On Top-Ticket Liberalism Statewide

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Yesterday, local Austin political consultant (and formerly the manager of Chris Bell's campaign) Jason Stanford published an op-ed in the Austin-American Statesman that attacks a problem of Texas Democrats' purity tests on their candidates. He sums his piece up with this conclusion:

You can't fix all the problems of Texas Democrats in one column, but a good place to start would for Team Blue – and this includes me – to be as accepting of ideological diversity as we are of racial diversity.

The story begins with a conversation Jason had after running Chris Bell's campaign, when his conversation partner suggested that Chris Bell's problem in 2006 was that he was not liberal enough. And that idea is just as ridiculous as Jason implied. Chris Bell wasn't too conservative; he was just liberal enough.

Lest we forget, Chris Bell finished within 10 percentage points of Rick Perry's total, the best top-ticket Democratic performance of the decade.

Chris Bell's problem was largely the presence of two strong independent candidates: Carol Strayhorn and Kinky Friedman. Anyone who remembers 2006 already knows this. Carole Strayhorn could fundraise where Chris Bell could not. Kinky was charismatic where Chris was not. If Jason should have done anything differently, it should maybe have been imprisoning Chris Bell with some media trainers for a month and strapping him into a call-chair with donor sheets for many more.

I've heard many cries for liberalism since Bill White's failed 2010 candidacy. I even heard them before that campaign was over, and I eventually joined in on those calls. Bill White was our first statewide candidate since Tony Sanchez to be so well funded, and he acted Republican-lite during the general election. His message wasn't one of a Democrat at all. We fought on because we hoped it would win an election for us, but we were easily wrong and misguided.

I was most hopeful for victory in 2010 after Rasmussen's April poll that showed Bill White 4 points behind. The race was trending closer, it seemed. But then, three polls later, it looked like an 8+ point race again. True, there were polls with spreads closer than 4 points, but they just looked like outliers at that point. The 4 points, after a handful of 6 point polls before the primary, looked part of a trend. The apparent positive trend materialized from a strong message that Bill White had going into the general election: Rick Perry is not good for public education, and I will be.

Then I stopped hearing that message.

With Chris Bell's campaign, however, that was almost all I heard. And in a one-on-one race, it could have worked (maybe). And even with a 4-way race, it got us closer to the finish line than anything else in my memory.

“Democratic primaries in Austin can be as humorless and judgmental as telling a bride that she doesn't deserve to wear white,” wrote Jason, and that's fine. We're liberal here, so we deserve our liberal elected officials. I understand, too, that it would have been a tactical error for Chris Bell be an LGBT crusader, and that not all in this party are pro-choice. I wish we all would be, but that's a conversation for Democratic primaries in Democratic districts and for legislative lobbying – not for elections in a district or state that is more red than blue. Maybe one day, we can talk about a fiery-progressive Texas, but today's not that day.

We still need our candidates to be liberal, though. Chris Bell came closer than anyone else because he offered a liberal solution that appealed to Texans. He offered the Democratic way as an alternative to the Republican way. All of our candidates should do that. Even if it's not a winning strategy (and I think it is), we would be lost if we just succumbed to the views of our Republican counterparts.

To me, and to a lot of liberal activists in this “Austin Bubble,” it's regretfully acceptable for our statewide candidate to have blemishes in their progressive values. But our candidate  still needs to show the voters why they should vote for him or her, the Democratic nominee. And that requires a strong strain of liberalism by itself.

For 2012, that's why we've shouted the names of Wendy Davis and Tommy Lee Jones, because what we see doesn't cut it. It's not that Ric Sanchez isn't liberal here or there – he's not liberal at all, even with public education!

Yes, Team Blue must accept our own ideological diversity. But Team Blue must accept and embrace who we are at our ideological core, as well. (And I'm not the only one who thinks that this conclusion should be more obvious.)


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  1. 2010 was a bad year to be a Democrat
    whether you were Chet Edwards, Ciro Rodriguez or Bill White. Why was that? If you look at the numbers you'll see that by and large it was that Democrats and center/left independents stayed home in Texas and across the nation. Arguing that they stayed home because the candidates were too liberal is crazy because Raul Grijalva and most of the Congressional Progressive Caucus won re-election while many more Blue Dogs lost. So it was the conservative/near Republican Dem's that took the biggest hit.

    I don't live in Austin, I live just northeast of Bexar County and while the County votes 2 to 1 Republican it doesn't mean that the Dem's here are any less Progressive than the Dem's in Austin, there's just a much lower percentage of any kind of Dem.

    In my experience as a Precinct Chair the people I spoke to seemed to feel it didn't matter because there wasn't much difference between D's and R's and many had been disappointed that the President didn't live up to their expectations. After all he didn't close Gitmo, he caved on health care reform, he didn't put up a fight on any number of topics and didn't even put the squeeze on Dem's to vote for the DREAM Act. So between a lackluster performance by our Dem's when they held an overwhelming majority in both houses and an over cooked spaghetti noodle in the White House what was there to get excited about?

    It sure wasn't the our gubernatorial candidate, Bill Whites a good guy and nice person but he had no fire in his belly that those of us who met him face to face could discern and more importantly he had a ho hum message that accepted the Republican framing. When you accept the oppositions framing you've already lost the battle. Democrats nation wide need to learn to stop using their framing, we have to stop saying things like “tax relief” as if it were a burden and instead say “tax breaks for millionaires” as if it is a dirty word. We have to make our message resonate with what George Lakoff refers to as bi-conceptuals by phrasing our positions as nurturing society unlike the R's who frame so much as disciplining unruly kids.

    Saturday the SDEC will get a chance to here from Ed Martin, who so many say is brilliant, on the messaging work he is doing for the party. I intend to listen closely to what he has to say and if he is continuing to use Republican style framing I'll call him on it and I hope that my colleagues on the SDEC will too.

    We've done it their way for over a decade and it hasn't worked trying something different can't be any worse than where we are now. Is there really much difference between 101 R's in the state house and 150? I certainly don't see it.

    • Oh please
      there isn't a difference between a D and an R?  This is the quality of people in your district and Texas.  If people aren't figuring out that difference now or didn't figure it out before, then they deserve their awful fate.  I just don't want to be dragged down with their lazy, whining asses.

      I guess watching American Idol is more important for them.

  2. Just My Two Cents
    I think this is a pretty interesting discussion.  I read the article and I really disagree with Mr. Stafford.  I have been in Texas for about 15 years.  I have rarely seen democrats pitching democratic values.  I don't remember too many primary races where there was competition amongst democratic candidates.  It seemed like most of the time, people hold their breath to see if we do have a candidate.  How can you have a purity test with only one person.  Or the other candidate is someone like Gene Kelly who just runs to throw a wrench into things.

    I agree with Mean Rachel.  Being more like the republican party won't convince anyone to vote for democrats.  It's not like we haven't tried that before.  I think people forget that the Democratic statewide slate was build as the “Dream Team”, representative of Texas.  Their was a candidate for everyone.  Hispanic, African American, etc.  They ran on a rather bland, vanilla, conservative platform.  No red meat for democrats.  The race was all about that elusive “middle”.  What happened?  The base didn't come out to vote.

    I have seen this happen election after election.  Democrats are so focused on getting independents, that they forget about democrats.  Someone told me that there are more Democrats in Texas than republicans.  They just haven't been getting out to vote.  Maybe it's, because we haven't given them a reason to get out.  

    This is just my two cents, but if we are going to take a lesson from the republicans.  They understand that they have to have their base behind them.  They actively talk about republican values.  They throw out red meat.  Acknowledge their supporters importance.  

    This is not a matter of purity.  It is a matter of whether democratic candidate believes in democratic values.  There are core values that we all believe in.  And if they do, are they willing to stand up and fight for them?

    We get our base out and make sure that Texans know what we as democrats stand for.  Do it unashamedly and stop worrying about whether the “middle” votes for us.  I bet you, we will start to win elections.

    Just an aside.  Successful businesses understand that you need to spend at least 50% with existing customers to succeed.  


  3. Past Candidates
    I'm just curious (before the complaints are that statewide candidates aren't appealing to Democrats and such) what would be anyone's assessment of the ideology and appeal of past statewide candidates (aside from judicial)?


    Bill White

    Linda Chavez-Thompson

    Barbara Radnofsky

    Hector Uribe

    Hank Gilbert

    Jeff Weems


    Barack Obama

    Rick Noriega

    Mark Thompson


    Barbara Radnofsky

    Chris Bell

    Maria Alvarado

    David Van Os

    Fred Head

    VaLinda Hathcox

    Hank Gilbert

    Dale Henry

  4. Tunnel vision
    An awful lot of people have the impression that, because everybody they know thinks X, then everybody out there must think X.  It's flat-out wrong.

    Those of us in Austin have to realize that yes, the rest of the state is a heck of a lot more conservative than we are. And yes, that includes a lot of Democrats who will vote for a Chet Edwards but will never vote for a Lloyd Doggett. At the same time, those who argue for more middle-of-the-road candidates neglect the many people who are hungry for a real progressive champion, and who have given up on the Democratic party as a force for progress. They're out there, too.

    What we need is more genuine respect for ideological diversity. OK, this guy is to my left on some issue and that guy is to my right on some other issue, but if they both are fighting for core Democratic values, I'll salute them both.  To me, those values are:

    1) Sticking up for the next generation, leaving them a good education, a clean environment, and a functioning government,

    2) Sticking up for the weakest among us, who don't have the power to stick up for themselves, and

    3) Sticking up for individual conscience, for the right to pray (or not pray) as you choose, to control your own body, to love who you choose, and to hold your head high as you do so.

    Everything else is details. Sure, details matter, and we can disagree about whether to build a water treatment plant or how to set the tax code. Still, those are just means to an end, and we should be able to debate them amicably. The end is building a better future for our children and ourselves.

    For candidates, the central lesson is be true to yourself.  Of course you want to emphasize the positions that resonate more with your audience, but you don't want to fake being liberal when you're not, or fake being centrist when you're not. Pick a few issues that you really care about, learn how to frame them effectively, and run with them.

    As a party, we need to let the candidates be true to themselves.  All too often we insist on finding a candidate who will pitch such-and-such position, and complain when he doesn't do it enough, or when he does it too much and loses.

    So let's scrap the litmus tests, and ask ourselves a few simple questions.  Not “who has the higher progressive rating?”, but “does this candidate share my core values?” Is (s)he smart enough to pick his battles and get things done? Does he have the humility to compromise when compromise is necessary, and the backbone to stand up for principle when compromise isn't possible (like when the other side won't negotiate in good faith)? Do I trust his judgment?  And of course, does he have the political talent to win?  

    • Great sum-up
      This very much summarizes what I think we need to shoot for in candidates. We don't need super liberal or super moderate candidates.

      We just need candidates who fight for those values.

      [problem is: that still too often isn't the case.]

      • Dave Shapiro on

        Framing the political divide as liberal vs. conservative is unrealistic

        Fact of the matter is that the main activity taking place in politics and government at every level is the conflict between the public interest and the special interest. James Madison spelled that out in No. 10 of The Federalist Papers, seventh paragraph below the salutation (that's the paragraph that begins, “The latent cause of factions are thus sown in the nature of man…”). To  focus on the clash of ideologies over the social and cultural issues all-too-often leads us to ignore the war that Corporate America, banks, utilities, industrial polluters, drug companies, insurance companies, developers and the elites of the local business establishment are constantly waging for special privileges, tax advantages, subsidies for private interests, and measures that are hostile to the public interest. These battle lines haven't changed since Hamilton and Jefferson espoused opposing views in the 18th Century. It is important to clearly understand the distinction between the economic issues which motivate working class people and the social/cultural/lifestyle issues which tend to excite those who have fewer concerns with jobs, utility rates and the cost of health care. To illustrate, how do you categorize a union member who favors single-payer national health insurance and is a strong supporter of the public schools but also favors the death penalty and is opposed to abortion? Is that person a liberal or a conservative? Likewise, if there was even one precinct in the entire state with a heavily Hispanic or  African-American voting population that voted for the liberal position on the gay rights referendum earlier in this decade, I'm unaware of it. We're talking about precincts that Obama – and Chris Bell and Bill White and Linda Chavez-Thompson and David Van Os and the entire Democratic ticket year after year – carried by margins ranging from the low 60 percent range to the 90 percent level. But areas such Montrose and Deep Elum and the Anglo liberal boxes of the central cities voted heavily against it, while working class Democratic boxes voted with the black and brown precincts for it. Bottom line: the social/cultural/wedge issues are a loser for statewide Democrats. What turns out the Democratic vote is an authentic populist appeal against the predatory special interests whose candidates exploit the social/cultural/wedge issues today in an effort to divide and conquer just as in the not-too-distant past they exploited the race issue to divide and conquer.    

                     Dave Shapiro  


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