Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Melancon's Loss Shows Democrats Need to Offer a Choice, Not an Echo

Louisiana Democrats pondering the drubbing we've been taking in federal elections lately (with a few prominent exceptions) should read conservative activist Phyllis Schlafly's 1964 book "A Choice, Not an Echo."

In that book, written as an endorsement of Barry Goldwater's bid to win the Republican nomination for the presidency that year, Schlafly called on her party to return to its conservative roots and declared that the party would find electoral success would only come if it embraced a separate identity from Democrats. Republicans, she said, needed to stop being the 'me, too' party.

Charlie Melancon's crushing defeat on November 2 should send a clear message to Louisiana Democrats. The message is not, as Republican mouthpieces would have us believe, 'drop dead.' It is not that the party and our candidates have no future in Louisiana politics.

The message is that Democrats will not win elections again in Louisiana unless and until our candidates stop runing as though we are the "me, too" party of Louisiana, The road to electoral success for Louisiana Democrats will open up when Louisiana Democrats stop trying to sell ourselves as Republican Lite.

The message from last week's election was clear. Republicans know who their candidates are and they are not going to settle for anything less than the 'real thing' — even when that 'real thing' has a personal history that flies in the face of much of what that party once stood for as David Vitter's personal history and the way he's managed his Senate office do. Republicans know they want that real thing. Only some Democrats (and their consultants) think Republicans are willing to accept imitations.

Charlie Melancon is a good man. He is, in fact, many of the things David Vitter once claimed to be — particularly the part about being a devoted family man. But, Charlie  who ran as a Democrat, did everything he could to distance himself from his party and its core constituents of African-Americans and activists who have repeatedly demonstrated a willingness — make that an eagerness — to work on behalf of Democratic candidates who will at least make a modicum of effort to align themselves with the party.

That record speaks for itself in presidential election years where, since 1996, no national Democratic ticket has spent significant money in Louisiana after the nominating convention and yet those activists somehow manage to produce vote totals of 40% and upward. Melancon got 38% of the vote against Vitter. He lost core Democratic voters by running against the party and away from its activist base.

Charlie's campaign never reached out to the party's base in any meaningful way. In fact, his campaign insisted on running away from his president, his party and our signature issue of health care reform via the Affordable Care Act. Those actions were at the core of his defeat. Anyone who paid any attention to the campaign knows that Vitter's campaign focused on tying Melancon to the very things he sought to distance himself from, all of which were things that made Charlie look like a Democrat.

It Started With The Affordable Care Act

Charlie's problems started with healthcare reform, which President Obama signed into law in March of this year as the Affordable Care Act (ACA). Melancon wanted nothing to do with it. He stayed away from it as much as possible. He avoided opportunities to speak in support of the issue in 2009, when they bill was being shaped and the opposition to the bill in the form of the Tea Party shouting matches erupted.

There was an opportunity then for leadership in helping define the issue. Senator Mary Landrieu did some work on that then, taking part in a televised forum on healthcare reform organized by the Lafayette Parish Democratic Executive Committee that ran in three markets (Shreveport, Lafayette and Lake Charles). Melancon was invited to participate. He refused.

Senator Landrieu made clear that she opposed the public option that was then still part of the discussion, but spoke in support of other aspects of the legislation such as health insurance exchanges, expansion of Medicaid, and tax credits for small businesses.

Charlie's refusal to engage on the issue was apparent to friends and foes alike. His silence cost him dearly in credibility but the vacuum his silence left was filled by the anti-reform rhetoric of the Tea Partiers that not only distorted the debate, but their disinformation helped radicalize voters and made the streets safe for David Vitter to appear in public — even as troubles related to the management of his Senate office appeared to re-enforce his problems with women.

Once the grandstanding ends and more provisions of the ACA kick in, Louisiana families and businesses (as well as the healthcare provider community) are going to find that there is a lot to like in this law. As this happens, Democrats should be pointing to those positives and reminding people who was feeding the distortions.

The Moratorium Hoax

Like most public officials in Louisiana, Charlie and his campaign tried to find a way to take the Republican position on the deep water drilling moratorium. That the claims about the economic impact of the moratorium were a hoax never crossed his mind. He was intent on trying to win over the oilfield service industry that had at one time supported his runs for Congress. It was never going to happen.

Opposition to the moratorium was immediately political because it threatened the pockets of stalwart Republican financial backers, primarily Donal Bollinger and Gary Chouest and their families and networks of limited liability corporations.

To anyone without direct financial ties to the offshore oil industry, the moratorium (issued a month after the BP Deepwater Horizon blowout occurred and while thousands of barrels of oil were gushing uncontrolled into the Gulf of Mexico) not only made sense, it was the prudent thing to do during what was predicted to be an active hurricane season.

Instead of showing some leadership and defining the issue, Charlie again opted to pursue the GOP Lite position of passing a resolution calling for the end of the moratorium. It did not work as oil service money flowed into Vitter's coffers almost as freely as BP's oil gushed into the Gulf.

Again, Melancon's intended audience was not falling for the 'lite' take on the issue and he missed an opportunity to display leadership and give Democrats a reason to rally to his banner.

Adding insult to injury, Melancon's campaign then trumpeted his opposition to President Obama on both healthcare and the moratorium in television spots in the campaign's final weeks.

Historical Perspective

As a rule, Democrats are not going to have more money than Republicans in campaigns. When we win races, though, it is through organization, mobilization and focus. All campaigns rely to some extent on volunteers, but Democratic candidates need them more to help offset the financial edge that Republicans tend to have (it is not always the case, as when an incumbent Democrat seeks re-election as Mary Landrieu did in 2008).

But volunteers have to be motivated. They have to be given reasons to believe that the donation of their time and effort is worthwhile. The prospect of victory can be one of those things, but clearly the record of volunteerism in the presidential campaigns demonstrates that is not the prime motivation.

The prime motivation is that the candidate that these volunteers work for reflects their values and will stand up for those values on the campaign trail and fight for them once elected.

Democratic candidates who position themselves as Republican Lite candidates automatically put up a wall between that volunteer base and their campaigns. It is like restricting the oxygen supply to an athlete or to an engine. It will ultimately diminish performance. This is particularly true when a Democrat is challenging an incumbent Republican.

Volunteers make those commitments because they feel (and want to feel) that they can make a difference. They bring a passion and energy to campaigns that cannot be otherwise obtained.

Democrats who cut themselves off from this volunteer base do so at their own peril.

Yes, President Obama is not popular in Louisiana. But, trying to distance himself from the president and his party did not help Charlie Melancon. It did, though, cut him off from the people who might have made a difference in his campaign.

Could they have won it for him, probably not considering the elements in this election cycle. But, in a low turnout campaign (only 43.1% of Louisiana voters bothered to go to the polls last week), an enthusiastic base could have boosted turnout and might have made for at least a more respectable showing. Go to the Secretary of State's Election Results page and use the graphical election results option to get turnout percentages across the state.

Conservative Republicans took Phyllis Schafly's advice to heart in 1964 and began building a conservative movement within their party that produced Ronald Reagan and the conservatism that has ruled that party in recent decades. She said Republicans could succeed only if they offered voters "A Choice, Not an Echo."

Louisiana Democrats can resume winning state elections if we take that message to heart and embrace our party's base and philosophy. The Republicans have their candidates.

With statewide elections looming next year and the Jindal administration promising to continue relentless cuts to healthcare and higher education, Louisiana Democrats need to start looking for candidates who are truly ours.

Voters might actually embrace a choice that would take us off of the current path to disaster.

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