Looking at Slate yesterday, it was unsurprising to see a characteristically Democratic �why do they hate us� debate ongoing among its liberal writers. Two things struck me about this. On one hand, things aren�t 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 what�s 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 don�t 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 don�t 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 you�ll 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, I�d 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 nobody�s hard-liner on foreign policy, but he could play one on TV. I�m 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 you�ll 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. I�ve 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 don�t 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 she�ll be the Democratic nominee in 2008, but there�s something to be said for shopping around.
* Finally, Jeff Greenfield on CNN had the best comment when asked about who should be the Democrats� 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 don�t have problems themselves. They do, and, long-term, they�re 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 it�s 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. It�s 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.)