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Get This Party Started

By Russ Smith | Posted 12/29/2004

This year closes with a splintered Democratic Party once again in a state of shock. Competing factions may hold varying beliefs about abortion, Iraq, terrorism, and the future of Social Security, but on one count it would seem that most agree with John Kerry’s bit of pique, as recorded by Newsweek last spring: “I can’t believe I’m losing to that idiot.”

George W. Bush’s narrow victory in November, dumbfounding liberal analysts and pundits, was certainly the most significant news story of the year, not just because of its immense political ramifications in the United States, but abroad as well. The governments of Israel, India, and Afghanistan heaved a sigh of relief, just as those of Germany, France, and Britain—despite Prime Minister Tony Blair’s unpopular alliance with Bush in the Iraq War—despaired, hoping to restore international relevancy with a President Kerry.

Now that the anguish suffered by Democrats immediately following the election has subsided in all but never-give-in conspiratorial quarters, the party’s would-be architects for political resurrection are all over the map in their prescriptions for victory four years from now. Most of it, in my opinion, is premature blather, since no one can predict what the landscape will be after the 2006 midterm elections, but one thing that’s clear is that Howard Dean must be mollified or he could tear the faithful apart, most likely as a third-party candidate.

Dean is currently jockeying to replace Terry McAuliffe—a prolific fund raiser but disastrous public spokesman—as chairman of the Democratic National Committee, a prospect that frightens Democrats who believe the former Vermont governor’s bellicose rhetoric will further alienate the coveted swing voters. Others are lining up behind former Indiana Rep. Tim Roemer, who’s notable for his opposition to abortion, a stance that’s anathema to a majority of Democrats but one that even party stalwarts like House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi are finally agreeing needs to be considered.

A compromise must be struck with Dean, one that will keep him out of the presidential contest yet give him the status he covets.

The most-discussed and praised essay written following Kerry’s defeat came from Peter Beinart, editor of The New Republic, in which he called for a leader who unambiguously embraces the danger of Muslim fundamentalists intent on destroying the decadent United States while remaining faithful to a traditional Democratic domestic agenda.

Beinart’s earnest, hyperbole-free treatise (“A Fighting Faith: An Argument for a New Liberalism,” TNR, Dec. 13) is full of holes, but it does contain one truth that the Democratic base in 2004 refused to acknowledge. He wrote: “[E]ven if Iraq is Vietnam, it no more obviates the war on terrorism than Vietnam obviated the battle against communism. Global jihad will be with us long after American troops stop dying in Falluja and Mosul.”

But Beinart is badly mistaken when he asserts that the Democrats’ disastrous election last month—the presidency, further erosion of seats in Congress—wasn’t the result of a bad candidate. He admits that Kerry was “flawed” but contends that it was the extremist wing of the party, specifically naming Michael Moore and MoveOn, with its excessive Bush-bashing and international isolationism, that superseded the problem of a weak standard-bearer who was unable to connect with enough Americans to win.

Author and attorney Scott Turow wrote an op-ed for the Dec. 26 Washington Post that summed up his party’s problem far better in 800 words than Beinart’s 7,000. Turow correctly argues that it was a close election won by Bush because of his superior organization rather than an outright rejection of traditional Democratic positions. Turow dares to point out a fact that most of his compatriots would rather not acknowledge: “The implication is that the Republican message mattered more than their messenger. Yet Bush has shown an impressive ability since he first ran for governor of Texas against Ann Richards to win tough elections and to connect with middle-class voters. The good news for Democrats? Bush won’t be on the ballot four years from now.”

It’s taken for granted that Bill Clinton is the best pure politician of this generation, but in reality Bush has topped him; Clinton was enormously gifted in campaigning, but only for himself. In contrast, Bush’s victories extended to Congress as well. Whereas the former president lost the Democratic majority during his tenure, Bush has expanded his party’s control.

It’s likely, as Turow says, that the electorate will be polarized once again in 2008. Therefore, Democrats are ill advised to panic and re-jigger the core beliefs that its base, which guarantees 45 percent of the vote in a national election, adheres to.

The key to recapturing the White House is to nominate a candidate, preferably from the South or Midwest, who people like and feel comfortable with. Kerry wasn’t that person, and neither is Hillary Clinton. I don’t care much for Virginia Gov. Mark Warner—and had Sept. 11 not occurred, it’s possible, with Bush campaigning for his opponent, Warner wouldn’t have won in 2001—but his affable, bluegrass-lovin’ demeanor, while maintaining a platform of taxing the rich, expanding health care, and maintaining a strong military, would likely win several Southern states and thus the presidency.

Warner, or another yet-to-be-identified moderate, wouldn’t satisfy the bloodlust of a Michael Moore, but like Clinton or Jimmy Carter (two former governors), he might reclaim the White House. And what Democrat would argue with that?

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