Here's Why Democrats Shouldn't Get Complacent About Republican Disarray

The left is crowing over the GOP's intraparty feud. But the progressive advantage isn't as entrenched as many of them seem to believe.

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John Kerry supporters stand in the figurative and metaphorical rain on Election Night 2004. (Reuters)

If you're a Democrat and had never experienced true Schadenfreude before, chances are you did this week.

On Tuesday, the Republican National Committee released its "Growth and Opportunity Project," a document that RNC Chairman Reince Priebus dubbed an "autopsy" of his party's 2012 failings. Any self-respecting Democrat surely derived at least a little pleasure from the GOP's pain in admitting that too many Americans found the Republican Party "scary" and full of "stuffy old men." I sure did.

And the fallout has been almost more delicious. Rush Limbaugh castigated the report and insisted Republicans remain as conservative as ever. Evangelical leaders worried that a modernizing GOP would alienate its Christian base. And conservative commentator David Frum -- correctly, in my view -- lamented the lack of new policy ideas in the document.

Hysterical, right, fellow Dems? After notching a victory last November against weak competition, it's tempting to be content with our advantages in organizing, data analysis, and candidate quality, and to kick back and enjoy the Republican civil war.

Not so fast. That attitude guarantees the next defeat will come much sooner than Republican disarray suggests. Now is the time for Democrats to engage in some serious introspection of our own.

The Republican self-examination punted on policy reform. As long as the GOP keeps its policy orthodoxy leaning right, Democrats can occupy ideological territory from the middle leftward. While much of the country wishes a pox on both parties these days, President Obama's major policy positions -- on handling the economy, budget negotiations, social issues, or national security -- are at least less toxic to voters than the GOP's.

But when it comes to the mechanics, Democrats can't remain complacent. The party doesn't need the GOP's overhaul, but fine-tuning today will keep Democrats ahead of the competition for years to come. Here are five issues Democrats must consider to ensure the 2012 victory isn't squandered.

First, progressives need to make serious investments in intellectual firepower. Democrats' advantage on policy is new and could prove temporary. Ever wonder why Republicans seem to beat Democrats off the blocks in defining the terms of so many public debates on issues from spending to healthcare?

In part, it's because of the army of analysts employed by the Heritage Foundation, American Enterprise Institute, and Cato Institute. According to the most recent data available at Guidestar.com, these conservative research and advocacy organizations raise over $140 million a year. Their left-leaning and much younger counterparts at the Center for American Progress, Third Way, and the Progressive Policy Institute (where I am a senior fellow) together lag behind with a meager $40 million annual haul combined.

Closing the gap is possible but requires buy-in from on high. If a presidential candidate can legally ask donors to contribute to a super PAC, then surely a nominee -- and other prominent party figures -- can make concerted efforts to steer donors toward allied think tanks.

Second, the Democratic Party must avoid an impending woman problem -- not to mention a Latino problem, a gay problem, and a youth problem.

At first glance, these mainstays of the Obama coalition aren't going anywhere. In the 2012 contest, Barack Obama carried women voters 54-44 as Republicans self-destructed over rape and birth control, including comments largely responsible for losing Senate races in Missouri and Indiana that favored GOP candidates. Republican positions on immigration drove Latinos to vote Democrat at a clip of more than 70 percent, and nearly 80 percent of gays stuck with Obama. Young voters have been overwhelmingly drawn to the "Obama magic" since day one.

All these groups could waver if Democrats continue to exploit them as coalition building blocks and pocketbooks, rather than integrating them as full partners.

Presented by

Jim Arkedis is a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute. He is the co-author of Political Mercenaries.

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