Where Do We Go From Here?

I am pleased and proud to live in the people's republic of the Upper West Side, a Manhattan neighborhood so historically liberal that one day I arrived at the supermarket to find a fierce young woman handing out leaflets on the horrific treatment of factory-farmed chickens. Luckily, I myself was looking for a nice piece of brisket.

This aberrant slice of America was predictably unhappy the morning after the big election. But along with the anger there was shame. Heard on the street--and in the gourmet store for which a friend says the motto ought to be "Why pay less?"--was an unthinkable whisper. Some of our neighbors had gone Republican for the first time in their lives.

Since last week, when the GOP gained control of the Senate, the House and the White House for the first time in half a century, the operative emotion of most loyal Democrats has been rage: rage at their own party, at its lackluster performance, at its absence of direction and leadership. The sense of blinding defeat is reminiscent of the morning after the 1994 midterm elections, when Newt Gingrich was burbling about the "Contract With America" and Ann Richards and Mario Cuomo lost to two nonentities named Bush and Pataki. By some hideous accident of scheduling, I wound up on a conservative radio talk show. "So how are you people going to spin this one?" the host crowed.

No spin possible. Don't even try. Those pundits who suggest that this enormous victory could be bad for the Republicans because now they'll have no one else to blame--oh, please!

If the Democratic Party is losing ground in my neighborhood, it is in mortal crisis. Its leaders, if it ever gets any, have got to stop taking so much for granted. They took for granted that good old Fritz Mondale could walk right in and win in Minnesota. They took for granted that a Kennedy could carry Maryland. They took for granted black voters, and blue-collar voters, and urban women.

The Republican Party's historical hostility to the rights of women and the welfare of immigrants, its favoritism toward big business and big contributors, Richard Nixon's unwavering willingness to trade integrity for victory and Ronald Reagan's cheerful indifference to the disenfranchised: all conspire to leave liberals no-where to go. So the Democrats took us for granted, too. They did it by refusing to take clear, strong, unapologetic positions on issues, to spell out how they were different from the other guys on the economy and national defense.

What we were left with, in New York state, was a cipher of a gubernatorial candidate who scarcely registered with voters. But he was a reflection of a cipher of a party nationwide. I can tell you what the Republican leaders care about. With this election result, they will try to give estate-tax relief to the wealthy, to despoil the Alaskan wilderness by drilling for oil and to load the federal bench with judges who approve of the death penalty and are hostile to abortion.

By contrast, I scarcely know where my own party stands any longer.

Its leaders have let the opposition set the terms of engagement. There has been much muttering that the Democrats should not now reflexively move leftward in defeat. But what constitutes left when viewed from the right--or when viewed by political consultants--isn't really left at all. Wanting to register and license guns, or eschewing a quick-fix tax cut to avoid ever-increasing deficits: those aren't radical notions. Lest we forget, the alleged left-wing positions of years past are now the bedrock of democracy: the franchise for black Americans, the equality of women.

Those were Democratic positions when Democrats took positions (and Republican positions when there actually was a moderate wing). Bill Clinton changed the party by embracing the middle. But there's a difference between embracing the middle and slinking toward it. The voters can smell it. They can also smell it when someone really believes, as opposed to that faux belief described as positioning. That's why the late, great Paul Wellstone, a guy who any reasonable person would have said was too liberal and too unpolitic to be a politician, got elected twice. Was it the ill-advised pep rally masquerading as a memorial service that did in Wellstone's surrogate, or was it that the unaccustomed whiff of principle had disappeared with the ebullient firebrand who dared oppose the president's bully war?

"If you don't have a message and you don't have a messenger, you are in trouble," Robert Reich, the economist who ran unsuccessfully for the Democratic gubernatorial nomination in Massachusetts, said the other night. In Massachusetts, the only state that went for McGovern for president, the place where the Irish-clubhouse school of winning Democratic politics may have reached its greatest refinement, you will now have a conservative Republican Mormon from Utah as governor. And in the dog runs and the takeout sushi joints of the people's republic of the Upper West Side, people breathed the words "Pataki's not so bad." History is sometimes made with a whisper, not a bang.