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As Long as We Remember...

November 15, 2004

Democrats Need Better Remedies

Tony Soltero

Now that the dust has settled somewhat upon this past election, we're being treated to all kinds of quick and dirty armchair analyses in our news media regarding what the Democrats should do to regroup.

The Democrats, we are told by these sage "political analysts," are missing the boat on "moral issues." They need to move more to the "center." The Republicans swept the slave states; the Democrats will need to nominate a candidate from the South next time around to have a chance. They need to be more "positive." They have to stop "knocking religion." (Not that I've ever heard a Democratic candidate do this, but there you go.) And on - and on - and on.

It's touching how much the pundits care about us. Look around! All we see are sympathetic eyes. But the Democratic leadership doesn't need to be strolling on these grounds.

Our media isn't exactly the paragon of objectivity it might have been in the days of Edward W. Murrow. Any news organization that spins a 51% vote total as a "mandate" - a vote total that may or may not have been enhanced by paperless touch-screen voting machines in swing states (there's no way to prove the reported tallies) - is already teetering at the edge of partisan dishonesty.

And, of course, exit polls are "whacked" when they showed John Kerry with solid leads throughout the day, but completely infallible when they showed that "moral issues" were the big concern among Bush voters.


Let's just treat the media's prescriptions for what ails the Democrats with the same respect and consideration that Ohio Secretary of State Ken Blackwell granted to urban voters, who had to wait in six-hour lines thanks to the dearth of polling places in their districts.

Do the Democrats need to make some changes?

Oh, absolutely.

But despite CNN's simpering bleats, none of these strategic modifications includes "becoming more like the Republicans," however much Democratic Leadership Council poobah Al From would like it to be so.

The Democratic Party has continually moved to the right over the last couple of decades, moderating its positions on gun control, tax policy, media deregulation, and, most tragically, on pre-emptive war. The next indication that this steady rightward shift is actually benefiting the Democratic Party will be the first one, unless we're all looking at Congress upside down.

The truth is that whenever the Democrats attempt to co-opt a traditionally Republican issue, the GOP simply moves the goalposts further to the right, inventing new bogeymen for every election cycle.

This time around it was gay marriage. Despite John Kerry explicitly stating that he didn't support the idea, the Republicans still exploited the issue to bring out the bigot vote in droves. If the Democrats cave-in and advocate hauling gay people into concentration camps for the next election cycle, the Republicans would obviously be delighted for the purposes of their agenda, but they'd invent a new "crisis" to get the ignorant vote out again. It's a no-win game for the donkey.

So what should the Democrats do then?

First, they need to remember that the situation isn't nearly as dire as it might seem. John Kerry went up against a President who was polling at 90% a year ago. He had to deal with a media that did everything it could to amplify spurious allegations against his Vietnam service, while papering over the gaps in his opponent's National Guard record. He was up against the entrenched special interests of war profiteers and the oil and pharmaceutical industries, and their massive war chests. And he still pulled 56 million votes. The hole isn't quite that deep.

Second, they need to take better control of the framing of our national debates.

We have a President who unilaterally invaded a sovereign nation under false pretenses, resulting in the deaths of 100,000 people, born and unborn; a President who doesn't seem to have a problem with the most barbaric forms of prison torture; a President who has no qualms about cutting off health care access to the poor and infirm, as well as their children; and a President who has mortgaged the solvency of our nation, and compromised the economic security of its citizens, by racking up a destructive deficit.

The fact that many Americans still regard this reprehensible man as some sort of exemplar of "moral values" is a colossal failure on the part of the communications skills of the Democrats. This is but one example; for another, what could be more "pro-family" than universal health care and full employment? But the Democrats have allowed the GOP to hijack the phrase in the service of fundamentalist bigotry.

Third, Democrats need to stop being intimidated and call a spade a spade.

If the Bush administration has failed to catch Osama bin Laden, it shouldn't be afraid to say so.

If President Bush dropped the ball on 9/11, the party needs to point that out, boldly and forcefully. The right-wing's success stems in large part from its ability to repeat and hammer simplistic messages over and over; the Democrats can and should do the same thing, especially since they've got the additional advantage of being right much more often than the GOP.

The idea that President Bush was "stronger on terrorism" than Senator Kerry was patently false, but all too many Americans still believed it. Why? Because the Republicans are better at perception management.

Fourth, the party needs to revamp its primary process.

While John Kerry was a highly capable, strong, and intelligent candidate, he did feature a few unnecessary vulnerabilities, notably his enabling of the Iraq war as a senator, which prevented him from effectively contrasting himself with President Bush on the issue.

The Democrats had a candidate in the primaries, former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean, who unequivocally opposed the war from the start, and as such would have provided a stark alternative to President Bush's foreign policy.

Gen. Wesley Clark (U. S. Army, Ret.), who led the successful Bosnia campaign, would have also served as an effective counterweight. But the primaries were heavily skewed towards allowing two small, rural states to make the nomination decisions for the rest of the country, an idea which did not work out well in retrospect.

John Kerry might have still won the battle of a fuller-scale primary season, but at least his weak points would have been fully exposed by then, allowing time for recovery.

Fifth, and most importantly, the Democrats need to reclaim their own turf, and in the process do a better job of differentiating themselves from the Republicans.

Unless one is a CEO of a Fortune 500 (heck, Fortune 100) corporation, it is in every American's best economic interest to vote Democratic. The tiny, superficial tax cuts proffered by the Republicans are not worth the costs in deficits and eviscerated job markets - in the long run, wages and salaries are vastly more important than taxes.

This is every bit the case at the personal and family level as it is at the national level. To get this message out, the Democrats need to re-connect with their classic economic populist roots - yep, good old-fashioned class warfare - which they've largely abandoned in their quest for corporate money.

None of the above remedies involves becoming even more Republican-lite, and ditching important constituents. Southern Democrats are the most conservative members of their party, and they don't perform any better in their elections than their more liberal colleagues elsewhere in the country. (They actually do worse.)

So, will the party learn from its shortcomings, or will it just keep on lurching rightward until it's overrun by a few hundred Zell Millers?

Well, perhaps the best indicator will be the selection of Terry McAuliffe's successor as head of the Democratic National Committee. If it's another milquetoast appeaser in the vein of Mr. McAuliffe, the Democrats better start drafting a few hundred more concession speeches. But if it's an aggressive fighter like Howard Dean, the party will become a national force again.

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