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James Carville on NPR: 40 More Years of Democratic Rule

May 8, 2009

James Carville, the entertaining and tenacious Democratic campaign strategist who most famously worked with Bill Clinton in the early 90’s, has a new book coming out that argues we are at the beginning of another historically long period of Democratic rule. You can read an excerpt and listen to an interview with him at NPR. In this world of sliding political allegiances and unpredictable world events, where the Republicans can take over Congress in 1994 with historically high approval ratings and find themselves substantially marginalized and in an ever-decreasing minority in 2008, any predictions about the political future should be greeted with some skepticism. But the man is funny and he’s close to the center of political life in this country, so he’s worth listening to, even if you have to take his pronouncements with a grain of salt. Among them, he argues that the GOP started down its road to irrelevance by placing too much faith in a strategy memo written by Matthew Dowd:

The best authority on the content of the…memo that I know of is Thomas Edsall, who wrote about it in Building Red America. Here’s Edsall’s summary of the momentous memo that sealed the fate of the Republicans in 2008 and beyond:

Dowd analyzed poll data and found that the percentage of voters who could be classified as genuinely “swing” or persuadable voters had shrunk from roughly 24 percent of the electorate, to 6 percent or less. This meant that developing governing and election strategies geared at building up turnout among base votes became much more important than developing governing and election strategies designed to appeal to swing, or middle- of- the- road, voters. Persuading a non- voting conservative, a regular listener to Rush Limbaugh, or a hunter determined to protect gun rights to register and get to the polls became much more important and more cost effective than going after the voter who is having trouble making up his mind as to which candidate to vote for. The result was the adoption of policies designed to please the base (tax cuts for the wealthy, restricting abortion, appointing very conservative judges, opposition to stem cell research) that ran counter to Bush’s 2000 claim to be a “uniter, not a divider.”

Essentially Dowd concluded that trying to win elections by appealing to people in the middle, the vaunted swing vote, was a waste of time. Dowd posited that the real way to win elections was to appeal to and mobilize base voters. In essence Dowd repackaged a strategy many other Republicans, including Reagan, had used before, playing to the base to get elected, and suggested taking it quite a ways further than the GOP had ever dreamed. The Bush team embraced Dowd’s memo enthusiastically.

The Bush administration thoroughly and relentlessly implemented the recommendation of the Dowd memo. The result was the rise of the Christian right in U.S. politics and the establishment of a near neo- theocracy, and, of course, a disastrous war, among other things. That memo may well go down in history as one of the most important, influential political documents of the century (if anyone can find it).

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