To Win, Democrats Need to Face Reality, Reform Their Message

Posted November 17, 2004 at 3:28pm

If the Democrats are ever going to get out of their political hole, they’ve got to get real and reform. The first part is fairly easy. The second, since it involves separation from some of the party’s favorite interest groups, isn’t. [IMGCAP(1)]

By “get real,” I mean, stop believing your own metaphors — stop saying that President Bush barely won the election and start paying attention to what concerns average voters.

Reforming means not defending to the death every program invented during the New Deal and the Great Society and risking the wrath of unions, seniors and trial lawyers.

Admittedly, not everyone in the Democratic Party actually believes that Bush is turning the country into a “theocracy,” or that he and his supporters are waging “jihad,” that they somehow resemble Osama bin Laden in their extremist religious fervor and that they are liable to stage a coup if thwarted.

But those charges have been made — and, I think, not metaphorically — by such commentators as The New York Times’ Maureen Dowd, author Garry Wills, PBS host Bill Moyers and former Sen. Gary Hart (D-Colo.).

Dowd, at her most pyrotechnic, wrote on Nov. 7 that “W’s presidency rushes backward, stifling possibilities, stirring intolerance, confusing church with state, blowing off the world, replacing science with religion and facts with faith. We’re entering another dark age, more creationist than cutting edge, most premodern than postmodern.” And so on.

It simply destroys the credibility of liberals, and Democrats, for them to go so over the top. Ordinary Americans overwhelmingly know they didn’t vote for Bush to tear down the wall between church and state. Mainly, they voted for him because they trusted him more to fight America’s enemies, who are real and menacing — and in no way resemble Bush.

If liberals imagine Bush’s America to be a theocracy, they should take a field trip to Iran or the Sudan. Sorry, Taliban-dominated Afghanistan is no longer available.

This post-election fulminating is of a piece with the pre-election Bush-hatred that led too many in the Democratic party to lionize the likes of Michael Moore, whose documentaries (see “Bowling for Columbine”) represent the United States as the violent, evil scourge of the earth.

The second level of reality avoidance that afflicts the party is a tendency to minimize its Nov. 2 loss. It’s true, Bush won the election by only 3.5 million votes, or 2.8 percent — the smallest popular-vote margin in a re-election victory ever and the second-smallest measured by electoral votes.

And it might turn out that, once provisional votes are counted, just 40,000 Ohioans out of 5.5 million would have tipped the election.

On the other hand, as the moderate Democratic Leadership Council’s CEO, Al From, put it in a Nov. 9 election post-mortem, “Whether we like it or not, this is the second time in two straight elections, 2002 being the first, where the Republicans won a majority of the votes cast. They are, like it or not, the majority party right now.”

From went on, “It’s important to understand that this is not a John Kerry or John Edwards phenomenon. This year was another chapter in a 40-year slide for the Democratic Party since the Lyndon Johnson landslide of 1964.”

After the 1964 election, he pointed out, Democrats had better than 2-1 majorities in both houses of Congress and led in governors, 33 to 17. Now Republicans control Congress and a majority of the governorships.

And, From noted, as late as 1980, when Ronald Reagan was elected, Democrats had a 13-point lead in party identification. In 2004, party ID was dead even.

In the Weekly Standard, Fred Barnes this week convincingly argues that a “rolling realignment” has taken place, and he quotes no less an authority than political historian Walter Dean Burnham, who’s 75 and no conservative, as saying that the 2004 election “may be the most important of my lifetime.”

Contrary to optimists who predicted that Democrats were demographically destined to be America’s new majority party because of the growing importance of Latinos, educated women and urban professionals, Bush this time hiked his performance among Hispanics to 44 percent, lost women by just 3 percentage points and matched increases among “metro” voters with huge turnout in the exurbs, places often derided by liberals as the locus of “sprawl.”

So, what to do? From says that one top priority is to “expand the map.” And another is to become the party of “insurgent reform,” rather than the bureaucratic status quo.

DLC president Bruce Reed points out that the Kerry campaign did not compete in 23 states. From says, “It’s like a football team that plays the game only in its own territory.”

Competing for the South, Midwest and West, according to From, would force Democrats to “have a national message that has broader appeal.” Appealing only to urban voters would be fine, he said, if liberals outnumbered conservatives. But, right now, voters self-identify 34 percent as conservative, 21 percent as liberal.

Self-identified moderates went for Kerry by 9 points, but that’s quite a bit less than they gave Bill Clinton, who chalked up a 24-point margin of victory in that demographic in 1996.

What will be hard for Democrats to do is become a reformist party. Many Latinos and African-American voters favor school choice, but can the Democrats afford to separate the party from the National Education Association, which opposes even the standards-setting in the No Child Left Behind Act?

Can Democrats favor reform of entitlement programs — including the means-testing of Medicare to keep it from going broke — and risk the wrath of the AARP?

The country could afford to guarantee every American a basic health insurance plan — and preferably make it mandatory, like auto insurance — if it limited the tax deductibility of so-called “Cadillac plans,” which now amount to a regressive tax break.

But unions, which have negotiated no-deductible, zero-copay, high-benefit plans would scream. And the trial-lawyer lobby would withhold funds if Democrats were to favor meaningful tort reform.

To win, Democrats do not have to drop their historic principles of equity, tolerance and economic growth. A soul transplant is not what they need. But they have to stop talking only to themselves — and stop letting rascals like Moore speak for them.