Sunday, December 12


"Differentiation" has been a buzzword in business strategy and discourse for such a long time, at least a decade, that it amazes me that the DLC, the most pro-business of all Democratic organizations, hasn't realized its relevance to the electoral process.

Differentiation refers to the pursuit of market or service offerings that distinguish one competitor from another. Without differentiation, all products and services become commodities indistinguishable except by price. For example, sand is pretty much sand. Unless one aggregates company can offer an additional value beyond his competitors (e.g., product quality, superior service, personal relationship, transportation savings, technology advantages), the product is subject to a downward price spiral as industry participants are forced to compete solely on price. As you would expect, there's not much opportunity for differentiation in the aggregates industry. That's not true in the politics business.

The DLC has been acting like a sand salesman, telling Americans that the Democratic Party is not so different from the Republican, except that we'll do it more competently. (Not great since 51% of us think that to say the president isn't competent is to empower our enemies.) As an afterthought, we say that we'll see that more of the profit goes into the people's pockets (or programs) than they will. That's not an especially provocative value offering given our credibility problem for doing so. Republicans have, for decades, been perceived as the party of fiscal responsibility. Now we obviously have an opportunity here, given the Bush administration's flagrant disregard for Republican history and tradition and Clinton's well-remembered success in turning deficits into surpluses and overseeing a renewed American prosperity that reached both the low-income electorate as well as the wealthy.

But it's not enough of a differentiation. It's not a powerful enough (or believable enough, at this time) argument to persuade voters to contract with us instead of them.

We can't agree with all of Bush's policies -- the Iraq war, for example -- or buckle under to his agenda -- Social Security and income tax reforms -- and expect the voters to see the difference between us, even if we say "we'll do it more competently." We must point out our ideological differences, position ourselves as the defenders of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, educate the populace on precisely how a successful Bush agenda will affect them and the nation. THAT'S the narrative that will grip the electorate. We must create an atmosphere of urgency and crisis, not, as the Republicans have done, about bogus threats, but about the very real threat the Bush agenda presents to average Americans.

If we're not DIFFERENT in strategic, ideological and fundamental ways from the Republican Party, we might as well hang it up and run candidates as moderate Republicans.


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