The importance of remembering why we lose- not just that we lose

by: Adam Bink

Thu Dec 10, 2009 at 11:45

I passed by this vehicle this morning and seeing these three bumper stickers made me piece together something that's been stewing in my head about the effect of failed campaigns on dialogue in our movements.

To boil my theory down for simplicity's sake, I see two types of failed political campaigns: ones that are lost because the voters disagreed with one campaign's position; and ones that are lost based on campaign malpractice. There are certainly some of both and other types, but I want to focus on these.

The Dukakis campaign in 1988 was arguably the worst-run campaign in modern presidential history. I say arguably because it was perhaps topped by the Gore 2000 campaign. I don't remember the conversations in progressive politics after Dukakis, but the ones after Gore were the usual soul-searching, how-could-we-lose-this types. Gore was too weak. Too pro-corporate (the Nader argument). Too class warfare (his people vs. the powerful message didn't work argument). Didn't emphasize the Clinton administration record enough (Bill Clinton's argument). Too Southern. Not Southern enough. On and on. Those arguments- not that Gore gave away the race- defined the narrative. I have no doubt the same reams of op-eds and commentary on cable shows and books on what went wrong were printed after Dukakis' loss.

After Kerry lost in 2004, I remember the wave of why-the-Democrats-don't-get-religion-or-rural-voters bestsellers. What's the Matter with Kansas?, published in 2004, became a hit. God's Politics: Why the Right Gets It Wrong and the Left Doesn't Get It, by Jim Wallis.  The Values Campaign? The Christian Right And the 2004 Elections. A Matter of Faith: Religion and the 2004 Presidential Election. While many believe Kerry lost in part because no incumbent President loses in wartime- among other reasons- many believe he also lost in part because of a mismanaged campaign. But the usual books on how the Democrats don't get religion and the Republicans do were printed anyway, and defined the narrative. I bet if the Obama campaign blew it and gave away the race entirely, the NYT bestseller list would be filled with why-America-isn't-ready-for-a-black-President-yet books anyway, and they would dominate the narrative, too.

After Gore and Kerry and no doubt Dukakis, narratives emerge that do not tell the entire story. Perhaps it is not that voters were sending a message that Democrats suck or whatever in 1988, 2000 and 2004. Instead it is that Dukakis and Gore, and perhaps Kerry, could have won but blew it. That story gets overshadowed, and in some cases- witness congressional Democrats' culture of caution following the 2000 election results- these conversations are ultimately damaging to our movement.

I'm discussing all of this because of the ongoing conversation regarding whether the LGBT movement has to shift strategy altogether in the wake of recent setbacks on marriage equality. As you may have noticed by my post-mortems on what went wrong in Maine and New York State, I am all for soul-searching, analysis, and the like. What I am not for is the narrative that voters will never be with us on marriage or Democrats are too xyz or whatever, when in reality, we lost some of these campaigns on mismanagement. I am not alone in believing that a better-run No On 8 campaign in California- one that did not have an atrocious GOTV program, a committee structure bordering on campaign malpractice, and that did not blow leads of 14 and 17 points in late September- could have won in California. If they did, we would never be having this conversation about how the marriage equality movement has failed. The more I think and talk to folks about New York State, the more I think it's possible we never had the votes in hand in the first place, even while Duane was saying we did. Poor tactics (in part) blew it, but here we are talking about shifting strategy completely. If we lose in New Jersey this month not because legislators or voters aren't there yet, but because our side screwed up and blew it, it doesn't matter. It will start yet another round of "we have to abandon marriage equality until the old people die off!" conversations. Even if we lose because of circumstances beyond our control, but unrelated to the substance of the marriage issue or tactics, leads to a "bad luck" result, it doesn't matter.

The story of why we lose gets forgotten too easily. And like with Prop 8, like with the 0/31 statistic of losses on marriage that ignores the circumstances around all but two of them, only the result- not how we got to the result- is remembered.

My point is that it is critical to interpret the results correctly and not to jump to incorrect conclusions about what kind of message voters are sending in presidential or ballot or legislative elections. I wrote recently we have to go district by district, not party by party, in targeting our opponents in New York State. In these discussions, we must determine whether our strategy needs to be re-examined on a fight by fight basis, not a result by result basis, in finding our way forward.

Adam Bink :: The importance of remembering why we lose- not just that we lose

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Nothing substantial to add off of the top of my head (0.00 / 0)
other than to say, "fantastic post'.

It was amazing to me to see people, after 2000, talking about how Bush/Rove ran a good campaign and Gore/Brazile ran a bad one, when it seemed to me like both of them were trying to give the Presidency away to the other one.  Gee, wonder why turnout was so low for that one!

Only wanted to add (0.00 / 0)
that Gore lost the election, because he failed to carry his home state of Tennessee.

Multiple causality (0.00 / 0)
when the whole thing turns on a hair, there can be a million reasons.  He was 100,000 votes shy in MO, not to mention the whole Florida debacle, which could have been averted by just being marginally more appealing.  

[ Parent ]
Maybe (4.00 / 2)
I thought Republicans made a huge mistake by putting the emphasis they did on Tennessee.  It was an ego thing.  Meanwhile they lost states like PA or MI that looked to be in their column a little before the election.

Among the reasons Gore lost:

The NRA effort in southern Ohio and West Virginia.  West Virginia went from going for Dukakis to going for W twice and McCain at the Presidential level.

Not enough effort in NH, a basically honest count state we lost by 8,000 votes.  NH, of course, was trending Democratic.

The obvious pro W media bias.  When Gore quoted outside non-partisan experts about how Bush's tax cuts would benefit the wealthy the NY Times weiughedd in very heavily on the side of Bush.  That was the sign that they have gone over to the dark side.  Jerks.

Cute and continual slaps at Gore for the way he dressed, sounded, sighed.  Maureen Dowd, this means you.

No investigation of W's draft dodging, drug use, drunkenness, etc.

Failure to claim the economic benefits of Clinton.  Gore basically was offering full employment, no war, and pledged not to fool around outside his marriage.

Failure to tie W to past poor economies under Republicans:  Bush daddy's recession, Reagan's 10% unemployment and overall mediocre growth.  Ford's mediocre performance.  A recession under Nixon.  Three recessions under Eisenhower.  A bbooming stock market under both Clinton and JFK-LBJ vs. Republicans unable to keep up with inflation on the Dow.  Better income distribution.  A rising tide really did lift all boats this time.  A growth of manufacturing jobs under Clinton.  The longed for budget surplusses: the first since LBJ in FY 1969.  Nome others since Truman.

Environmentalism.  I knew Bush would screw up the Parks, and he did.  People loved Yosemite and Yellowstone.  Don't mess with them.

Blatant cheating in Florida including the open suppression of black votes.

Cheapness in Florida by Democratic counties.  Republican counties spent the money and 99% of their votes got counted.  Democratic counties used old, crappy voting machines and at least 3% of their votes were not counted. It saved a few bucks and lost the country.  Bad decision.

The mailings to Jacksonville blacks by Duval County that instructed tham to "vote on every page" thereby cancelling tens of thousands of black votes.

Joe Lieberman "allowing" Bush to gain 300 extra Florida votes from military voters who were blatantly too late.  WTF?  It "should" have been no worse than a 186 vote margin.

The Dade County recount being stopped dead in the water by the "Brooks Brothers Riot."

38,000 illegally registered Republican votes being eligible.

240 Haitians unable to vote because instructions were not in their language as mandated by law.

Theresa LePore.  Not up to the job by a long shot.

The find-an-excuse incredibly partisan Supreme Court.  They disenfranchise black voters using the constitutional protection of minorities as their excuse.  Clarence Thomas and friends need a brain transplant.

All told, lots of excuses.  Many, many things went right in the last few days to allow Gore to win the election.  Too bad it was stolen by the Republicans.  Never forget.  Never forgive.  Never be bipartisan.

[ Parent ]
we lose when we win too (4.00 / 2)
Why we lost?

More to the point, why do we lose even when we win?

Isn't that the most comprehensive way to sum up the Obama administration to date?

We need to go district to district, door to door, person to person and patiently explain why both the Democrats and the Republicans [in particular the party power brokers] are but adjuncts of Wall Street.

Political campaigns are not about the election, they are about the selection.

The selections are make on Wall Street.

Consider the following:

Below are the 2008 campaign contributions from the combined finance, insurance and real estate industries--three of the biggest and most powerful sectors in our economy. It is the money given to the top 20 recipients in the Senate.

1 Obama, Barack (D) $39,583,363
2 McCain, John (R) $28,972,863
3 Clinton, Hillary (D-NY) $20,262,274

[the presidential campaigners]

4 Dodd, Chris (D-CT) $5,967,536
5 Coleman, Norm (R-MN) $2,801,390
6 McConnell, Mitch (R-KY) $2,423,308
7 Cornyn, John (R-TX) $2,093,948
8 Sununu, John E (R-NH) $1,794,680
9 Chambliss, Saxby (R-GA) $1,714,328
10 Baucus, Max (D-MT) $1,623,625
11 Biden, Joseph R Jr (D-DE) $1,620,286
12 Dole, Elizabeth (R-NC) $1,547,841
13 Durbin, Dick (D-IL) $1,354,633
14 Smith, Gordon H (R-OR) $1,320,819
15 Lautenberg, Frank R (D-NJ) $1,297,919
16 Collins, Susan M (R-ME) $1,243,537
17 Reed, Jack (D-RI) $1,117,855
18 Landrieu, Mary L (D-LA) $1,080,103
19 Reid, Harry (D-NV) $1,011,251
20 Alexander, Lamar (R-TN) $1,009,804


Notice how Wall Street makes absolutely no distinction whatsoever between Dems and Reps. This is what needs to be communicated about "democracy" in America.

yes, they'll give money to both sides (0.00 / 0)
and then extra money to the side that appears headed for victory.

[ Parent ]
Yup - senators have other priorities (4.00 / 1)
Everyone knows most senators are there for decently long run (three full terms, at least) and enough seniority (a chairmanship is always nice) to give them good lobbying cred once they get dumped or choose to walk. Plus the social cred, natch.

To achieve this, they need to be on the phone several hours a day begging for cash.

That's the deal - everything else is means to an end. If single-payer gets it done, yay single payer. If reintroducing slavery is the only way - well, weren't those spirituals great?!

No doubt, other constitutions would produce different incentives.

[ Parent ]
several points here (4.00 / 1)
1. Every campaign will do some things very well and also make some mistakes; winners and losers alike.

2. We tend to attached so much importance to the outcome/winner that we assume they "blew it" (if they lose) or were geniuses (if they win). Neither is probably true.

3. While people say Kerry blew it (Swiftboat non-response) it is just as possible that his campaign over performed and came up just short.

4. It is undeniable the McCain campaign made many mistakes. Nevertheless, had they run a perfect campaign they would likely still have lost given the tenor of the times (Bush's incompetence at every facet of governing). If the McCain camp had run that near perfect campaign and lost by 1% the narrative would be even more about how they blew it than it is with losing by 7%. Their glaring errors get mostly a free pass because they weren't going to win anyway.

5. Yes, Gore could have focused more effort on Tennessee and won the race without Florida. But that's the benefit of hindsight. There were TEN other states that were even closer. Can you really afford to spend less time/effort in those states to try and carry Tennessee?

6. I liked Dukakis but his personal performance in debates and campaigning arguably cost him some of the lead (debatable in size) that he had coming out of the conventions. After 8 years of Reagan (unpopular at the end) and Republican policies, voters were willing to make a switch. Dukakis didn't close the sale.

We have been making substantial gains in Washington state for LGBT equality... (0.00 / 0)
...but we have done so, in part, by taking steps in stages.

A well thought-out strategy matters.  

A well-educated voting public matters.  

We have to be good at both wherever we want to move forward.  

Reliance on our representatives to do the whole job isn't realistic.

As always, it comes down to what we, who are willing to make the sacrifices necessary, are willing to do in spite of the various obstructions we are bound to face.

Gore WON (4.00 / 4)
The mantra from 2000 should be, Je me souviens.

What a strange post at this particular moment. (0.00 / 0)
Al Gore was one of the most hawkish Dems during his time in the Senate, and John Kerry came to the convention with a military salute. Now BO. Who the fuck cares about Gore, Kerry, and Obama? The Dem establishment gives us the same candidate, over and over.

What a strange comment in response (0.00 / 0)
I'm not talking about the policy positions of the candidates at all. I'm talking about the post-election narrative that follows.

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[ Parent ]
Of course. And I know your post is about gay marriage. (0.00 / 0)
I just think that you combined two fronts that have fundamental differences. The drive for a change in the marriage laws is driven by a desire for equality and justice. The campaigns for corporate, war-mongering Dems, not so much.

[ Parent ]
No (0.00 / 0)
My post isn't about gay marriage marriage equality principally. It's about narratives that form after the election that will form irregardless of whether elections were won or lost based on those narratives. Obama could lose the election by 5 votes due to a GOTV screw-up in Ohio and reams of "Why America isn't ready for a black president" books would fly off the shelves. Which is why I don't understand what you're discussing and your comment re "who gives a fuck about Gore, Kerry and Obama".

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[ Parent ]
Because you clearly imply parallels between the two struggles-- (0.00 / 0)
As far as the narratives that get written after the fact, it is unclear just what the alternative is. The attempt to get to the "truth" would be the result of a "narrative" subject to the same problems. It would be stupid to deny that Obama's election was due in large part to the changing demographics in this country and the creation of a substantial group of whites who are willing to vote for a Black man. Compared to Gore and Kerry, Obama was able to shrink the percentage by which he lost the white vote by quite a bit. If he had lost the white vote by as much as Gore and Kerry, why would saying that "america isn't ready for a black president" be invalid? Such a conclusion would be crude, but it wouldn't be the result of fantasy.

[ Parent ]
But Obama won. (0.00 / 0)
One could argue that Gore won as well.

Clinton was more hawkish than all three.

[ Parent ]
Why Democrats lose. (4.00 / 2)
The Republican party has won Presidential elections since the sixties by leveraging the south, by dividing people on cultural and racial issues, by simplistic and false policy arguments, and by diverting the discussion away from policy and towards personality, and this has been a difficult strategy to counter because the media loves trivia and hates policy, and the average voter doesn't have time to research the issues.  The errors of the candidates are far secondary to this theme.

Greater any of Gore's errors was the war waged against him by the press, and the fact that the press accepted the credibilty of the most unqualified candidate perhaps ever run by one of the major parties.  (Gore won, by the way).  Kerry tried to emphasize his military credentials, which would normally be a sensible strategy, but for the media running wild with absurd allegations and accepting wholesale the Republican's portrait of him as vacilating, and in the end Rove effectively leveraged evangelicals.  I think it's hard to make an argument that someone who lost an election by 1% or someone who won the popular vote self-evidently committed campaign malpractice or had his policies rejected by the voters.  

Ideal match (0.00 / 0)
Along with everything else, CA and ME seemed to teach that the "best" environment for a gay marriage vote is a Democratic state that is heavily urban or suburban, has a small Mormon and now Catholic voting %, and has a small black poulation.

The heavy involvement of the Catholic Church in Maine obscures the fact that only 22.2% of its population is Catholic, the 16th highest % in the country.  Btw, the 13 most Catholic "states" (includes DC at #11) are all Democratic.  Maine is 16th and the only red state above it is #14 North Dakota.  The involvement of the Catholic church against gay marriage in NJ (#3) and NY (#5) is troubling and threatening.

The five most Catholic states and 7 of the top 10 are in the Northeast.  RI tops 50% (51.7%), MA is close at 47.7% followed by NJ (40.4%), CT (40.3%), NY (39.8%).  The second 5 are NM (36.9%), NH (34.9%), WI (31.6%), IL (31.2%), and PA (31.0%).  Not far back are CA (29.8%), DC (28.0%), ND (27.9%), MD (25.6%), and VT (24.3%).  Then comes Maine (22.2%).

Maine and California are close to perfect environments.  The two best in the country would seem to be, in order, Oregon and Washington state.

Unless the influence of the bishops is curtailed, prospects are very limited.  The 800 pound gorilla in the room is stomping around big time.  Jesus preached about curing, feeding, housing, and clothing a lot more than the issues that the bishops use to define the new Catholic church: anti-abortion, anti-birth control, anti-gay.  In the long term this will cost the Catholic Church much of its relevance and membership.  In the short term it is a real danger.  

Candidates (0.00 / 0)
In the modern media era, I think there's a lot to be said for the candidates themselves. Dukakis, Gore, and Kerry were simply not very appealing presidential candidates, and not very well-equipped to run for national office. They didn't have "it," where it = some mix of telegenicness, charisma, cool, warmth, wit, political instincts, ability to think on their feet... all the things that make up retail politics ability in the modern era. Obama and Clinton (and GW Bush) did. Out of those three, I think only Gore possibly could have won with what he had. His campaign inexplicably did their best to hide everything about him that might possibly be appealing and human. I figure Kerry overperformed against a better politician in a tough environment, and Dukakis did about as well as could be expected for a guy like him against Reagan's veep at a conservative moment. A perfect campaign might have won that one, but probably not. A decent campaign would have at least made it closer.

Campaigns can do a lot for good or ill, but in the end they can't make people like someone who isn't particularly likable or make someone who isn't particularly good at politics look like they are.  

it would have been interesting to see (0.00 / 0)
how Clinton would have fared running against Bush the younger in 1992.

I don't think he'd have won, frankly. Especially without the  spoiler effect of Perot to draw votes away from the GOP.

Clinton clearly had the advantage of mediagenicity over Bush I, but that would not have been the case with Bush II. And Bush II was much better at turning out the evangelical base that Clinton tried to win over in 1992.

He ran a campaign based on being a handsome young Washington outsider who rose from obscurity to make good, promising hope and change and to rise above the partisan divide and heal the wounds left by a President Bush. (Sixteen years later, a young senator named Barack Obama would run an eerily similar campaign).

Gore chose to fight on the issues, because he could not have beaten Bush in a popularity contest. And he won, on the basis of the issues. Which gives me some hope for this country.

[ Parent ]
The elections were DIRTY! (0.00 / 0)
And the electronic voting machines were RIGGED!  If we don't get rid of them soon and go back to openly observable hand-counted paper ballots, we're all done for!

[ Parent ]
The blame lies with the people themselves. (4.00 / 2)
Bush over Gore?

Bush over Kerry?

That's suicide.

The Dominating Dialogue (0.00 / 0)
In my frustration with Obama I have checked out and am studying Foucault. Now I can't read anything online without seeing it through Foucault's eyes.

So here goes. The Dominating Dialogue concerns marriage equality. So why is that the Dominating Dialogue when the word marriage is the hot button issue?

It's marriage that holiest  of sacraments that is being defiled between two people of the same sex. Civil Unions is the phrasing that needs to be substituted.  The unstated reason for marriage equality is so that a partner can receive the same considerations financial wise that married couples receive.  So base the argument on that. As soon as you say the word marriage the feathers go up on the back of their necks.

There are almost always two marriages. The civil one and the religious ceremony. The religious official has the marriage license form that is signed after the ceremony. Many people just go for the civil ceremony and skip the church thing. One is civil bestowing all  rights of law, the other is sacred, a spiritual and/or religious occasion.

These two acts need to be separated in the minds of people who vote. Marriage law goes way back and has always been a property issue. Between  kings, queens,princes and princesses it was a way of uniting that was better than war. a substitute for war. That's all. Educate the public in its history. Way back poor people often didn't get married. Or they waited until the  priest came and did weddings but lived together and had children before they were wed.

Change the Dominating Dialogue and you can win equality. Because that is what it is really about. You are not about infringement of marriage rites or rights. Whichever.  You are about civil equality. The state needs to recognize that with its benefits. If the state and the pension funds would recognize the equality, who would care whether the bigots did or not. Partners need the same social security benefits married people have, they need the same insurance benefits married people have, the same rights concerning their partner when a severe medical problem arises that married people have (I've been in this situation and it is horrifying). All these civil legal occurences need the same protection.

Fight your war on your own terms. Do not let them frame the terms on their terms. It's the wishy washy stew of both worlds that is defeating you.


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