After Another Loss, We Must Remember What It Means to Lead

Posted November 17, 2004 at 2:01pm

It should surprise no one that the Democratic path out of the wilderness was laid last week by the master himself, Bill Clinton. [IMGCAP(1)]

In his first extended comments since our latest bitter defeat, the former president said it just right. “We cannot expect to be a nationally competitive party,” he said, “unless we feel comfortable talking about our convictions.”

As my party gets down to the necessary work of figuring out what went wrong and selecting a new leader to manage its day-to-day operations, it is essential that we understand the nature of our problem.

As Democrats, we cannot give in to our frequent temptation to overinterpret the election as a mandate to become “Republican Lite.” Instead, we need to stay sharply focused on this central truth: Most Americans prefer the Democratic worldview.

Throughout the election, a majority of Americans believed that President Bush has put the nation on the wrong track. Voters, according to exit polls, actually preferred us to our Republican counterparts on most key issues: health care, the economy, education, the environment and so on. And yet a president with his approval ratings mired below 50 percent, who misled us into an Iraqi quagmire and lost jobs, managed to persuade a majority that he was the better man.

The president plainly did not win this election because more Americans felt good about the direction in which he would take us. He won because voters did not understand where we would lead.

More importantly, he did it — brace yourselves, fellow Democrats — by showing stronger leadership than we have managed in a while.

In order to win future elections at the federal level, we have to find the music — the language, the words that clearly spell out who we are, where we stand and why we fight for the values we hold dear. And we need to understand that we could use a little more of the leadership qualities Bush has demonstrated so well, albeit for the wrong ideas.

Our core message lies where it always did: the notion that even limited government should help all Americans make the most of their God-given talents or skills; and the idea that the greatest of us has a stake in the success of the least of us; and the idea that all people should be able to live their lives in freedom and security. But we must have enough faith and confidence in the specific positions we take to stand up and argue for those things, and not get caught up in polls and focus groups that can switch overnight.

For example, many Democrats opposed the war in Iraq because we did not believe it was an extension of the war on terror. But many of our leaders were scared to death to stake out that position, and state it clearly, because of poll numbers suggesting it might be unpopular. Indeed, one of the most enduring criticisms of our party is that our leaders have basically become human polling devices, forever sticking their fingers in the wind rather than simply doing what they think is right, and letting the chips fall where they may.

And it’s amazing that we stick to such a strategy in the face of all the evidence that it simply does not work. It sends a clear signal that we are ashamed of our ideas, or that we have to hide what we’re really about to win a majority. And the best evidence that it’s a losing strategy can be found by looking at the Republicans, who use exactly the opposite strategy, and keep winning elections.

From day one, George Bush — a president elected by a minority of one Supreme Court justice — has led this country in ways that have alienated many and polarized the country. But he has been very clear in telling the country what he was going to do. And then he has done it, no matter how high the cost or how unpopular the cause.

And with another bitter election loss, we Democrats now know that the American people respect him for it. They may not like where he’s taking them, but they know where he stands. And that is a very powerful thing.

If you don’t believe me, believe Clinton. He has said the public would rather have a leader who’s strong and wrong than one who’s weak and right. I think that applies to more than just defense policy. In fact, it’s a theory about leadership. And the Republicans almost always do it better.

My friends, we don’t have to be strong and wrong, like the president. We can be strong and right. But we need to stake our claim: remember what we believe in, decide where we want to go, state clearly how we’re going to get there, and stick. It’s not a magic formula. It’s a simple principle of leadership we lost along the way.

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