How to Build a Better Democrat

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Two days after George W. Bush strutted across the deck of the U.S.S. Abraham Lincoln in full fighter-pilot regalia—an image we may see from time to time between now and Election Day—the nine Democrats running for President of the U.S. held their first debate of the 2004 campaign. No more than 10 minutes into it, two of those Democrats, John Kerry of Massachusetts and Howard Dean of Vermont, had entangled themselves in a ridiculous scuffle over the issue of gay rights. Not that they disagreed. Both are staunch advocates of equal rights and "civil unions." But Kerry believed that Dean had accused him of a lack of courage on this topic. "I don't need any lectures in courage from Howard Dean," said Kerry, a Vietnam War hero who probably should have saved that line for a more crucial evening.

Dean insisted that he had been misquoted by a San Francisco newspaper; the paper had printed a correction. This seemed a classic Democratic Party moment—woolly liberals taking time from crucial issues like war and peace and prosperity to argue over who could offer the most extravagant pander to a narrow, controversial interest group. Happily for both Kerry and Dean, practically no one was watching. The debate was aired by a smattering of abc affiliates at 11:30 on Saturday night and by cspan the next day.

There are futility metaphors aplenty here: The contrast between the swaggering President and the squabbling Dems. The nonargument over periphera. The absence of an audience. But then, the Democrats have excelled at futility for more than 30 years. They have elected two Presidents during that time, Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton. Both were Governors of Southern states. Neither was a well-known party leader. Neither ran on what many Democrats would consider a traditional—that is, liberal—agenda. Carter was the first born-again Christian President; Clinton once owned a pickup truck with AstroTurf carpeting in the back. Carter won because he seemed a simple, honorable antidote to the excessive dishonesty of the Nixon era. Clinton won because he was far more talented than his opponents—George H. W. Bush and Bob Dole—but also because he rejected his party's orthodoxy on crime (especially the death penalty), welfare reform, free trade and fiscal conservatism. One could argue that the only winning strategy for Democrats in the past nine presidential campaigns has been camouflage.

Which brings us to 2004, another election the Democrats should lose. They are facing a popular incumbent who has just won a war. George W. Bush is everything Democrats have not been—bold, decisive, uncomplicated, a man of real convictions who has not been afraid to take unpopular positions. Furthermore, unlike his father, this Bush is a political animal. He has a clever team. If the Democrats do happen to find a winning issue, you can be sure that Karl Rove, the President's strategist, will figure out a way to trump or co-opt it (as he did with education and Medicare prescription-drug benefits in the election of 2000). And the Democrats enter the fray with all the shape and substance of fog. "People have no idea what we stand for," says Stan Greenberg, a Democratic pollster. "They have a vague sense that we were against the war in Iraq and a vaguer sense that things were somehow better economically when we were in power. Beyond that, nothing."

For these reasons and others, some Republicans are quietly predicting that 2004 will be not just a Bush landslide but also a transformational election—an election that creates a new Republican majority, just as the 1936 election created an enduring Democratic majority for Franklin D. Roosevelt. There is a problem with this notion, though. The last transformational election was not 1936 but 1968—the year that Richard Nixon created a new political reality by exploiting Southern white resentment of the civil rights movement (and of Vietnam War protesters). The solid Democratic South became the solid Republican South, a truly momentous event in American political history, and the pendulum has been swinging right ever since. The laws of politics, to say nothing of physics, would indicate that a second conservative transformation, an election that moves the center of gravity even further to the right, is unlikely.

In fact, despite the hot Republican rhetoric, it's difficult to imagine what else conservatives can conserve on the federal level (although the world would be a better place if monstrosities like last year's farm-subsidies act were repealed). The past two years have shown a renewed public appetite for a stronger federal presence—not merely in the pursuit of terrorists but also in the regulation of Wall Street and corporate boardrooms, and perhaps in the stimulation of an economy that the Federal Reserve Bank has indicated may be approaching a deflationary contraction. The brutal cutbacks looming on the state and local levels may also have an impact on the political climate. There will be fewer police, fire fighters and teachers. There will be more potholes. Civilians may remember how valuable government can be. We could be on the cusp of an era where government is regarded once more with mere skepticism, rather than the out-and-out disdain of recent years.

And so, yes, the Democrats do have a chance in 2004. A chance, but they will have to become something different from the Democrats we have come to know and ridicule. They face challenges on three different fronts: patriotism, optimism and confidence. They will have to convince the public that they are as committed to national defense, and to the judicious use of military force, as the Republicans are. They will have to shed their congenital pessimism. They can't just rant against the Administration and hope for bad news to confirm their prejudices. They will have to propose firm, reasonable policy alternatives that are easy to understand and defend. If they oppose the Bush tax cuts, they will have to lay out, in some detail, what they would do instead.

Finally, they will have to change the mingy, defensive, consultant-driven style of recent campaigns. They will need a candidate who is easy in his skin, who sounds different from other politicians—freer, perhaps; funnier, certainly—and who is confident enough to risk broad, bold themes that capture the national imagination rather than parsing the special yearnings of enough demographic slivers to win the election. Camouflage will not be enough this time.

Step One: Recapture the Flag
There are plenty of Democrats who nominally supported the war in Iraq—five of the six credible presidential candidates did, but only Joe Lieberman supported the President's policies without reservation. Most Democrats were dragged along on this adventure, carrying suspicions that it was, at bottom, equal parts political enterprise concocted by Rove, ideological enterprise concocted by utopian neoconservatives, and family psychodrama—young Bush avenging and one-upping his old man. There was, as always, a congenital distrust of all things martial among the "Democratic wing of the Democratic Party," as Howard Dean would say. And it was Dean who made himself into a semi-plausible contender by voicing these suspicions and by excoriating his fellow candidates for not standing up to Bush on Iraq.

Throughout the winter, Republicans could point to Dean's candid and bracing performances on the stump and say, This is what the Democrats are really all about. They are the party of peaceniks; they mistrust the military; they are not tough enough to protect America. This analysis was both right and wrong. In February, Dean did set the Democratic National Committee's winter meeting afire, but the reaction of the party faithful to Dean was no different from the Republican faithful's wild enthusiasm for red-meat orators like Alan Keyes and Pat Buchanan in years past. Most Democrats do not have a death wish. Ever since the George McGovern disaster in 1972, the party has routinely chosen technocratic moderates as standard-bearers. This doesn't bode well for Dean, especially now that the war is over. He has been making some real Iraq-related blunders in recent weeks, saying of the removal of Saddam, "I suppose that's a good thing," and raising the possibility that "we won't always have the strongest military."

The Democrats may never be able to outdo the Republicans on patriotism and national defense, but they do have to be credible in those areas."This is the threshold question," says Donna Brazile, a longtime Democratic Party activist. "We have to be able to close the leadership gap with Bush. We can't do that if we don't field a candidate who is strong on defense." In the South Carolina debate, Lieberman made good sense with this formulation: "I am the one Democrat who can match George Bush in the areas where many think he's strong—defense and moral values—and beat him where he is weak, on the economy and his divisive right-wing social agenda."

In the wake of Bush's flying stunt, a new and unfair test was proposed by journalists—the aircraft-carrier primary: Which of the Democrats could have duplicated Bush's photo op without seeming foolish? Not Lieberman, and certainly not Dean. John Edwards and Dick Gephardt are plausible flyboys, and Bob Graham might have been at one time. No, Kerry wins this contest hands down. His military record is his ticket to this dance. On the day before the debate, Kerry did something no other Democrat in the race could do. He gave a moving tribute, surrounded by Vietnam combat veterans, at the Vietnam memorial in Columbia, S.C. He introduced the gunner on his swift boat in the Mekong Delta, a local African-American minister named David Alston, and talked about the bond they shared. "We are brothers who love each other today because of our shared experiences," he said, "and that is a gift we veterans can give to the rest of the country. We can remind people of the importance of service like David Alston's—his sense of duty, of mission, of obligation, which are the definition of patriotism."

As the man said, Kerry doesn't need any lectures in courage. In fact, Kerry has already effectively questioned Bush's military policy in Afghanistan from the right. He argued that a more aggressive use of American troops might have trapped Osama bin Laden and the al-Qaeda leadership at Tora Bora. But Kerry's performance on Iraq raises a question. He voted for the war, but reluctantly. One almost senses that it was a political vote, intended to neuter his opposition to the first Gulf War. He was not a happy warrior. He said he could support the war only if the U.S. exhausted all diplomatic efforts—and then supported the war anyway when Bush abandoned the diplomatic process. Kerry has continued to criticize the Bush Administration's clumsy, arrogant behavior in the world, its myopic willingness to offend friend and foe alike. He believes that the Administration's intention to go it alone on the reconstruction of Iraq is a mistake as well. These are not startling criticisms. They are common among both Democrats and Republican traditionalists. The members of Bush the Elder's foreign policy team have expressed these very sentiments privately, and sometimes publicly. But Kerry has been criticized by Dean and Lieberman, and by much of the press, for seeming wishy-washy. The question is, Are the Democrats' qualms about Bush's foreign policy too technical, too complicated to work as a political issue? In a battle of bumper stickers, strong defense beats your family is safer in a world where america is looked up to, not in a world where we are hated, which is Edwards' elegant formulation of the problem.

This is a chronic Democratic woe: lousy bumper stickers. The Republicans can trot out three two-word killers—strong defense, lower taxes and traditional values. Democrats are more likely to offer impenetrable position papers. In 1992, Clinton chose to fight the Republicans on their own ground. He used three one-word slogans and won with "Opportunity, Responsibility and Community." The moderate Democratic Leadership Council cleverly revised the slogan at its annual meeting last summer: "Opportunity, Responsibility and Security." Several of the Democratic contenders have fixed on security as a theme this year. Not just national security but homeland security, financial security, health-care security and so forth. It seems likely that this one word will be as prominent in 2004 as the image of George Bush in his jump suit. But on the real security issue—national security—the Democrats will fail if they merely agree with the President.

They will have to risk complexity. They will have to argue that foreign policy involves more than just the threat of force, more than just bullying friends and clobbering foes. Indeed, the greatest threats today involve a new kind of power that is neither hard (military) nor soft (economic and cultural) but viral. These new threats attack the global community insidiously. Terrorism is one virus, obviously; but there are also crime syndicates, environmental problems and businesses that operate beyond the reach of international law (not to forget actual viruses like sars and aids). In an age of viral power, Democrats might argue, the U.S. has to be more than a hammer looking for nails. We have to find a way to act as a vaccine. But the Democrats can make that sort of broad argument only if they are unassailable in their support for military strength.

Step Two: Lose the Frown
There are times when Richard Gephardt, a truly decent man, seems the embodiment of all that is clunky about the Democratic Party. His 1988 presidential campaign was militantly dismal. At one point, he criticized Ronald Reagan's 1984 "Morning in America" advertising theme: "It's closer to midnight," Gephardt insisted, "and getting darker all the time." This is another inveterate Democratic problem: every silver lining comes equipped not just with a cloud, but often with a full-fledged hurricane and heavy coastal flooding. Who would want to spend four years with such spoilsports whining away on TVs in the kitchens and family rooms of America? The economy is on the brink of collapse. The health-care system is on the brink of collapse. The schools are literally collapsing. Every war is Vietnam. In reality, it is never, ever midnight, or even twilight, in America, the most hopeful country in all of history. Even Gephardt seems intent on running a sunnier campaign this time.

He has offered a handful of big ideas, some of them quite good. But the centerpiece of Gephardt's candidacy—his universal health-care plan—is immense and anachronistic. It offers huge subsidies to large corporations that already offer health insurance to their workers. It mandates that small companies offer health insurance as well. This is a classic Old Democratic plan, pegged to a constituency that is shriveling: the Big America of Rust Belt manufacturing and trade unions. Entrepreneurial America—the immigrant grocers, the hi-tech start-ups in Sun Belt garages, the source of most economic growth—doesn't need the additional burden of finding and securing health plans for its workers. The notion of offering "health security" to the 41 million Americans who don't have insurance—an idea that every Democrat is likely to endorse in one form or another—can be done more simply (and for about one-third of Gephardt's $247 billion a year) by offering tax credits and subsidies to individuals who don't have health insurance.

Gephardt is right about one thing: the Democrats have to offer a clear alternative to Bush domestically—and opposition to any but the most targeted tax cuts is the place to start. This is less risky than it might seem. The public hasn't been hot for tax cuts for quite some time. (In 1998 Clinton managed to stop congressional Republicans on this issue with four words: "Save Social Security First.") But if Democrats are going to oppose tax cuts—which are pretty much the entirety of Bush's domestic policy—they are going to have provide a compelling and comprehensive alternative.

That is not easy. Privately, most leading Democrats—especially those who are economists—agree on only two principles: there is no One Big Dramatic Thing you can do to fix the economy, but you probably have to do something to nudge the country out of the current rut. The "security" theme might work nicely here. Universal health insurance is a form of security. Spending more to protect Americans from terrorism is another. Spending more on highways and communications can be seen as a form of national security as well. Eisenhower was able to fund the creation of the interstate highway system in the 1950s by calling it the National Defense Highway Act.

All the above would create jobs, unlike Bush's rather indirect and speculative tax cuts, and they would have some social "security" benefits as well. But none are ideas to stir the soul. Democrats haven't done much soul stirring since the Kennedy era—and they haven't spent much time courting young people since then, either. (Their fixations on prescription drugs for the elderly and leaving Social Security alone are utter losers with nongraybeards.) If the Democrats want to think romantic as well as big, the obvious area is the environment. Several of the candidates have proposed dour, incremental "energy-independence" schemes that feature many of the worthy, ho-hum notions of years past—conservation, fuel-efficiency standards and the like. But the fun part of the environment is gizmos. The President, a gizmo kind of guy, embraced the hydrogen car. The Democrats could do that and more—nuclear fusion, wind power, digital interstate highways (a computer chip in your car locks you in at 70 m.p.h. a safe distance from the cars in front of and behind you). Whatever. The key is to have at least one issue on which the candidate is free to dream, think big, tap the national spirit of adventure in a way that doesn't involve Abrams tanks. My guess is that enthusiasm is contagious. A candidate who sounds stoked about the environment will have an easier time selling less inspirational issues like health insurance.

There wasn't much romance in campaign-finance reform, either, but John McCain managed to make it into a rollicking adventure in 2000. McCain was a brash, confident, unfettered candidate. The Democrats have been too frightened—scared that their belief in government, in larger public purposes, could be twisted into public perversity by the Republicans—to even attempt fizziness, to say nothing of brashitude. This lack of confidence has shriveled the Democrats. They run for office in shackles of their own making.

Step Three: Kill the Consultants
In the spring of 2000, Al Gore hired a new—it seemed his umpteenth—team of political consultants. They asked him what he cared about most, as consultants always do. He said the environment. They told him the environment was nice, but it wouldn't win him any more electoral votes than he already had. They gave him a list of issues that might win a few crucial states. Gore followed their advice. "They ran about 26 different Senate races rather than a presidential campaign," says John Podesta, Clinton's former chief of staff. "They won more votes than the Republicans, but they lost something too. They gave up having Gore look like a President."

The Democrats did the opposite in 2002. They ran 34 separate Senate races as a national campaign. It was a disaster. The unified campaign was run by consultants and pollsters working for the Democrats' House and Senate campaign committees, which disbursed money and political advice. The advice was not to talk about the most important issues on everyone's mind—the war in Iraq and national security. And not to talk about Bush's tax cuts. Instead, the Democrats ran on three issues: they blamed Bush for the recession, without offering an alternative; they tried to scare senior citizens about the privatization of Social Security; they offered a wildly expensive prescription-drug plan for the elderly without proposing any reform of the Medicare system. This was not only ineffective and uninspiring, it was disgraceful.

Look, some of my best friends are political consultants. And campaign strategy is ultimately the candidate's responsibility. Gore had the power to tell his consultants to go jump in a lake. Republican consultants aren't much different. But Republicans candidates simply seem to have more faith in their message—smaller government is better, except when it comes to the military—than Democrats do. And so Democratic candidates pay more attention to small-bore political-issue evasions and tactical finesses than Republicans do. There is immense voodoo power attached to the man or woman who comes to the candidate and says, You can't do that because the polls say the public doesn't like it, or the focus group didn't buy it. Politicians are suckers for almost anyone who tells them what not to do, especially if there are numbers that appear to support the contention.

But there are reasons, mechanical and spiritual, why this sterile, straitened form of politics may have finally outlived its usefulness. Polling is not much of a science when only 5% of people contacted by phone—that's the current average—actually agree to answer questions. One wonders if that 5% is a certain type of citizen—a lonely one, perhaps. One wonders about the 19 in 20 who hang up the phone. What do they believe? Focus groups are more reliable, but they are poison to spontaneity. They can tell a candidate a lot about what the public thinks it wants to hear but nothing at all about how to lead. And the public has begun to catch on. "People understand what shrink-wrapped language sounds like," says Bob Shrum, who was Gore's consultant in 2000 and is Kerry's for 2004. "They want to feel that politicians are speaking directly to them, without marketing or intermediaries. This was a real strength Bush and McCain had in 2000. They didn't talk like the usual Republicans. Bush talked about compassionate conservatism and passionately about education. And we all know about the freshness McCain brought to the campaign."

But it is the pedestrian application of Shrum's art that has created a generation of strait-jacketed Democrats who think small, who sound as if they were animatronic, who are willing to bend themselves into pretzels for the love of frenzied, myopic special interests, who think that smart politics means complaining about the cost of Bush's trip to the U.S.S. Abraham Lincoln rather than finding some alternative and more inspirational way to capture the public's attention. If the Democrats want to transcend their perpetual pickiness, their inability to rise above the bite-size, they are going to have to find a candidate talented and fearless enough to meet the public without having to consult a focus group first. In the end, talent can make the most carefully massaged message sound fresh, as Clinton almost always could.

There is much that we don't know about this election. There may be another terrorist attack, or not. The economy may sag, or not. The President may try one too many cowboy tricks, or he may simply be seen as the guy who got us through a tough time. The country post-Sept. 11 may be entirely different from the country before the outrage occurred. It may be a more serious electorate, less tolerant of political boilerplate, more favorably disposed toward serious governance and ready to make sacrifices for the common good. Or not. If the world stays quiet and the economy picks up, the Democrats may face an unbeatable incumbent in 2004, no matter how hard they try. All the more reason to act as Democrats haven't in quite a while: Speak your minds, dream a little, tell people some truths they don't want to hear. Get angry. Be funny. But, above all, provide a real alternative. The Republicans offer smaller government. The Democrats, at their best, offer serious government. A direct clash on those principles would be an argument worth having, and one the country badly needs.