Donkeys in Denial

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Americans have a cherished and hallowed tradition of hating whiners. They see their nation as the home of a bold can-do people, like the pioneers of the old West. George W. Bush understands that sentiment and has tapped into it for two straight presidential elections. Democrats don't seem to understand that. Consider this: On Election Day, 17% of voters told pollsters that the most important quality in a president was strong leadership while another 17% said it was taking clear stands on the issues. More than 80% of both groups—a third of the electorate—voted for Bush, who had mercilessly painted his opponent as a flip-flopper.

A caveat: Exit polls are iffy samples, and a recent study concluded that the 2004 edition was the most problematic of the past five presidential elections. Still, the broad trends are clear. One of those is that a solid number of people who disagreed with Bush on major issues still voted for him. A quarter of Election Day voters told exit pollsters that they believe same-sex couples should be allowed to wed, but 22% of those voters cast ballots for Bush. A majority of the voters who support civil unions backed Bush. About a third of voters said they believe abortion should be legal in most circumstances yet 38% backed Bush. Strength wins.

Now Bush is taking the oath of office again and laying the foundation of an ambitious second term agenda. Meanwhile, most Democrats are still trying to figure out why Bush won. That the party is still having this debate so long after the election shows it hasn't learned a thing.

What bold leadership moves have national Democrats made so far? When Congress convened earlier this month to certify presidential electors and confirm Bush's reelection, House Democrats and California Senator Barbara Boxer challenged Ohio's electoral ballots, forcing a few hours' debate on election reform. They had the noblest intentions, attempting to call attention to election day breakdowns in Ohio and the sad state of election reform since 2000. But as one Republican aide told ABC News, "This is a golden opportunity to remind people that President Bush won and John Kerry lost." Most Americans outside the beltway got the impression that the Democrats couldn't accept the election results. It sounded like whining.

As noble as the Dems' intentions were, they knew it was a losing battle. If the party is serious about election reform, it first needs to win some elections. It can't get its agenda enacted without taking back the White House and Congress. But party members seem more enthusiastic about noble losing causes then about winning. Several party members say the key to success during the 2nd Bush term is to fight the President tooth and nail on his agenda with every obstructionist technique they have at their disposal, particularly Senate filibusters. That's worked wonders in the past two Congressional elections. Most Americans would rather support politicians who have ideas—even ideas the voters don't completely agree with.

What should the Democrats be doing now? Proposing ambitious alternatives to the President's agenda, plans that demonstrate the party's principles and vision for the country. Bush has spent weeks sowing the seeds for his Social Security reform plan by telling Americans that the popular entitlement program is on the brink of insolvency and that private investment accounts are the only solution. Democrats have responded by accusing the President of distorting the facts. They may have a point—Economists disagree on whether or not the system is in any real danger. But most voters like Social Security and at the same time feel insecure about its future. The Dems can't just reject Bush's agenda—they need to present their own proposal for guaranteeing its long-term survival. If they don't, Bush will frame the debate for the next year.

How should they devise this agenda? Party members will have to decide what common principles they share, what matters most to them and look for ways to effectively sell those ideas to voters. Bush wants tax reform? Counter with a plan that actually balances the budget in the next decade. Devise what John Kerry never could—a Democratic vision of how to win the war on terror. Look for a way to halt the out-of-control costs of health care and Medicaid. Democratic governors and mayors—even in the South and mountain West—have had some success in the past four years and have suggestions on how the Dems can look less like the party of the Beltway bureaucracy.

Obviously any Democratic agenda will have little chance of getting past this House, the Senate and the President's desk. But if the Democrats fail to offer any ideas, they will never give voters a reason to back them. If the Dems keep this up, Bush's biggest challenge in the next four years will be keeping members of his own party in line.