevator pitch", i.e. a 30 second speech that you could give to someone while riding in an elevator.

With this shortcoming in mind, the leader of our focus group asked the ten or so participants to write down in three sentences or less what the Democratic party stands for. A few months ago, Kos wrote:
Ask 10 people what the Democrats stand for, and you'll get 10 different answers. Ask me what the Democrats stand for, and I'll stare back speechless.
Yet in our focus group, almost every answer was exactly the same. The purpose of the Democratic party is to help the poor and the disadvantaged.

Most participants added that the federal government is the Democrats' preferred mechanism for helping the disadvantaged. More than one participant justified this focus on the disadvantaged by arguing that the free market structure of American society ensures that there will always be a significant numebr of Americans who are disadvantaged.

The organizer's response to this unexpected consensus was both sympathetic and devastating. On the one hand, this consensus suggested that there is a foundational commitment on which Democrats can build. On the other hand, if the purpose of the Democratic party is to help the disadvantaged, what can the party possibly offer to the overwhelming majority of Americans who see themeslves as middle class?

Adding insult to injury, I said that no one at the table had listed either national security or defending the United States as one of the core purposes of the Democratic party. Thus, how could anyone expect undecided voters to think of the Democrats as the party strongest on security issues if even the most committed Democrats don't define security as one of the party's most important missions?

(To be fair, one or two participants sought to extend the principle of helping the disadvantaged to the international arena. Of course, calling for more foreign aid is hardly the way to win middle class votes.)

After identifying why the party's core message failed to resonate with more voters, the discussion turned to the question of whether the answer to this problem is to "frame" its agenda differently or whether the substance of the party's agenda had to change. On this point, there wasn't much of a consensus.

Take the issue of being pro-market, for example. Not one person at the table listed a commitment to either entrepreneurs or free markets as a core part of the Democratic agenda. Yet everyone at the table was basically pro-market and pro-business BUT believed that America must pay more attention to those left behind by markets and businesses.

Given that Republicans always identify themselves as the party of markets and entrepreneurs, could Democrats make any headway with this kind of "yes, but" approach to the subject? But if framing isn't enough, how can Democrats alter the substance of their agenda without simply becoming more like Republicans?

In the final analysis, there was no answer to this question. Even a table full of Ivy League-educated Democratic activists couldn't come up with an answer to the question of what the Democrats want to offer America as a whole, and not just the disadvantaged. But the question itself is important, because it has the potential to force the Democrats to approach every major policy debate from a fresh perspective.
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