In Rebuilding Party, Democrats Need to Start From Scratch

Posted November 3, 2004 at 5:03pm

Now that Sen. John Kerry (Mass.) has conceded the 2004 presidential election, it’s time for Democrats to take a deep look inside themselves and search hard for answers. [IMGCAP(1)]

Where do we go from here? Our presidential ticket was defeated. We have no leader in the Senate and no ready candidate to rally around for 2008. In some ways, this loss is more painful than our defeat in 2000. But now, it’s time to rebuild the Democratic Party.

Under normal circumstances, I would think that some of us need to be taken out behind the woodshed. But what would that prove? After a painful and embarrassing defeat four years ago, many of us who worked on the 2000 campaign were kicked to the curb and no one gained from that exercise.

This time, we can’t afford to point fingers and do Monday-morning quarterbacking. Negativity during this time of crisis will nullify the strong support provided by an army of Democratic activists, many of them first-time donors to the party. But we do owe them an explanation. They will ask to look at how we spent our money. They have questions about our strategy, and they are not going to be satisfied until they get some straight answers.

As an individual, Kerry may be ready to concede the election to Bush and take some time off to regroup, but these newly energized activists who have only begun to hone their political skills and were prepared to fight until the last ballot was counted must not leave this electoral season in despair. Unless Democrats begin the process of self-examination immediately and in earnest, these fired-up voters and activists will take the initiative from the party leaders and spend the next two years changing the Democratic Party from the ground up.

There’s no question that it’s time to rebuild America’s oldest political party brick by brick. This time, I hope we leave no stone unturned. It is imperative that we empower the “new guard” of the party by crediting their ideas. Party regulars, donors and activists need to know that we will not — and cannot — go back to business as usual.

In past elections, our great leaders on Capitol Hill, along with presidential aspirants, have turned to high-priced political consultants to ascertain what went wrong at the ballot box. This time, I would caution Democratic leaders in Congress and would-be presidents to cease and desist in taking yet another poll to diagnose the party’s problems. It’s time we go back to the basics and start from scratch.

The Democratic Party must lay a new foundation and stop spending its political capital defending old programs and initiatives. Don’t get me wrong, I am still for Head Start, job training programs and the Children’s Health Insurance Program, but in this day and age, running on such programs will not win elections.

The new foundation of the Democratic Party must be built on our shared values of both responsibility and opportunity for all. Our core principles and our core beliefs must be firmly rooted in the rule of law. This is what makes us Democrats. But, as we entered this, what we dubbed “the most important election of our time,” who knew that this was what we stood for? How can we defend ordinary people when they do not know what we stand for? How can we expand and increase our base without offending those who have stuck it out with us loss after loss? We must reclaim the mantle of the party of mainstream values.

Although the polls indicated that the majority of voters believed the country was seriously off-track and needed to go in a different direction, on Tuesday that same majority expressed a renewed confidence in a president who, ironically, polls said they disagreed with on the issues. This alone should require Democrats to overhaul not only how we communicate, but also what we communicate and to whom.

Democrats also must evaluate our get-out- the-vote efforts, not only in the so-called battleground states, but in key House and Senate races outside those swing states. Clearly, the GOP has figured out how to turn out voters, and we can no longer rely solely on union members and black churches to get voters to the polls. Without fertilizing the landscape, it’s hard to harvest the vote, especially in the South and the Midwest. The message is crystal clear — we must not only grow our base, but mobilize it.

Master genius Karl Rove did not leave one state behind in putting together the president’s re-election strategy. If you need proof, just look around Washington, D.C. They put up Bush- Cheney signs in areas as blue as the Pacific Ocean. For Democrats residing in non-battleground states, they had little aid from the national party to help defend their turf. This is a strategy for a losing party, not the loyal opposition.

Lastly, one of my old and wise college friends sent me an e-mail from Louisiana in Tuesday’s aftermath. He wrote that he saw no silver lining in the elections. “I am beginning to think I could hold a meeting of all Southern white male Democrats in my house — and my house is not that big,” he continued. He’s right. Democrats cannot over rely on blacks and other minorities to turn out in record numbers when these voters often are the last to get a piece of mail and the first to be blamed when things go wrong.

We Democrats can and will do better in the future. But only after we rebuild our party from scratch.

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