Saturday, April 02, 2005

Bill Bradley's view of the world

I like Bill Bradley. I thought that Bill Bradley was a good Senator. A former Princeton great and New York Knick pretty good, Bradley was good on the court moving without the ball, and excellent off the court talking about the problem of race in America.

This week, writing in the New York Times, Bradley offered his prescription for the problems facing the Democratic Party. In A Party Inverted, Bradley argues that the root of the Democrat’s problem is the fixation with charismatic leaders. “We are still hypnotized by Jack Kennedy, and the promise of a charismatic leader who can change America by the strength and style of his personality.”

Bradley describes the Republican Party as a pyramid. Constructed with layers of large donors, foundations and think tanks, political strategists and a conservative media, the candidate that sits on top is largely replaceable. He juxtaposes this with a Democratic Party that forces each potential candidate to build his or her own pyramid of financial, political and media support, and awards the Party nomination to the person who does that best. The Republican Party is built on a solid foundation, while the Democratic Party rests like an inverted pyramid on the wiles and wherewithal of a single leader.

Bradley’s analysis does a disservice to both parties, but it does serve as an effective rationale for his own failure as a presidential candidate. Bill Bradley’s presidential bids failed in large measure because he was not charismatic. He was a smart guy, who was good on the issues, but he was a ponderous speaker who failed to generate a following within the media or the public. Bradley’s analysis suggests that his own failed campaigns resulted from his Party’s wistful yearnings for Camelot.

There are two fundamental flaws in Bradley’s argument. First, his view of the Republican Party discounts the political skills of the person at the top. As Bradley suggests: “Because the pyramid is stable, all you have to do is put a different top on it and it works fine.” Republicans love this analysis. While conservative talk show hosts routinely decry the Democratic tendency to view all Republican leaders as idiots, Bradley’s analysis feeds into a Democratic habit of underestimating their opponent.

Suggesting to a Democratic activisty that George Bush is not an idiot, it is like talking to a wall. This view of Republican presidents goes back to Ronald Reagan, who despite years of studying in the development of his political philosophy and years of building a movement challenging the mainstream within his Party was nonetheless dismissed as a simpleton by the broad swath of Democratic activists.

This patronizing attitude ill-serves the Democratic Party on two levels. First, it supports Republican efforts to cast Democrats as arrogant and elitist in the eyes of the working class and middle class voters who formerly were the core of the Democratic coalition. Second, politics is war by other means and to adhere to a world-view ex ante that denigrates the competence of the leader of your adversary is to lend a psychological advantage to your opponent before the battle begins. That shit-eating grin on George Bush’s face after each victory is the smile of a man who knows that once again his adversaries have underestimated him.

Second, the suggestion that the historic success of the Democratic Party can be chalked up to charismatic individuals is misguided. As Tip O’Neill preached, all politics is local, and the success of the Democratic Party from the New Deal to Bill Clinton rested not on JFK’s soaring rhetoric, but rather on the connection made by the Party to real issues that affected the lives of real people. Bill Clinton might have seemed charismatic after a few years in the White House, but at the 1988 convention his hour-long speech was the source of ridicule. It was his political skill and––not unlike George Bush––his ability to connect with people that were the source of his success.

The success of the Republican Party in stripping away elements of the Democratic coalition, whether through Nixon’s Southern Strategy, Reagan’s wooing of the blue collar voter or more recent Republican inroads with Asian and Hispanic voters reflects their ability to convince voters that they care about issues that matter to them. If something has been inverted, it is not Bradley’s pyramids, but rather the odd sense that the Republicans are succeeding in framing themselves as the party of the masses while the Democrats are the party of the elites. For Democrats, the problem is not a reliance on charismatic leaders, but the need to move away from single-issue politics and build their message around principles that have salience for the lives and aspirations of the voters they seek to represent.

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