Dems In The Dumps

Memo To: The Democratic Party
RE: Your mess
From: Jonathan Alter

Hello? Anyone home? I'm not quite sure to whom I should address this, considering that you have no leadership right now. Nancy Pelosi? Tom Daschle? The 42d president turned Harlem globe-trotter? You lost only two seats in the Senate and five in the House, but the situation is much grimmer than those numbers suggest. Democrats actually have some good ideas lying around, but in last week's election you lacked the vision and guts to offer them to the voters. What we have here, as the warden in "Cool Hand Luke" put it, is a failure to communicate.

At least after the 1994 wipeout (53 seats lost in the House, 10 in the Senate) you controlled the presidency.

That meant that when Newt Gingrich and his conservative zealots overreached, you had the bully pulpit and veto power. This time, you have neither a message nor a microphone. The elephants of the GOP will try a stampede; the Jackass Party looks too dumb to resist.

But all is not lost for you Democrats. Remember how former president Bush was at 90 percent popularity after the gulf war in early 1991? A year later he was in what he called "deep doodoo," easy prey for Bill Clinton. This Bush is a much better politician than his father--the son actually enjoys the game rather than just tolerating it--but he faces disturbing and uncontrollable forces in the American economy and foreign affairs. Those forces undid Lyndon Johnson, who was no slouch as a political operator. History is full of reversals of fortune. Two years is an eternity in politics.

Even as they form a circular firing squad, most Democrats seem receptive to some new thinking. The following survival tips come from conversations with Democratic politicians, strategists and voters:

Look in the mirror. Sure, you can find excuses in the election returns. If a few thousand votes moved the other way in Missouri and Minnesota, the Senate would have been tied. If not for the 9-11 anniversary, Bush's exploiting Iraq and the sniper attacks, the Democrats would have had more time to get traction. The numbers show that it's still essentially a 50-50 nation. Yadda yadda yadda.

These are rationalizations, and you know it. When Party Chairman Terry McAuliffe said last Tuesday, "Tonight was a good night for Democrats," even you snorted. James Carville was wrong about the strategy for this election (he urged the unrelenting focus, yet again, on Social Security), but he's right that the finger-pointing and recriminations are actually healthy for you. After the anger can come reflection and regeneration.

Stand for something. Democrats seemed to forget this year that some voters are actually under the age of 65. You came across like the geezer party, and not just by bringing back Frank Lautenberg and Walter Mondale. You argued that the GOP's version of a prescription-drug benefit was a dire threat to the republic. This did not exactly constitute a vision, and in the bump and grind of TV ads it was easy enough for Republicans to obscure it.

The rest of the campaign was simply lame. You "looked like a Chihuahua nipping at Bush's heels, instead of a strong force," as Democratic consultant David Axelrod puts it. You timidly downplayed bedrock Democratic economic values like corporate accountability, health insurance and help for the unemployed. You inexplicably dropped potent Clinton-era issues like the environment, affordable college tuition, medical advances (letting Republicans off the hook for slowing stem-cell research was a huge missed opportunity) and national service. No wonder smart youngbloods like Rep. Harold Ford Jr. think you're out of touch.

In hindsight, your 2002 goose was cooked in early 2001, when you caved on the Bush tax cut. Once 12 Democratic senators voted for that profoundly un-Democratic bill, it was impossible to play anything but defense on taxes. You stopped trying to educate voters about the GOP's transfer of wealth from the middle class to the "top 1 percent" (a more effective form of stigmatization than "the rich"). But being in the minority now gives you the chance to go on the offensive again. Bush wants to make the windfall for the top 1 percenters permanent. Because even a few Republicans have doubts about the bill's hugely irresponsible fiscal consequences, the vote will be close.

To keep Bush from a victory that would be both bad for the country and bad for the Democrats, you must offer and fanatically publicize an alternative. The best one would substitute an immediate middle-class tax cut, in the form of a one-time "payroll tax holiday" (exempting the first $10,000 of salary from Social Security taxes, as proposed by Sen. Jon Corzine, would net both employers and employees $765 each). This would stimulate the economy much more than Bush's misbegotten bill, which slashes the taxes of top 1 percenters down the road. It is also a test of whether you have any soul left at all.

Taking a stand on tax cuts may require some obstructionist tactics. Same for blocking a few right-wing judicial nominations. But just because conservative Republicans used the threat of a filibuster in the 1990s to stop almost anything Clinton wanted to accomplish doesn't make that the right approach now. And if you do play Dr. No all the time, it will hurt you.

Stay centrist. Despite all the worry that Pelosi, the apparent replacement for House Minority Leader Richard Gephardt, is too liberal (would they say that if she was from Atlanta instead of San Francisco?), her positions on most domestic issues don't differ much from party moderates. Both wings of the party want to expand health insurance, particularly for kids, and fund education at higher levels than today.

But the wings of the party do differ on some security issues, and that's critical. Pelosi is a member of the Intelligence Committee and a hawk on China, but she was one of 126 House Democrats who voted against the Iraq war resolution, which now makes the Democratic caucus look more dovish than even the French. Some of you liberals are actually arguing that Democrats would have done better in the midterms had they run as the peace party.

This is a preposterous and dangerous misreading of the American public. If you hope to avoid being totally discredited by an anxious electorate, you must return to your pre-Vietnam roots as a party of muscular foreign policy. Instead of whining that you got rolled by Bush on Iraq, you should be claiming credit for forcing him to work much more closely with the United Nations than he preferred last summer. It's true that Bush sandbagged you on a Department of Homeland Security, which Democrats favored long before the president did. But that fight is over now. Rather than carrying water for government employee unions, you should get on with approving a new department--then take the offensive by asking why Bush has consistently underfunded Homeland Security and left us, as former senators Warren Rudman and Gary Hart reported last month, woefully unprepared for the next attack.

This requires that Democrats fully internalize September 11, which some of you do not seem to have done. Pelosi, for one, said last week that the priorities of her party in the House are "children, children, children." Where does security against terrorism fit into that list? The Democrats are increasingly perceived as the "mommy" party and the Republicans as the "daddy" party. Unfortunately for you, it's a "daddy" era. Bush has more trust on national-security issues, but Democrats must at least cut into his lead on that front.

Close the discipline gap. Republicans have long been better at developing a party line (for example, "Tom Daschle is an obstructionist"), repeating it endlessly and using their allies in the conservative press and talk radio to drive the message home. You Democrats don't even send out e-mails to keep your folks on the same page.

To close the discipline gap, you need some Charlie Michaelsons. He was the long-forgotten publicist for the Democratic National Committee during the Hoover administration, the man who popularized "Hoovervilles" and otherwise drove home the point that the president was responsible for the bad economy. (And you thought spin was a new invention.) But while the GOP has got its Michaelson types hard at work for Bush, yours are mostly sitting on the sidelines.

The situation at the grass roots is even worse. "The Republicans totally out-organized us," says Steve Rosenthal, the AFL-CIO's highly regarded director of field operations. "They put together a real butt-kicking campaign." Democrats did little organizing in minority communities, which were taken for granted, and less among white families in the suburbs, where Republicans dominate. With TV ads rapidly losing bite, you must go to a ground game. That takes a different kind of work than raising money from rich donors, but it's ultimately healthier if you want to once more be "the party of the people."

Look to the presidential candidates. Most of the new ideas that dominate American politics arise not from congressional debates but from presidential campaigns. Govs. Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush all introduced fresh proposals from outside Washington--and won. "I'd argue that 2003 should be the 'idea primary'," says Al From, who runs the centrist Democratic Leadership Council. "Presidential campaigns are the only way we have to redefine the process, change the context of issues and move them forward."

You have no front runner, which is probably just as well. That gives candidates like Sen. John Kerry, Sen. John Edwards and Gov. Howard Dean a chance to advance their ideas more easily. Even Al Gore would have to fight it out on the terrain of ideas. Once the campaign begins in earnest, the Democratic opposition will be less of an abstraction. And once a nominee is selected in early primaries, only 15 months from now, you will have the leader you need to articulate a message. That's no guarantee that the nominee will be able, Clinton style, to bridge the many divisions in the party. But you can't fight something with nothing.

Will Rogers once said: "I'm a member of no organized political party. I'm a Democrat." That is more of a problem when the Democrats are in power. When you're out, it's much easier to organize around what you're against than what you're for. It may be that Democrats are in the unenviable position of waiting for bad economic times or a botched war to restore their political fortunes. But that's always true of the party in opposition. In the meantime, all you can do is think big and stay true to what you believe. Then losing doesn't feel quite so bad.