I spent way more time than I should have this weekend trying to distill my thoughts about the strategies and tactics Democrats should use to advance their agenda and unseat the Republican majority on Capitol Hill. Though my point was fairly straightforward -- forget about strategy and tactics, in so many words -- for some some reason I couldn't pull it together in a couple thousand words.
So let me, a bit more briefly, address how it applies to Social Security -- the issue that's on the table right now.
For starters, you may have seen this AP story that ran over the weekend, which read: "House Democrats have decided to quit emphasizing that they will not negotiate changes to Social Security until President Bush drops his idea for private accounts. The switch in strategy comes after Democrats learned from focus groups that people frown on the lawmakers for being obstinate."
Where to start?
The problem Democrats have is not bad tactics or bad strategies or poor framing. The problem is an over-reliance, even an addiction, to tactics and strategies.
For years I've argued that the Democrats' problem on national security issues is not so much that they aren't 'tough enough' or that they lack new ideas. The problem is a now-deeply-ingrained habit of approaching national security issues not so much as policy questions to be wrestled with but as a political problem to be dealt with and moved on from.
That has a host of damaging consequences, the most serious of which is that if you chart your policy course so as to avoid political damage, always casting about for the sweet spot of political safety, you tend to lack any greater programmatic consistency. And that tells voters (as it probably should) that youâre inconstant and unserious. It also muddles effective communication by confusing the communicators themselves about just what it is they are trying to say or accomplish.
What the last year has taught me -- both in good ways and bad -- is that this malady isn't limited to the national security domain but applies to Democrats pretty much across the board.
We hear a lot today about framing or being tougher or being united or dumping the failed consultants. But while each of these prescriptions has some element of merit, each also recapitulates the existing problem -- only dressing it up in clothes -- because each mistakes the disease for the cure.
When it comes to strategy and tactics, the current Democratic party is like a drunk in the early stages of recovery or a man or woman who keeps ending up in the same bad relationship again and again with different people. For folks like that, strong medicine is required. Indeed, they usually require steps, correctives, lists of dos-and-don'ts more drastic than anybody would ever need who didn't have a problem.
Today we hear Democrats asking whether they should take a hard line on Social Security or a soft line, stand in opposition or come up with a contending plan. Here's what I propose whenever Democrats have a question about just what stance to take on the Social Security debate.
One question ...
What is the actual policy outcome that would be most preferable on Social Security (to protect, preserve or augment it -- whatever) and how important is it that it take place in this Congress?
That's the first, second and third question.
That answer should drive everything else.
If add-on accounts are important to preserve Social Security or expand opportunities for middle class families to save for retirement, and if itâs important enough on the merits to make it a priority in this Congress, then letâs do it. Otherwise, Iâd say forget it. Stick with opposing phase-out and take it to the voters. End of story.
If the demon rum of optics or tactical too-clever-by-halfism tries to slither its way back even into second or third, slap your wrist and get back with the program.
I'm not saying that the Democrats need to get in touch with their political or ideological roots or hold to orthodoxies. Nor is this an argument for political purism. My point is entirely agnostic on what the policy should be -- only that it should drive the politics.
Nor do I pretend that this will always generate the most effective political approach or the most supplely played tactical game. What I think is that we are dealing with a sick patient, one whose reasoning and judgment are often untrustworthy and one apt to slide back into the same old destructive habits without some firm and concrete correctives in place.
For a party so quick to get lost in the fog, this should be the compass.