Old Donkey, New Tricks 

Five steps for reworking Montana’s Democratic Party

The nearly universal trouncing of Democrats in the election was not an anomaly—it was the norm which has prevailed since about 1988, the last time Montana had a Democrat governor, two U.S. senators, a congressman and at least one house of the Legislature. The decline that began with the election of Burns to the Senate and Stan Stephens to the governor’s office was completed when the 1991 Legislature, with both the House and Senate controlled by Demos, passed the infamous “Seven Percent Solution”—raising all taxes by 7 percent. Like the Titanic going down, Demo majorities disappeared beneath the “tax and spend” waves, never to be seen again. Since then the party has struggled along, unable to come up with a believable political philosophy or image—or at least one that is believable enough for voters to restore them to positions of state leadership.

If you’re a Republican, total control of the state probably doesn’t seem like a problem. But even the most ardent Republican, when asked if they would like to live under Democrat domination, will stand up for the benefits of a two-party system. Historically, Montana’s political arena has been more evenly split between the parties than during the last decade. The question is, “Can balance be restored?” The answer is “maybe.”

If the Demo party was a baseball team, the manager would have long ago walked out to the mound, politely taken the ball, and told them, “Time to hit the showers.” This dismal election provides Democrats with an opportunity to clean house, start over, and remake their party.

1. End the Political Patronage Merry-Go-Round. The party has long embraced the practice of rewarding high-level campaign workers with juicy political patronage jobs until the next election rolls around. Had top Demo candidates won, it would have been impossible to break this myopic cycle. But the Demos are now free to break a longstanding bad habit. Cleaning out the stagnant inner circle of Helena political operatives would go a long way toward remaking the party. And remember, these “strategists” have been losing for a long time now, so why keep listening to them? Because the Helena-based “insiders” are so ingrained, some suggest the only way to break the cycle may be to move the party headquarters to another city and start over.

2. End Government Sector Domination. Democrats found great strength through their traditional representation of working people—all working people. However, with the decline of organized labor in the private sector, the Demos have become the flag-bearers for public sector (read “government”) workers. There is certainly nothing wrong with standing up for public sector employees, but when the Ds fight for bigger government—and the higher taxes necessary to support it—they wind up in big trouble. The Demos need to reassess the effects of this lopsided representation on their general image and move aggressively to bring private sector workers and small business owners back into the fold.

3. Broaden the Base. The Demo party seems incapable of broadening its base to include those whose ideas do not fit within the rather strict parameters the controlling interests have imposed on the party. A great example would be the formation of the New Party in Missoula. The young blood, excitement and energy of the New Party could have been a shot in the arm to the Demos. Instead, party control freaks saw the New Party as a challenge to their domination—and one that would siphon away already diminishing votes. The resulting fracas weakened both camps, leaving bitter recriminations and political disillusionment in its wake. It would be one thing if the New Party experience was a singular occurrence, but it is not. New ideas and fresh approaches—especially those from outside Helena—find a cold reception from Demo operatives. Demos should incorporate the issues and approaches that are important to locals to broaden and strengthen the party base—not discard them because they don’t fit some ideological pigeonhole.

4. Try a little Green Conservatism. Montanans support a clean and healthy environment. If they didn’t, they would not have passed a ban on cyanide mining and game farms during this period of Republican domination. Democrats have been and should continue to be the party that embraces a sane environmental policy for the state, but unfortunately the Demo message on the environment has been interpreted to mean more regulations and more government, which is the wrong message for Montana. The Ds would do well to restructure their environmental platform to embrace some simple concepts, like the basic precept that keeping the environment clean is easier than cleaning it up after it’s trashed. So far, the Ds are caught on the horns of their own dilemma—grow government or solve the problems? The melding of green policies with fiscal conservatism could very well get them off that horn, bring them new votes and serve Montana well.

The problems plaguing the Democrat party can’t be fully covered here, nor can the solutions. But if the party is to regain a meaningful role in Montana politics, something must be done. Their own exit polls now show 35 percent of Montanans consider themselves independents, 28 percent Democrats and 37 percent Republicans. Obviously, catering to Demo voters alone will not get the job done. It is time to remake a Democrat party that will appeal to independents, that will realistically consider the impacts of taxing and spending to build an ever-larger government, and that will solve the problems facing Montana in all of its diverse sectors. But that won’t happen until the party retires its stale, political-patronage strategists, opens the doors to the light and energy of new ideas, and embraces fresh approaches that more accurately reflect the concerns of a majority of Montanans.

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