The Democrats’ Competence Trap

Stentor‘s reply to my post about Democrats’ and liberals’ obsession with Valerie Plame got me thinking about the danger in attacking Bush primarily on issues of managerial competence and personal behavior, such as Katrina, gas prices, and Valerie Plame. It’s true that the mishandling of Katrina was a key factor behind Bush’s crash in popularity in late 2005, but it’s a fairly unusual case. And even it runs the danger of Republicans convincing the people that Congressional Democrats can’t do any better.

If the goal is to shift the United States in a more liberal direction, then purely competence-based attacks will be ineffective, especially as the 2008 election draws nearer and Bush becomes an increasingly lame duck. The Lewinsky scandal didn’t hurt the Democrats in the long run, because they could easily distance themselves from Clinton, or counterattack with “Your party isn’t any better.”

Instead, the best lines of attack are ideological in some sense. On some hot-button issues, such as health care and immigration, Americans are more liberal than the political center; the Democrats can and should exploit that fact. On Iraq, Bush’s incompetence is a key factor, but since almost all Congressional Republicans voted for it, a liberal Democrat could easily turn the occupation’s failure into a weapon against not just Bush but also conservatism.

Attacking Republicans for being corrupt or incompetent won’t work. For a start, it’s a lot easier for a conservative to say, “I’m not part of these particular scandals, so I’m clean” when it’s not about ideology. In addition, attacks of that form, just like fear-based attacks (“Bush will overturn Roe”), make the voters more apathetic instead of more liberal.

What will work is presenting concrete alternatives: “We’re the party that will keep Social Security secure,” “We’re the party that will not randomly invade countries that don’t threaten us,” “We’re the party that will legalize the status of law-abiding immigrants,” etc.

4 Responses to The Democrats’ Competence Trap

  1. droog says:

    Firstly, the Plame affair had the potential of being more than a managerial gaffe. It was about catching high-ranking White House official breaking the law. You can’t get more ideological than “we’re not the party that gets thrown in jail”. Even if Plamegate turned out to be a fraction of Watergate it would have been another terrible event in the GOP’s resume.

    Secondly, for better or worse the electoral race is a political race. Ideology is just a subset of it all. It’s a war on many fronts: Ideology, personal traits, competence, accountability, etc. If you think ideology is the only front that matters and the public doesn’t see it that way then you will forfeit a lot of battles. No party can afford that. If people vote for Bush because they think “he’s real and honest” you have to prove the public otherwise, ideology doesn’t factor into what makes that demographic vote for him. You should not concede the point, specially if you can prove he is not real. In the case of Plamegate, it was trying to prove Bush zeal on secrecy and dislike for leaks was nothing but hot air. Of course, the existence of a sham depended on how far up the ladder the indicments were going to get, and as of now the verdict seems dissapointing.

    (Sidenote: I know Stentor from another site. Surprised to learn he and I read your blog.)

  2. Alon Levy says:

    Of course ideology is just a subset of it all. I’ll be happy if the Democrats begin to use this subset at all, and if the Democratic bloggers stop talking about managerial competence issues when asked about the difference between the Democrats and the Republicans. Some Democrats manage to come off as good technocrats; I know Warner does. Most don’t; most come off as no better than the Republicans when they talk about it.

    While Bush could pretend to be “real and honest” in 2000, now he can’t anymore. People came to blame him on their own after Katrina; obviously, Democratic spin helped, but harping on it over and over again is just a bad substitute for real issues.

    Watergate didn’t hurt the Republicans at all, mind you. It hurt Nixon. It hurt Ford because he was stupid enough to pardon Nixon. At the time, the national hotbed of conservatism was no longer the federal Republican Party, but right-wing think tanks, which worked hard at shifting the center to the right, and state-level activists and politicians.

  3. Stentor says:

    Whoa, it’s droog!

  4. Alon Levy says:

    Okay, what backstory is there here that I’m not getting?

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