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.