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Jewish World Review
May 11, 2009
/ 17 Iyar 5769
To win votes, listen to voters
As much as Republicans have been suffering electoral blues lately, a different kind of affliction seems to be rising in Democratic ranks like a swine flu. It's called overconfidence.
Exhibit A is in the title of a new book by famous Democratic consultant James Carville: "40 More Years: How the Democrats will Rule the Next Generation."
Memo to authors: Beware grand predictions. Remember Shelby Steele's big title of a year ago: "A Bound Man: Why We Are Excited About Obama and Why He Can't Win." Ah, yes, he could.
Now this: "40 years?" Careful, James. A decade ago George W. Bush's guru Karl Rove described a vision of 40 years of Republican dominance. His dream didn't work out so well.
It's not hard to see from where Carville's confidence comes. The Grand Old Party has seen much grander days. A mere 21 percent of Americans identify themselves as Republicans recent ABC News/ Washington Post poll. That's the lowest since 1983. Independents are trending Democratic and as few as five states have solid Republican pluralities.
Long-term demographic trends are not on the GOP's side, either. The electorate is getting less white, less rural and less Christian -- three important elements of the Republican base. And Carville is on target to note that turnout for Democrats by young voters in 2004, 2006 and 2008 bodes well for the party's long-term prospects.
But as Democrats should know, bad news has unexpected ways of happening. That's why we call it "news." New issue always can erupt in the way that Iraq, congressional sex scandals and Hurricane Katrina in Bush's second term helped bring the left back to life.
Earlier this month, House Minority Whip Eric Cantor of Virginia and Sen. John McCain of Arizona launched the National Council for a New America, an effort to rebrand and expand the Republican Party, with a "town hall" meeting in Virginia. Invitees and participants included Govs. Bobby Jindal of Louisiana, Sarah Palin of Alaska and Haley Barbour of Mississippi, as well as former Govs. Mitt Romney of Massachusetts and Jeb Bush of Florida.
Romney, Cantor and the new group's Web site emphasized the need to "listen" to voters' concerns and ideas. But prominent social conservatives like former presidential candidate Mike Huckabee and the Family Research Council's Tony Perkins complained that they and other "values voters" were left out. Rush Limbaugh, never known for understatement, called Cantor's call a "scam" and invoked memories of Hillary Clinton's "listening tour" in her New York Senate campaign. "We do not need a listening tour," he said on his radio show. "We need a teaching tour. That is what the Republican Party, or, slash, the conservative movement needs to focus on."
The party's leaders became victims of their past success with issues like same-sex marriage, immigration and abortion. They lost touch with changes in the electorate, changes of which Team Obama and Democratic congressional leaders have taken full advantage in 2006 and 2008.
Back in the 1980s, Democrats seemed to be as cast out into the wilderness as Republicans look today. Moderate groups such as the Democratic Leadership Conference, in which young Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton and Sen. Al Gore of Tennessee were prominent members, listened and learned ways to lure back the "Reagan Democrats."
Today, Democrats have regained the Whites House and both houses of Congress, even though voters who call themselves "conservative" still outnumber those who call themselves "liberal" by 33 percent to 21 percent. In fact, those percentages have not changed much in three decades. Democrats have been able to win elections by winning more votes from the 45 percent who call themselves moderates.
Since Republicans have not had to win as many votes from self-described moderates, the "vital center" of America's electorate has been less vital to them. That's changed. Republicans once again find themselves reaching out to the middle while trying to hold onto their base. McCain failed in that goal last year, losing about 20 percent of self-described Republicans to Obama, according to exit polls.
Conservatives bristle at Republican efforts to rebrand, but the party needs to define itself with something besides Obamaphobia. They can learn a lot from how Democrats turned their own fortunes around, after they learned to listen to the voters again.
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