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Tuesday, February 01, 2005

Democrats in Search of a Future

The Democrats are about to do something that will affect their own fate and, if they do it right, hopefully, the future of this nation. Yes, they’re about to gather to pick their new leader. But the real significance is not just that they’re picking a new chairman. It’s whom they pick that will signal a lot about the direction the party intends to take over these next few years and whether they can win back the House, Senate and even the White House.

Are they going to lurch to the right? Will they slip leftward? Depends on the candidate they choose.

My hands-on favorite is Howard Dean. Let me confess straight up that I wasn’t a Deaniac during the primaries. I honestly didn’t think Dean would have made a good president, and so my choices were, in order of preference: John Edwards and John Kerry. And I don’t regret it. Both were excellent candidates. The Kerry-Edwards campaign, however, left a great deal to be desired. I’m not talking about the ground operation, the state-by-state get out the vote drives. The ground operation couldn’t have been better. But the campaign strategy, with it’s confused messages, it’s slowness to respond to attacks, and its refusal to go negative when Bush did is a whole other thing. Let’s just say, I am so very glad that Bob Shrum is getting a new day job and I wish him all the best at it. So that he doesn’t come back to run any other presidential races for the Democrats.

Howard Dean is the only one currently running for party chairman who seems to truly understand the problem, which is that it’s the mechanics of the Democratic Party that need fixing, not the message. And especially not the values.

Dean won me over with the following quote: “I hate the Republicans and everything they stand for. But I admire their discipline.”


And not just their discipline, but also their skill at crafting strategy, their dedication to core values, their sense of who their base is, and their investment in ideas. It’s been said before, and it can’t be repeated too often, conservative Republicans haven’t focused on winning an election here and there; they’ve built a movement. They have an overarching strategy and the discipline to implement it.

For tips on how they succeeded we need to study, not Jerry Falwell, but Karl Rove. Yes, we do indeed need to imitate the Republicans to get back in the game and win elections. But it’s not their message that we ought to be copying, it’s their methods. To modify slightly a line that originally came from James Carville, “It’s the strategy, stupid.”

Let’s look at what our strategy shouldn’t be:


Tim Roemer, one of the other candidates for the chairman’s post and a respected former congressman, is basing his campaign on the need for the party to move to the center. “We have evacuated the South,” he contends.

For years, everybody in both parties and the pundits who follow them, like the camp women who followed General Hooker’s civil war troops, have assumed that the key to winning a national election lies in the South and Southwest.

But is that conventional wisdom really true?

Ok, let’s take Alabama as an example. In the last election, Alabamans, in their infinite wisdom, voted to keep on their books the law that segregated schools. Of course, their schools are no longer segregated since, by federal law, all the state segregation laws were overturned thirty years ago and Alabama public schools are probably more integrated than many suburban schools in Boston. However, in a referendum to remove the segregationist language from an already invalid law, just as a formality and a concession to reality, the citizens voted it down and instead chose to keep segregation in schools as a state law, if not an actual fact. And here’s why.

The language in the new law that would have replaced it, would have affirmed that every child has a constitutional right to a public education. Opponents of replacing the segregationist law pointed out that guaranteeing the right to public education for all children could have led to increased taxes to support more schools.

Without commenting on the wisdom, logic, or sincerity of that reasoning, would somebody please tell me that they actually believe that these voters are ever going to be the core of the Democratic Party? Do we want them to be?

Call me crazy here but somehow I think there’s a better way to win elections than to pander to Southern bigots, whatever rationale they give for their bigotry, or right wing religious fanatics who want to dictate what goes on in people’s bedrooms, doctors’ offices, and pulpits.


Yes, we need to steal a page from Karl Rove’s playbook But let’s take the right one.

When the Republicans were losing elections, they never suggested moving to the left, or even too far to the center. They never even suggested ditching their religious base in the South and implementing a Northern strategy.

But we should.

Now, I’ll be the first to confess that the only time in high school that I passed math was when I broke my wrist in gym and my coach, who was also a math teacher, gave me extra tutoring in geometry. But even I can count. And the one thing that even a math-challenged blogger like me knows is that there are more voters in the Northeastern states than there are on the great prairie of the Midwest or the savannahs of the South. When you see all those red versus blue maps, with their wide swath of red in the middle of the country, meant to intimidate us into thinking that it is somehow undemocratic and elitist to dispute the wisdom of those states’ voter preferences because they occupy what appears to be most of the country, it helps to keep in mind that those states often contain a lot of land, mountains, rocks, trees, otter and deer. Rocks, trees, deer, and otter don’t vote. Nor do silos and barns. People vote. And those places often have more mountains and rocks than people. So do the reds really represent a significant majority in this country, despite what the map looks like?

Perhaps it’s more elitist and undemocratic to constantly dismiss the citizens of people- dense urban areas like Boston, New York, Washington, DC, Los Angeles, and San Francisco who vote differently than voters do in Montana, Idaho, and rural Alabama. Not everybody in LA is a movie star. Nor is the average voter in Washington, DC a well-connected K Street lobbyist. Many of the citizens of these, and other urban centers, are actually poor people who need the earned income tax credit, social security benefits, better schools, less guns on their streets, better after school programs, and better jobs more than they need Baptist preachers telling them whom they should sleep with or an investment counselor telling them how to invest in their private social security accounts.

This whole idea that professional pundits hold that the votes and opinions of those in New York and California are less valid or moral than those of the voters in the so-called “fly over” areas is actually reverse snobbery. It’s an undemocratic and rightwing notion that ought to be examined far more carefully before being accepted as the conventional wisdom.

For example, my own family in New York City is not wealthy. They’re not like the characters in the television show “Sex and the City.” Not a Samantha or a Carrie in the bunch. Nor a Will or a Grace. They are teachers, secretaries, waitresses and beauticians (not hair stylists in fancy salons). In short, they’re the middleclass. One of my cousins, in fact, teaches special education for the Archdiocese of New York. There are many people, like my family, in the blue states who attend churches and synagogues and mosques and Buddhist, Hindu, or Jain temples. They too are people of faith. And, yes, they vote blue. They vote for better education, and also for tolerance for gays. They vote against the war in Iraq and for more funding for tighter security at New York’s seaports and airports. And they do vote for choice for women. They understood John Kerry’s equation because they too personally oppose abortion but know too well the agony that women go through when confronted by an unwanted pregnancy. They know because they’ve counseled them in schools as well as churches and clinics. So, they also vote for better access to contraceptives that they themselves probably won’t use. In short, they vote their conscience and their compassion.

I am not ashamed to be one of those urban, ethnic, Northeastern and liberal voters. We are the base of the Democratic Party. And we’re the ones its strategy should begin with.

Just as Karl Rove excites the Republican base in Alabama with amendments to ban gay marriage and support school prayer, Democrats should start by energizing our base with talk about the importance of fighting poverty, saving Social Security, and defending civil rights for Blacks, women, and gays. Instead of trying to reinvent ourselves to appeal to those in Alabama, Mississippi, Georgia, and Idaho, how about standing up for what we actually believe, regaining the respect and trust of disaffected Democrats, and winning voters in New York, California, New Hampshire, Vermont, New Jersey, Oregon, Washington State, Maryland, Massachusetts, and even Ohio? Seems like there are actually quite a lot of states where we are competitive. And where there also are lots of actual, you know, voters.

The important thing to remember is that Howard Dean is the one person running for the chairmanship of the Democratic Party who understands the things I’m talking about. He still wants to represent the Democratic wing of the Democratic Party. On the other hand, Tim Roemer said, we need to appeal to more than just the Democratic wing of the Democratic Party.

But, like Howard Dean, I believe, no, we really don’t.

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