Wednesday, November 10, 2004

What Democrats Should Do

I've been reading lots of analysis on why Kerry lost and on what the Democratic party should do to win more elections and do better in the House and Senate. Advice falls into too broad categories:

  • be more like Republicans because that's what people want (aka: become more conservative);
  • be less like Republicans because that' s not what people really want and the people would know that if you were less like Republicans (aka: become more liberal).

The problem with both these categories, and most of the arguments in them, is that they put Democrats in a no-win situation. The minute you define yourself based on what you opponent is, the minute your opponent determines who you are. Yes, you need to be aware of what the Republican party's political and ideological machinery is saying and doing. But to define yourself based on that --to determine to be more or less like the Republican Party, to adopt more or less of their platform and language-- means they set the terms for debate.

Democrats need to look within. They didn't lose because Republicans tricked people or because all Republican voters are stupid or zealots (many are, but so are many Democratic Party voters); they didn't lose because Kerry wasn't charismatic enough; they didn't lose because of their stands on issues. Yes all those things were factors --in an election nearly everything is a contributing factor to some extent.

They lost, I think, because Democrats --and for this blame Kerry and his camp; the presidential candidate defines the party for the year of the election and some time after that-- could not define themselves clearly, consistently, and forthrightly on their own terms.

The classic example of this was the day Kerry stood on the edge of the Grand Canyon and said, knowing everything that we now know about Saddam's WMD, he would not have changed his vote to authorize war. That Grand Canyon moment in and of itself didn't cost him the election, but it is emblematic of the weakness Gore had and Kerry had: the inability to be unequivocally brave about who you are and what you believe.

Kerry charged Bush wouldn't admit a mistake or make a change. Yet Kerry, in this crucial moment, showed the same weakness. He could not admit a mistake, in part, I suspect, because he feared how Republicans would use that admission. Karl Rove got inside the Kerry campaign's head; Kerry never got inside the Republican campaign's head. Even after his disasterous first debate, the Bush campaign stayed its course. Which leads to another behavior symptomatic of this lost sense of self -- the Kerry campaign's need to redefine itself over and again, and its need to remake its staff and message.

The only democrat who began to say who he was and what he would do on terms that weren't set by Republicans was Howard Dean. And he lost in large part because he didn't have political operatives skilled enough to turnout supporters in the Iowa caucuses, which are a special kind of event. He also lost, in large measure, I suspect, because too many party professionals and primary voters believed Karl Rove when he said openly and often that he hoped Democrats nominated Dean.

So the question for the Democrats is not whether to be more or less like Republicans, but it is to define simply and clearly and honestly what it means to be a democrat.

That won't be easy. But the party needs to find a leader who can stand and say, my name is ______ and I'm a democrat. You should be a Democrat who votes for Democrats, and here's why.

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