The Democrats need a long game

The Democrats need a long game
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More than 20 candidates are now vying for the Democratic presidential nomination, pitting their personalities and policies against one another — and attacking Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpThe Hill's Morning Report - Sponsored by AdvaMed - House panel expected to approve impeachment articles Thursday Democrats worried by Jeremy Corbyn's UK rise amid anti-Semitism Warren, Buttigieg duke it out in sprint to 2020 MORE. All eyes, quite understandably, are on the prize: the White House in 2020. That said, the Democrats are paying little or no attention to “the long game.”

The Democrats can learn a lot, in our judgment, by observing the dividends Republicans have reaped from their long-term strategy.


Almost 50 years ago, in a now iconic confidential memo to the Chamber of Commerce, Lewis Powell Jr. called on his fellow free market conservatives to initiate “long-range planning and implementation, consistency of action over an indefinite period of years,” with a “scale of financing available only through joint effort,” and an exercise of political power “through unified action and national organizations.” The future Supreme Court justice advocated training of “a staff of highly qualified scholars in the social sciences who do believe in the system” and “will do the thinking, the analysis, the writing and the speaking.” He wanted corporate leaders and their allies to assume “a broader and more vigorous role in the political arena,” including penalizing opponents without “the slightest hesitation.”  Powell pointed out as well that the judiciary “may be the most important instrument for social, economic, and political change.”

Coinciding with a backlash against liberals and liberalism, the 1971 Powell memo helped stimulate institutional and ideological initiatives that laid the groundwork for the “Reagan Revolution.” One of the many conservative think tanks established in the ensuing decade, the Federalist Society began recruiting young lawyers who hoped to enter politics or the judiciary. In Ideas with Consequences, Amanda Hollis-Brusky reports that the society now claims 40,000 members, including four Supreme Court Justices, dozens of federal judges, and every Republican attorney general since its inception. Federalist Society graduates crafted new constitutional interpretations — on originalism, the unitary theory of the executive, the Second Amendment, campaign contributions as protected speech — and some endorsed them from the bench.

The Republicans’ long game also included election reforms designed to tilt the playing field toward the GOP. Targeting traditional Democratic constituencies, they reduced the number of polling places, tightened registration requirements, and purged the names of individuals who had not cast ballots for several years. Under the leadership of Tom DeLay (R-Texas), Republicans used computer technology to gerrymander state and congressional districts.

The results have been dramatic. North Carolina is fairly evenly divided between Republican and Democratic voters, but the GOP currently holds 8 seats in Congress, the Democrats 3, and two are vacant. Although election district boundaries were redrawn in Texas following the 2000 census, when the GOP took control of both houses of the state legislature in 2003, Delay masterminded a second redistricting — and the number of Republicans in the U.S. House of Representatives jumped from 16 to 21.

More broadly, the Republicans played a “values” game. They made superb use of talk radio, cable TV news and social media outlets. They changed political discourse by introducing voters to “death taxes,” “entitlements,” “welfare queens,” and “pro-lifers.” By cutting taxes and creating government deficits, they “starved the beast,” making it far more difficult for Democrats to expand the social safety net. They privatized risk. They helped reduce the membership — and power — of labor unions. And although the most progressive movement in 20th century history — the civil rights movement — was deeply infused with religion, the Republicans monopolized “Christian values” by enlisting evangelicals in their “Moral Majority.”

Meanwhile, the Democrats’ brand, an unwieldy mix of comprehensive and costly proposals on the environment, health care, and higher education, and specific policies, designed to satisfy one or more of their interest group constituencies, often was more closely tied to the next election than the party’s long-term health. For many reasons, including the perception that the party was excessively committed to ethnic, racial, and gender-based identity politics, working-class and middle-class white males drifted away. By the end of Barack ObamaBarack Hussein ObamaTrump's intervention on military justice system was lawful and proper The mullahs seek to control uncontrolled chaos Poll: Majority of Democrats thinks Obama was better president than Washington MORE’s presidency, the Democrats had lost majority control of the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives and about 900 seats in state legislatures.


A Democratic “long game” might well focus on generational change. The party could push a fair elections package, including greater access to the polls, making Election Day a national holiday, and legislation creating bipartisan or nonpartisan commissions to set boundaries for seats in state legislatures and the House of Representatives. Building on their successes in 2018, they could recruit top flight candidates at all levels of government in all 50 states. They could elect new leaders of the House and Senate, raise the issue of term limits for judges, jettison old-fashioned terms like “New Deal,” and invent a progressive political vocabulary.

They could run against inequality with a 21st century variant of Bill ClintonWilliam (Bill) Jefferson ClintonParties clash as impeachment articles move closer to House vote USA Today editorial board calls for Trump's impeachment House's proposed impeachment articles are serious grounds to remove the president MORE’s appeal to empowerment — rather than entitlement — for all Americans who work hard and play by the rules. They could educate voters about climate change by describing, in graphic terms, its impact on their grandchildren. They could demonstrate that "Medicare for All" will deliver better care at lower costs to Americans of all ages. They could set proposals about education, training, and worker protection in the context of automation and robotics. They could propose a Bill of Rights for children.

In a political marketplace filled with values, images, and analogies, they could appeal to emotions of voters, who, as Drew Westen emphasizes in The Political Brain, “are not dispassionate calculating machines, objectively searching for the right facts, figures and policies to make a reasoned decision.”

Lord Keynes once quipped that “In the long run, we’re all dead.” Since the 1980s, the GOP, with a shrinking base, has extended its life by playing a long game.  The Democrats can — and must — combine today’s problems with tomorrow’s mission.

Glenn C. Altschuler is the Thomas and Dorothy Litwin Professor of American Studies at Cornell University. He is the co-author (with Stuart Blumin) of Rude Republic:  Americans and Their Politics in the Nineteenth Century. Sidney Tarrow is the Maxwell Upson Emeritus Professor of Government at Cornell University. He is the co-editor (with David S. Meyer) of The Resistance: The Dawn of the Anti-Trump Opposition Movement.