November 5, 2004
POLITICS: Unsolicited Advice to Democrats
Looking at Slate yesterday, it was unsurprising to see a characteristically Democratic ďwhy do they hate usĒ debate ongoing among its liberal writers. Two things struck me about this. On one hand, things arenít quite as bad for the Democrats as a lot of us are assuming. A few more votes in a few of the swing states and we might be talking right now about whatís wrong with the Republican Party. However, on the other hand, this election did turn out to be, in the end, a profound disaster for the Democrats and, as someone who definitely leans Republican, even I am a little bit concerned about the degree to which one party currently has control of our government. So what should the Democrats do? At risk of being greeted with hostility, here is some unsolicited, yet sincere, advice for the minority party for the years leading up to 2008:
* This is the simplest: look for likeable, plain-speaking candidates who can relate with people nationally. Believe it or not, a lot of people like President Bush, few really liked John Kerry. That is blunt, yet basically true. A generally likeable personality, like Bill Clinton, despite his ample failings, goes a long way. Unlike Clinton, Gore and Kerry both came off as very aloof. However, similar to Clinton, both men rarely, if ever, would give a straight answer to a question. That is a problem. Sometimes answers you donít agree with are better than answers you constantly need to interpret.
* You need to really get serious about defense and security issues. The War on Terror is a war against right-wing, theocratic religious fanatics. Enemies like al Qaeda are everything some of you say about Bush, expect for real. If people donít think you are willing to adequately fight enemies like them, it is hard to see how you're willing to fight anyone. No one is saying you need to be, or should be, Rambo, but look to the spirit and track records of FDR, Truman and JFK and youíll be in the game on an issue which is, once again, at the forefront of the debate.
* Tolerate more dissent on social issues and, above all, do not allow your supporters to ridicule the social values of Middle America, the South and those with strong religious beliefs. Regional condescension kills in national elections. How you say things is probably as important as what you say. See here for similar thoughts.
* Avoid scaremongering with black voters. The economic principles and ideals of the Democratic party should be enough to maintain a large percentage of the black vote without transparently, if implicitly, resorting to calling Republicans racists. By doing so, many white voters become alienated and, in the age of the Internet, it is increasingly harder to say something to one audience without another unintended audience hearing it and being disillusioned.
* Similarly, playing to fears of a draft is massively irresponsible. In addition to being baseless, the idea that voters should oppose President Bush because of some alleged secret plan for a draft plays into fears of people not wanting to serve their country. It makes service a dirty word. Someday, there may again be some unforeseen military eventuality that may require a draft. I hope it never happens, but we should all soberly recognize that it could, regardless of the party in power. In such a scenario, if called, Iíd probably be frightened, but hope to God that I would answer the call the way our fathers and forefathers did. The idea that the draft, though almost certainly unnecessary, is an inherently evil boogeyman is one that Democrats should be more clear in opposing.
* There is a lot of conflicting advice about which direction the party should move in, but my advice would be clear: move to the right. Since FDR, the only Democrat to serve two full terms has been Clinton and he did so largely by being perceived as a moderate and appealing to voters nationally, even in the South. Clinton was nobodyís hard-liner on foreign policy, but he could play one on TV. Iím an admirer of Tony Blair, a man who has always struck me as a Clinton with values and a backbone. The Blair or Joe Lieberman model is a good one to follow. The Brookings Institution and The New Republic are fertile grounds for responsible Democratic views. Listen to them and youíll be alright.
* On that point, the middle, it seems, has moved right. Bush may seem outrageously conservative to you, but, to a lot of people, he is fairly moderate. Though I would never dispute that this election was close, more people just voted for Bush than had voted for any one candidate in an election in American history. Iíve heard a lot of Democrats wonder about whether selecting a candidate like Kerry was a mistake because of allegedly moving away from the left-wing base. Well, look, Kerry may seem moderate to right-leaning to Democrats, but by national standards he was still easily portrayed as liberal. If you donít see that the middle has migrated to the right on national security and a number of moral issues, you are in trouble.
* Develop a stable of governors. Kerry, like many senators before him, was pummeled by his voting record. Governors get to lead rather than follow and come in with more of a clean slate on national issues. Right now, Republicans have a lot of governors and the Democrats have few. Starting with that is good idea, just like fixing a major league baseball team long-term is best accomplished by fixing its minor league system.
* In terms of specific people, you may nominate her in 2008, but be leery of putting all your eggs in the Hillary basket. She is deeply reviled in Republican circles and the Clintons still inspire the sort of often irrational dislike among right-wing types as President Bush seems to in left-wing types. Her presence on a ticket is a lightning rod for the Republican base. Frankly, I think Hillary has done an very good job recasting herself as a moderate, but old memories die hard. I think sheíll be the Democratic nominee in 2008, but thereís something to be said for shopping around.
* Finally, Jeff Greenfield on CNN had the best comment when asked about who should be the Democratsí leader going forward. Greenfield said simply that Democrats need to first decide what it is they want to stand for and, only then, should look for leaders. In the end, there is no substitute for ideas.
None of this is to say that the Republicans donít have problems themselves. They do, and, long-term, theyíre not going to be able to keep writing off New York and California and consistently win national elections. And none of this is to say that the Democratic Party should abandon its principles or that it should become a carbon copy of the Republican Party. It cannot and probably should not. Economic populism and support for international diplomacy, for example, will always have a place. But the broader country needs a more viable two-party system and right now itís not getting it. The Democrats need to do a difficult balancing act of moving right, while either keeping much of its base or grabbing new supporters in the middle or leaning Republican. Itís a tricky task, but I wish them well.
UPDATE: David Brooks has an excellent column in The New York Times related to this topic. I think he is totally right.
ANOTHER UPDATE: Bill Clinton has some useful comments as well. (As an aside, I think it may be a sign that Democrats have drifted too far to the left when I find myself citing Clinton approvingly.)
Good points, for the most part. As a moderate independent from Massachusetts, however, I would like to raise a question: why is it wrong for the northeast and the west coast to ridicule the South and 'Middle America,' but not the other way around? It seems to me that all regions consider themselves 'Real America,' and get some sort of perverse pleasure in considering everywhere else 'unAmerican.' It drives me nuts when I am told that my beloved region, New England, is not 'Real America.' :(
On a positive note, it IS the home to 2004 World Champions, the Boston Red Sox (still love saying it! :) )
Thatís a fair point and I would agree that Republicans should also try and do a better job on the coasts, although Iím kind of stumped as to how.
But the short answer to that is that right now, it looks like there are more voters in the red states. It is one thing to culturally condescend to a group you outnumber. It is not a great idea politically to look down on a group that outnumbers you.
(By the way, Iím from New York, though currently living in a red state. Iím not at all a hater of the northeast.)
I think you are right about Hilary, in that, despite her having positioned herself fairly shrewdly as a moderate, I think if she is the nominee, the Democrats are likely to do exactly as well as they have in the last two elections, which is to say, stalled on the goal line. The Democrats probably can win the next election if they can hold onto the states they have been winning and pick up some of the competitive Southwestern states or Colorado (or, obviously, Florida or Ohio), but I think that the best interests of the party in Congressional races require someone who can have some appeal in the states they are going to lose, too.
Gephart? Dean? Edwards? Clinton?
For whatever reason, they all scare "mainstream" America.
Too pro Union.
Not hawkish enough.
Not religious enough.
Too much cow towing to the gay/social agendas on either coast.
Tax and spend, tax and spend.
Take our weapons away.
And considering the personal finances/debt of the average American...if they don't worry about themselves being leveraged to the gills, why do we think they'll worry about the US being leveraged to the gills? If anything, they see a tax cut as a way to alleviate their own financial circumstances regardless of the nation's fiscal state.
The only way a Dem wins in 2008 is if the economy tanks or the war on terror goes terribly wrong. And even then a GOP candidate can contrast themselves to Dubya.
And you know what? A good GOP candidate in 2008 might be the best choice. I certainly wouldn't rule out voting GOP.
I'm just flabbergasted that Dubya could be so arrogant, so secretive, make so many mistakes and set fiscal policies that really only benefit a minority of the country...and still get reelected.
The easy answer as to how the GOP could do better on the coasts is to nominate Rudy Giuliani, although there are a whole host of issues that would raise with the current composition of the party . . . much will depend on events the next four years.
I'll be doing my rundown of the 2008 early favorites soon, and frankly Hillary has to have the inside track on the Dem side, if they want to stay to the left on cultural/economic issues while trying to bring back voters who were scared off by Kerry's dovishness on national security. If the goal instead is to tack rightward on social issues, it's hard to see who in the party could pull that off or would even want to try - Evan Bayh? - Edwards, I guess, may position himself in that role.
NO HILLARY. No way in hell that the Democrats could win back the White House with her. WAY too much baggage.
Gotta say though, I do tend to vote Democratic, but you know, if it was a choice between Hillary and Rudy, I'd probably vote Rudy. Not sure how'd he survive the nomination process though. Too liberal to appeal to the same voters as Bush did. Or am I wrong?
Iíve been impressed with Bayh every time Iíve listened to him. Of course, Iím not a Democrat, so I donít know how they like him. Are the Dems ready to consider an anti-partial-birth-abortion, fairly hawkish candidate from Indiana? Maybe they will be if they want to win bad enough. Then again, heís another senator.
Iím a long-time fan of Rudyís, but he canít just sit on his hands the next four years. Iíd love to see him as AG or heading DHS. Barring major changes in the next four years, heíd also have to become more pro-life to ever get the Republican nomination.
Interesting. Perhaps Bayh and Guliani are mirrors of each other (in a limited way). On social issues at least, they seem to be outside the mainstream of their particular parties, and in order to get to the nomination, they would have to move toward the 'center' of the party?
But then wouldn't that be flip-flopping? ;-)
I'm positive that if Hillary decided she wanted to run, she would get the nomination. She just has too many advantages over everyone else. Could she win the general election? I'm honestly not sure. I would assume most of the people who start frothing at the mouth when her name is mentioned wouldn't vote for a Democrat anyway. I think she'd do a better job of directing the public debate than Gore or Kerry was able to do. (That drives me nuts about Democrats; they always seem to let the Republicans choose the issues. Bill Clinton was a rare exception.) Get back to me in 2 years after we see how the Administration is doing, and how Hillary does in her reelection campaign* if she has a strong opponent (Pataki or Giuliani).
*I wouldn't be shocked if she doesn't run for reelection - she can say that she's planning to run for President and doesn't want to deprive her NY constituents. She'd have little to gain and a lot to lose.
Let me say something here. I am republican, well i started out as a republican, but every day i seem to grow more liberal. The issues i believe in the republican party doesn't seem to belive in. As far as a viable canadate well, there is no need to go more right, i for one will keep fighting for what i belive in. change happens very slow in this country. never never never never never give up.
" .... more people just voted for Bush than had voted for any one candidate in an election in American history."
Really? More than the 700,000 or so who voted for Andrew Jackson in 1832? Incredible!
Seriously, though, I have some unsolicted advice for Republicans. This was no landslide and that bodes poorly for the Republicans in 2008 and probably as soon as 2006.
Bush is by no means winning Bush Democrats at the rate of exchange Reagan did in the 80s. In fact, he's probably hemmhoraging Kerry Republicans at a pretty equal rate. Reagan absolutely CRUSHED Mondale in 1984, and was even able to transfer some of his magic to the woefully unlikable and blah George H.W. Bush for his presidential win in 1988. Granted, Kerry was a better foe than either Mondale or Dukakis, but this was a referendum on Bush and he just barely passed muster.
The Dems don't really have to do anything different nationally but maintain their base, hammer the Republicans from their minority position and wait for emergency rooms to close all over the red states as the deficit government cuts programs and the public refuses to impose regressive taxes upon itself.
In short, with total power in all branches of government and an executive convinced it has a mandate, the Republicans essentially must win ALL of the following battles in the next four years or face a discrediting of their ability to govern that could last years:
- Iraq. If our boys and girls are still dying over there in 2006, Dems narrow the gap in Congress. If they're still dying over there in 2008, Dems take back the White House and maybe even the Congress.
- The economy. Republicans need to bring the country back to the heights of the late 90s, and they need to magically make that overall prosperity somehow trickle down to their base in the red states ... which even Clinton couldn't pull off. So better hope tax cuts are the panacea for everything, because you've got your work cut out for you.
- No major terrorist attack on US soil. No Clinton to blame this time around.
- No Enron-like corporate scandal with a whiff of ties to Bush or Cheney.
- Roe v Wade NOT overturned. I don't think the GOP bosses really want it overturned, but if it somehow is, forget about anything like "security moms" ever again.
Again, you guys need to be 5-0 on these battles. Even losing one could mean very different results in 2008, possibly as soon as 2006.
Our side just needs to sit back and wait, fighting wherever we can and maintaining our core moral values.
I generally agree that Republicans canít make excuses. They need to govern and govern boldly. And I do think the Democrats will be back, especially if they can nominate some decent candidates in 2006. The electorate has historically been more comfortable with divided government.
But I donít agree with the view that if anything at all bad happens in the next four years the Republicans will automatically get swept out of office. Unless the Democrats offer positive alternatives, they wonít win by just criticizing the people in power. They just did that. In the end, ďAnyone But BushĒ did not work. Bush has been in office for four years and had a Republican congress for much of it, yet a lot of people didnít vote for Kerry because they thought that all he was doing was backseat driving and criticizing without showing any signs of leading.
Americans are willing to tolerate mistakes and misfortune if they think they are getting real leadership or that the country is moving in a direction they agree with. That will be the test that Republicans will ultimately face, not whether the next four years are immaculate bliss.
Not just anything bad, Hibernian ... of course bad stuff is going to happen over the next four years. I'm talking about major failures in any of the areas I listed above.
Your point about the country moving in a direction they agree with is crucial - in four years, we'd better have arrived at a place significantly better than where we are now, on many fronts, the Republicans are in trouble.
Particularly because Bush has a habit of shifting the blame that turns many people off - on the economy, on pre-war planning, etc. Obviously not enough people were turned off by this to lose him the White House this time around. In fact, many people, as you point out, agreed with him that he was dealt a pretty bad hand and deserved a chance to turn it around.
But that dynamic simply doesn't work from here on out. They have nobody to blame but themselves now. Americans are willing to give a president some slack ... but not forever.
And all you have to do is look back at Bush's first term - major terrorist attack on US soil, loss of jobs and rise in health care costs proportionate to natural growth, corporate scandal that hit uncomfortably close to him and his cronies, questionable war for questionable reasons ... does anybody think the Republicans could survive a repeat of that record? I don't think they could survive a repeat of any single one of those things.
And let's not forget the abortion issue. Forget for a moment Roe v Wade, let's assume it's still standing in four years. The fact is more abortions are being performed under Bush than under Clinton. If Bush cannot turn this around, Dems will be able to attack him and his policies as enabling more abortions than any Democrat ever did or will. A mere recital of how many abortions happened in the country under Bush becomes a battering ram against him that either picks up red voters or convinces them to just stay home next time.