Rush Limbaugh is drawing some ridicule for saying, "One thing we can all do is stop assuming that the way to beat [the Democrats] is with better policy ideas." But I think he's basically right. Good ideas are meritorious. But being meritorious isn't what wins elections. Most voters have only the faintest idea what policy ideas candidates advocate when running or implement when in office. External conditions (such as the economy, but war and scandal matter also) have much more influence over which party wins.In other words, the public is misinformed and stupid, policy is useless, and the Republicans lost the election (not that the Democrats won).
A few years ago I made a more extensive argument against the idea that "new ideas" were the key to a Democratic resurgence. It was written in the wake of the 2004 election, when there was near-total agreement on right, left and center that Democratic Party's electoral defeat was a result of its intellectual defeat. My argument drew a lot of ridicule, mostly from people who didn't understand the distinction between the public value of good ideas (high) and the political value of good ideas (low)--see Jonah Goldberg and Kenneth Baer and Andrei Cherny. Baer and Cherny wrote:
Now, it is progressives that have a choice. Most of the voices inside Washington believe that conservative errors and overreaching--along with more effective voter targeting and door-knocking by Democrats, more compelling TV ads and new "frames" for old policies--will yield enough votes so that in a closely divided nation, Democrats might eke out a victory and regain power.
I think it's pretty clear that the Democratic comeback since then has had next-to-nothing to with developing "new ideas" and almost everything to do with Republican failure, the state of the economy, and a really effective presidential nominee. yes, Democratic ideas proved more popular, but they really were the same basic ideas the party had advocated for years.
This argument fails on two basic points. First of all Clinton was the candidate of the same ideas Democrats had, not Obama. Democrats clearly chose Obama, although it was close. People went out of their way to learn about candidates' positions in 2008. Obama won precisely because he had better ideas. So many people said that issues didn't matter, that a black man could never win an election for President. They were wrong. Issues decided the primary, and in turn they decided the election as well. After eight year where policies were dictated and not debated, Americans were hungry for more, hungry for a process that worked. They got involved. They voted in record numbers. They voted on issues and policies.
Second, it was the Republican policies of the last several years that caused the problems they had. Policies on the markets, policies on Iraq and Afghanistan, policies on science, all the problems with the Republican party were problems with Republican policies. It was those policies that have put us in the mess we're in now. These policies failed, and America rejected them. They also rejected much of Clinton's playbook too. The result was Obama's new ideas and radically different policies.
That's the bottom line. Policies decided 2008 from beginning to end of the campaign.