Patrick Ruffini is right that a large, unify narrative is what will help you win an election. Republicans won in 1994 on a reform agenda in Contract for America, Democrats last year on a more generalized reform agenda and Obama is now well on his way to winning on a message of Change. If you are out of power and people are unhappy, reform is the single best way to appeal to them. You can’t win with a long, generic list of policy proposals. You win with a big picture approach.
But that shouldn’t write off microtrends. Microtrends are how you need to govern. Yes, you need to do something right away to put your big picture message into action, such as Republicans did with the Contract planks, Democrats did with the 100 Hours agenda and Obama would do with Iraq and Healthcare. But what Ruffini misses is that it is very hard to consistently govern on a big picture agenda. Bill Clinton got this better than anyone. He came into office and tried to enact his big picture promises; healthcare, NAFTA and, to and extent, gays in the military. But he resurrected his presidency on microtrends. There were bigger issues like welfare reform and smaller issues like school uniforms but overall Clinton kept the micro-proposals coming. And it kept him popular and able to govern effectively.
Today’s Congressional Democrats get this dynamic too. They enacted a broad reform agenda at the beginning; lobbying reform, the minimum wage, the 9/11 Commission and stem cell research. Those issues were symbolic of what Democrats represented and bought them some goodwill at the beginning of the term. Since then, however, the Democrats have used microtrends effectively. They’ve picked smart battles over S-CHIP, telecom immunity and the GI Bill, all popular proposals with majority support.
Gingrich’s Republican revolutionaries never understood that dynamic. They came in as hard charging reformers. They got a boost of goodwill by passing the Contract with America planks. But then they never transitioned to microtrends. They shut down the government, which was the day the revolution died, by the way. They impeached Bill Clinton. The majority likely would have died in 2002 if not for 9/11, given that Democrats needed fewer than 5 pickups to win a majority.
Now, once Republicans are out of power again, they are trying to propose a governing agenda. All the little things that they’d like to do if they were in charge. Democrats tried that in 1998, 2000, 2002 and 2004. It didn’t work. It won’t work for Republicans. Congress’ approval rating may be in the toilet, but the Democrats brand isn’t. Republicans aren’t offering the voters any big reason to toss out the Democrats. What a surprise that they don’t seem to be even considering.