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The Democrats' Branding Problem

One of the old but vital aphorisms of American politics is that Americans are ideological conservatives but operational liberals. They oppose government in the abstract, but favor it in most of the particulars. (The primary exceptions being programs seen as benefitting only the poor, only the rich, or only foreigners.)

A corrollary of that premise is that Republicans have an easier time expressing their views as an abstract ideology. They're against big government. That's a popular sentiment, unless you try to translate it into a governing program. But Democrats can't say they're for big government, both because they don't favor big government per se the way Republicans oppose it, and because expressing a generalized pro-government philosophy in the abstract is not a vote-winner. Republicans want to conduct the debate in abstract terms (big government versus small), while Democrats want to conduct it on specific questions (tax cuts for the rich versus Medicare).

John Harris and James Homann have a big piece today about Democrats who are upset that President Obama has failed to create a big ideological brand for his policies:

In interviews, a variety of political activists, operatives and commentators from across the party's ideological spectrum presented similar descriptions of Obama’s predicament: By declining to speak clearly and often about his larger philosophy — and insisting that his actions are guided not by ideology but a results-oriented “pragmatism” — he has bred confusion and disappointment among his allies, and left his agenda and motives vulnerable to distortion by his enemies.

They cite two opposing strands of criticism. The critics on the left want Obama to make a straightforward defense of government. The critics on the right want him to create a Clintonian, Third Way rubric.

The flaw with the pro-government rubric is clear enough. The Clintonian, Third Way, steer-not-row rubric is that it was always vague and failed to provide any real substantive guidelines for what constituted an appropriate government intervention and what didn't. Lord knows the New Democrats devoted enormous effort to fleshing out their philosophy, but none of its lasted, because ultimately the only convincing answer is that Democrats are in favor of government when there's convincing evidence of market failure. It just doesn't work as a bumper sticker solution. Ultimately, I think "we're for what works" is probably as good an answer as you can find, not that it makes for such a satisfying or effective answer.