We've Got Trouble, Right Here in River City
(With apologies to Meredith Willson’s
The Music Man)
My big fear coming out of this election is that the Democratic Party will continue down the same path and learn nothing from this defeat. That it will change nothing, out of the misguided notion that little is wrong or broken since the election was so close. My father, one of the most astute thinkers about American politics and the electorate I know, said to me over a year ago that the Democratic Party’s biggest problem was misinterpreting the division and polarization in the country and thinking that they were almost there, almost about to take power again, almost about close the deal. And this lead them into a kind of milk-toasty caution that actually alienated voters and led people to be less trustful of the party. Party leaders have failed to understand that in the electorate’s eyes the distance between the parties is a chasm. Key constituencies have lost faith in the party. Despite this the party leadership has continued on a cautious course, not just of centrism, but of nothing-ism. Articulating very little vision, pushing very few ideas other than the tired worn ones -- raise the minimum wage, vaguely saying we want to fix health care, and pledging to protect Social Security without saying how we will ensure its continuation in the face of possible bankruptcy. After the 2002 debacle, the New York Times did an analysis of the electorate and found that large majorities supported the Democratic position on almost every major policy matter. But equally large majorities expressed disgust with the Democratic Party and did not believe it was offering the kind of vision necessary for this country as it moves into the 21st Century. The current strategy is simply not enough to win an election, but it’s what the party leadership has settled on today.
Many in Washington don’t seem to see this. There are echoes of this already in some places. TPM provides a telling example. Others have said that we shouldn’t begin to rend our clothes publicly and bemoan the state of the party.
But others have called for change and a wholesale redefinition of what being a Democrat means. Three days past the election, the litany describing the scope and significance of the Republican victory is growing tiresome. But it bears repeating here if only to make the point of how serious the Democratic challenge is. We are not as close as current strategies pretend or the closeness of the Electoral College race suggests. It is true that this year’s 3-point defeat repeats the fault lines of 2000. But several changes are important to note. Republicans increased their winning margins in the Southern states. Democrats posted narrower victories in the Midwest states and lost Iowa and New Mexico. Bush won only a small majority but this marks the first majority for the winning presidential candidate since 1988. Republicans have extended their gains in the House every year since 1994 when they first took back control of it. They widened their lead in the Senate and defeated the Democratic leader. The Democratic Party is 10 miles from Dunkirk but thinks it is ten miles from Berlin.
Is this a mandate? No, the country is still sharply divided. But if it’s not a mandate it is a permission slip to begin dismantling Social Security, to appoint judges who will reverse Roe v Wade (and possibly last year’s sodomy decision), to ignore the health care crisis or worse to undermine the employer based health care system and leave a rickety shell in its place, to make further regressive the tax code, to make permanent the tax cuts and to spend our children and their children into oblivion until they are beholden to foreign creditor nations like an addicted gambler to a loan shark. Bush indicated yesterday that he sees the outcome as such and will be moving ahead aggressively with a conservative agenda. Will the small band of 44 Senators be able to rally together sufficiently often enough to stand fast in a cloture-proof contingent of 40? (Will the cloture rule even exist?) Will this small band be willing to do this often enough that they will expose themselves to charges of being obstructionist time and time again? Figuring out ways for this small band to hold the last line of defense for the New Deal and 1960s social victories is not a strategy for winning progressive reforms and advancing social justice.
As numerous other bloggers and commentators have noted, we face the need to reinvent the Party. The danger, however, is that this opens up a fault line within the Party over the direction it should take. Because there are those on both sides of the political divide, the liberals and the so-called centrists. And they envision very different ways to advance the Party. These ideas come out of deeply held values but they also connect to very different views of the best electoral strategy for the Party. Liberals want to energize the base and raise participation rates among key supportive constituencies that under-perform in terms of turnout at election time -- the youth, minorities, the poor. Centrists fear alienating the moderate middle with the language of class and race. One side feels victory lies in increasing our numbers. The other wants to make inroads in the Republican South, in the suburbs, in rural areas, and in the West. The lessons of this year would appear to offer corroboration for both perspectives. And yet there are inherent contradictions between these strategies in terms of selecting issues to emphasize, positions to stake, language to use, and policy approaches to select. I don’t think the inherent contradictions are fatal or insurmountable. But they have to be recognized and serious policy makers and political strategists need to sit down together and think about ways to reconcile the conflicts and find innovative ways to unite the party’s elements behind a common goal other than simply defeating George W. In the words of Richard Nixon, we won’t have him to kick around next time. For my thoughts on how Democrats confront and address this strategic challenge, stay tuned. (Appropos on this, Ed Kilgore of New Donkey and the DLC both have intersting takes on how we redefine Democrat without a war)