With the Right Message, Democrats Can Win

Let the fun begin. Periods of self-criticism, like the Democrats are about to start, are occasions for splendid repartee and brilliant punditry.

Second presidential terms also produce biting political art. Do any old timers remember what playwrights did to Lyndon Johnson during the Vietnam War? Well George W. Bush owns the next four years, for better or for worse. He not only secured re-election but has also increased Republican majorities in both house of Congress. He will be responsible for the government, and all its foibles. Jon Stewart will not be the only one pointing out the defects in the Republican product. Pointed political satire will be back in fashion.

Meanwhile, the Democrats must devise a new future for their party. Surely, we can do better than John Kerry’s proposal that we go on fighting in Iraq. The controversy between the peace Democrats and the Democratic hawks is about to begin. Humor will help relieve tension, and preserve party unity, a critical problem.

During this period of Democratic self-criticism, the first rule ought to be: not to obsess over who should be the next presidential nominee. A corollary to this rule is no John Kerry bashing. He was not perfect, but he did a creditable job as a candidate. Just recall the president’s lame performance in the first debate, and we can remember that both Kerry and Bush made many mistakes. When it comes to personal defects, John Kerry has fewer than George W. Bush, so let us focus on the future. How to pick the next nominee is more important than anointing a front-runner. Kerry was chosen because primary voters considered him “electable,” so developing better criteria for judging that intangible quality is worth undertaking.

The second rule is to trust good ideas, but rigorously test them, in the 2006 election campaigns, for starters. In the recently fought election contest, the Democrats solved a huge problem. The power of lobbyists was reduced, when millions were raised directly from the voters. Another source of funds was the return of the idealistic millionaires. The Democrats used to rely on individuals like General Motors heir Stewart Mott to launch principled candidates, but campaign finance reform outlawed that practice. But the new law permits organizations like ACT-Up, Move On, and People for the American Way to be financed by wealthy progressives like George Soros, insurance magnate Peter Lewis and figures from the entertainment world. Free from a total dependence on the lobbyists, the Democrats can demand that government stop comforting the comfortable and start working for all the people. These new themes can be tested in 2006, in the race for congressional seats.

A second advantage of testing new ideas is that it promotes unity. Periods of re-examination can be testy. Democrats need new ideas without rupturing the party. Running candidates with different messages against safe Republicans in congressional races is a perfect way to gather empirical evidence.

There will be voices saying Democrats have to get tough on defense and support conservative moral values. Some will be asking that gays or women compromise on abortion and gay marriage for the sake of party unity and electability. Other Democrats believe we must be a nation of peace, not missionary zeal. The Democrats need a clear vision of a just economy. Can we espouse the virtues of privacy that promise that people will live in liberty and as neighbors—be they drug users, gay or single parents, or God-fearing church goers—and still get elected? The Democrats must stand for one nation, united. We must refute those forces who would divide the nation into the sinners and the saved.

One lesson above all others is that the politics of culture wars flourish when neither party offers Americans a square deal. Thomas Frank who studied the voters who deserted the Democrats describes the Republican moral values as a con: “The culture wars are a way of framing the ever-powerful subject of social class. Republicans [can] speak on behalf of the forgotten man without causing any problems for their core big-business constituency.”

In my view, the end of the Democrats’ total dependence on lobbyists means that they can start attacking the G.O.P. for its most obvious fault, its advocacy on behalf of wealthy Americans. Had Halliburton and campaign contributions been major issues in the election, Bush would have been forced to stay on the defensive.

A related issue affecting the interests of business is globalization. I just returned from Madrid, where the impact of greater interconnectedness is evident in the form of the European Union. The new Euro currency has hurt ordinary citizens’ pocketbooks. A beer that used to cost 100 pesetas now costs one euro—a 60 percent increase. Yet there are countervailing tendencies. The country is still unionized; workers aren’t giving up jobs because cheaper immigrant labor is replacing them. But the Socialist Party, which rallied voters on appeals to working class Spaniards, just eked out a victory this past spring.

Here in the United States, Democrats have to focus voter attention on the downward wage pressure with thoughtful and honest answers. When Democrats say they will help boost the economy, they must have an intellectually coherent plan that takes a critical look at the pro-big business policies of the past 25 years.

The anti-same-sex marriage vote was overwhelming, but some of this majority voted for John Kerry. In Michigan, voters passed a state constitutional ban 59-41 percent, but George Bush still lost the state.

We can take comfort that states like Massachusetts, California and New York are choosing a different course, and reject reactionary politics. In Albany County, David Soares, a young Democratic insurgent, became district attorney by opposing the Rockefeller drug laws. In Oakland, California, a medical marijuana referendum that supported herb sales passed by 64-36 percent. Montana, which supported Bush, went the same way. In Georgia, a firebrand opponent of the Iraq war will return to Congress. Democrat Cynthia McKinney, from Atlanta, was elected with 64 percent of the vote.

Democratic Party unity and reform will have to walk hand in hand. The peace Democrats cannot let the pro-war party members take control. The hawks will argue that the voters lack faith in the Democrats on national security issues. The peace Democrats must place the issue of leaving Iraq now at the center of the national agenda.

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