As Countdown Begins, Democrats Must Return to Fundamentals

Posted November 3, 2003 at 5:05pm

Just one year out from the critical 2004 general election, the Democratic Party is faced with a crucial test that has the potential of serving as a wake-up call for party leaders.

[IMGCAP(1)] Today Democrats are fighting to retain offices in Kentucky, Mississippi and several major cities, grappling with an unprecedented onslaught of money and resources that Republicans have thrown into the streets and stuffed into campaign coffers.

The GOP, under the leadership of master strategist Karl Rove, is on a mission to win elections at any cost. And with every victory, Republicans move a step closer to their goal of reshaping America’s values and priorities.

For Democrats and our allies, therein lies the challenge. From now until the last precinct closes on Tuesday, Nov. 2, 2004, we must behave as though every vote is the only one that matters — lest we lose too many to remain relevant.

It’s time that the Democratic National Committee and the presidential candidates who are becoming the party’s face get back to the fundamentals of winning elections. Unless the party enlarges the electorate by re-

engaging nonvoters — those who see their concerns being overlooked — at the local level and recruit quality down-ballot candidates to connect with voters at the grassroots level, the GOP will continue to have greater success in pulling their base out to vote.

With the American electorate evenly divided on the performance of President Bush, Campaign 2004 is shaping up to be a major battle for the heart and soul of America. As my mother would say to her nine children every day in preparing our chores, “All hands on deck.”

The late Democratic Party guru Paul Tully, one of America’s greatest political strategists, once told me that “message drives politics.” The Democratic Party is in dire need of a simple, powerful, unifying message — something along the lines of “Strength and Prosperity” — to refocus our agenda and recharge our political batteries. That message needs to be delivered in the key battlegrounds and out among the people, not as part of an inside-the-Beltway exchange with the White House and its rubber-stamp Congress.

And while Sept. 11, 2001, as many political analysts and observers have stated, altered our national political landscape, I disagree with those who would portray Democrats as being vulnerable on defense in the new atmosphere. To demonstrate our resolve, Democrats must put forward our own agenda on America’s national security needs for the 21st century that addresses both the war on terrorism and the rebuilding of our fractured alliances in the wake of new global threats. Clearly, the current war to secure, stabilize and rebuild Iraq and Afghanistan — as daily causalities mount and our troops are replaced by a new Iraqi military — will provide us with an opening to differ with the current administration’s post-war planning and strategy. But as the war on terrorism continues, voters will also, as always, be driven by issues closer to home. The vast majority of Americans will walk into the voting booth worried about what’s on their table and in their wallets.

The Bush administration is currently boasting about promising economic news released last week. But now Democrats must continue to hold this administration’s feet to the fire on the economy until America is back on the road to prosperity for all — not just the well-

connected. Even if the economy is coming around, we have not seen any new jobs in depressed communities. Jobs, not our gross domestic product, are what our candidates at all levels must talk about on the campaign trail. Today is Election Day in many communities across America, but for working families, it is just another day of uncertainties and being pulled from one commitment to another.

Likewise, Democrats must not allow Republicans to continue to push aside questions about the deficits. With more than 78 million Americans on the verge of retiring by 2012, we must remind the American people that current shortfalls will eat away at their retirement security and rob their children of their future. Democrats must be bold in offering new, creative solutions to help America’s middle class and the working poor retain manufacturing jobs and provide for their families.

This is the moment for Democratic leaders (and the presidential candidates in particular, if they want to be considered leaders) to emerge and shine. Recent polling shows that voters are open to the Democratic Party’s core message of opportunity, a prospect that should enable us to take the show on the road — even before a nominee emerges. By starting the victory lap early, the party can get rid of its election jitters by refocusing on the 20 states and the District of Columbia that have been key to our electoral victories in the past three presidential cycles and start working on those battleground states that will help secure our victory next year. Across the country, party leaders must change their thinking at the top and rebuild the party from the bottom up, retraining campaign workers and recruiting candidates to run in key down-ballot races. And they must do it now.

It’s time to bring in some fresh, new blood and give them a seat at the table by opening up the primaries and caucuses to participation from ordinary citizens who want to get involved. These new recruits must be encouraged to run as delegates and to help fashion the party’s platform before the convention. Republicans may have their surrogates, but Democrats can pull together a new generation of spokespersons and give these citizens the tools they need to respond to the daily drumbeat of happy talk from the GOP media empire. Bottom line, Democrats must stop relying on House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.) to fight back; the party must re-empower its loyal allies to step in to defend and promote its basic values.

My travels across America this year, which have included battleground states such as Ohio, Florida, Nevada and Pennsylvania (with trips to West Virginia, Minnesota and Missouri to come), have taught me that the rank and file of this country are tired of only talking about the problems we face at home and abroad. They are ready to start searching for solutions, and for candidates who can affect change and progress.

Although Democrats agree on the same fundamental goals — increased access to jobs, health care and education; a sustainable environment; and safeguarded civil liberties — all too often we have become divided over issues, messages and candidates.

We have exactly one year to come together, to work with and for each other and for Democratic candidates at every level of government. It’s time to act and to signal to a nation looking for leadership that a new era of Democratic leadership and resolve has arrived.

Donna L. Brazile, the campaign manager for Democratic presidential nominee Al Gore in 2000, runs her own grassroots political consulting firm.