It has occurred to me that both parties increasingly dislike their bases, but for different reasons and to different degrees. By both parties I mean the leaders and representatives of the Democrats and Republicans in Washington. I believe I correctly observe that they feel an increasing intellectual estrangement from and impatience with the activists who people their base of support.
And this is something new.
In the past, Republican leaders in Washington bowed either symbolically or practically to the presumed moral leadership and cleanness of vision of the people back home. They understood the base wanted tax cuts and spending cuts, and for serious reasons. The base had deep qualms about abortion. The base intuitively recoiled from big government: They knew the best arrangement was maximum possible power to the individual and limited, policed, heavily checked power to the state. Or, as some back home might have put it, Don’t put your faith in governments, which are made by men; put your faith in individuals, who are made by God.
Republican leaders in the capital bowed to this wisdom—if not in their actions, at least quite often in their hearts.
Now they seem to bow less. They know the higher wisdom on such issues as immigration. They feel less fealty to the insights of the base. They know more than the base, are more experienced than the base, have a more nuanced sense of reality. And as for conservative social issues groups, the politicians resent those nagging, whining pushers-for-the-impossible who are always threatening to stay home or go elsewhere. (Where?)
Some Washington Republicans have been in leadership so long they’ve learned—they’ve learned too well!—that politics is the art of the possible. It is. But this is not an excuse to be weak, or ambivalent, or passive, or superior.
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On the Democratic side, it is not just as bad but worse. They don’t only think they’re more sophisticated than their base, more informed and aware of the complexities. I believe they think their base is mad.
You can see their problem in their inability to get a slogan. Which, believe me, is how they think of it: a slogan. “Together for a Better Future.” “A Future With Better Togetherness.” Today for a better tomorrow, tomorrow for a better today.
A party has a hard time saying what it stands for only when it doesn’t know what it stands for. It has trouble getting a compelling slogan only when it has no idea what compels its base. Or when it fears what compels it.
I got a sense of the distance between Democratic leaders and the base a few years ago when I met up with a Democrat who was weighing a run for the party’s 2004 nomination. He hadn’t announced but was starting to test the waters, campaigning out of state.
I mentioned to him that the press gives a great deal of attention to the problems of Republican leaders and their putative supporters on the ground in America, but I was interested in the particular problems a D.C. Democrat has with his party’s base.
His eyebrows went up in the way people’s eyebrows go up when they’re interested in what they’re about to say. He said—I write from memory; it was not an interview but a conversation—that he was getting an education in that area. He said when he spoke before local Democratic groups they were wildly against the war in Iraq and sometimes booed him when he spoke of it. It left him startled. He had supported the president for serious reasons: He thought Saddam a bad actor who likely had weapons of mass destruction. He wanted to talk about it, but they didn’t want to hear him. They were immovable.
But there was something else. He didn’t say it, but something in his manner suggested he thought they were . . . just a little crazy.
I thought of him the other day when I saw Howard Dean say something intemperate on TV. I actually can’t remember what it was, one intemperate Dean statement blending into another as they do. I was standing near a small screen with recent acquaintances, all of them relatively nonpolitical, and as I watched Mr. Dean speak I blurted, “Why does he say things like that?” A middle-aged woman—intelligent, professional—answered, “Because he thinks they’re stupid.”
He thinks who’s stupid? I asked. The press? “His party,” she said. We both laughed because it sounded true.
But today I’m thinking that’s not quite it. Howard Dean is actually the most in touch with his base of all D.C. Democrats because he speaks to them the secret language of Madman Boogabooga. Republicans are racist/ignorant/evil. This is actually not ineffective. It’s a language that quells the base and would scare the center if they followed it more closely, but they can’t because it’s not heavily reported because “Dean Says Something Crazy” is no longer news.
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I watched the Senate debate on Iraq yesterday. I happen to respect the Democrats’ attempts to debate the war, argue it out, bring it again to the floor of Congress. I am impressed that the majority of them seem to oppose calling for a date-certain pullout. There was a lot of administration-bashing, some strange rhetorical sallies. But bottom line they seemed to be saying that while new management for the war is desirable, declaring “it’s over, we’re tired, we’re gone” is not.
This struck me as essentially sane, and as I watched I wondered if these Democrats would take major hits from the base because of it. Or if John Kerry, who is pushing for a declared date certain for withdrawal, would greatly benefit.
Here is my read on a lot of Democratic senators: They think they know more than their base and they think they’re more—how to put it?—stable in their view of the world than their base. In their hearts, in fact, they don’t really like their base. (They like—they love—the old base: old union guys who drink Schlitz and voted for FDR and JFK. But today those old union guys are mostly dead, dying or Republican.)
Democratic leaders in Washington are in a worse position than Republican leaders in Washington. Neither likes their base, really, and both think they are smarter. But the Democrats think, deep down, that their base is barking mad. The Republicans don’t. They just think their base is a bore.