New York

Some Explaining to Do


As much as many of us may want to see November 2004 as the result of Republican dirty tricks, negative campaigning and distortions, one truth remains—the Democratic Party lost last night. Let’s go over the facts here. The Dems will in all likelihood lose the White House, and they will lose, not on a technicality or highway robbery, as in 2000, but by some 3 million votes. The Democrats will also lose ground in Congress. In the Senate, the Republicans have extended their majority by some three to four seats. Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle—like Democratic House Speaker Tom Foley, a decade ago—is going home. In the House, Republicans picked up another four seats. This is to say nothing of the bans on gay marriage that passed easily in ten states.

Republican “gains came in the face of what Democrats for months had been touting as important advantages,” wrote the Washington Post, this morning. “A party unified early around its nominee, an energized base filled with grievance against the incumbent, unprecedented fundraising and voter mobilization efforts. They came despite some stiff headwinds for Bush, including a steady stream of bad news out of Iraq and a weak record on jobs.”

Ever since the Iraq War officially became a debacle, Democrats have nailed Bush for not holding anyone in his cabinet accountable. But who do Democrats hold accountable for what appears to be a resounding Republican victory? From a broad picture perspective, the trend is even more frightening. In 2002, George Bush became the first president to watch his party pick up seats in Congress, during a midterm election. Since 1994, Republicans have dominated Congress, with a brief two-year window of Democratic Senate control. In the South, Republicans have steadily seized control of governorships and state legislatures. There is war going on outside, and we ain’t winning.

A few excuses already being proffered that do nothing to help us:

The Republicans fight dirty
No shit, Sherlock. This is politics not a tickle-fight. Buckle your chin-strap and go out there and hit somebody.

Democratic positions are too complex for the electorate
This is the moral equivalent of blaming the refs. It manages to, at once, demean Americans—the very people we need to vote for us—while conveniently absolving the Dems of blame. Even if we accept the line, hey, that’s the task ahead. We all know it. Doesn’t make the losses any less real

Dean would have done better

Well maybe. But I have a hard time imagining a state Dean would have won that Kerry didn’t. The decisive factor seems to have been Karl Rove’s (correct) calculation that if Bush could bring out his evangelical base, he would win.

While we’re on the subject of excuses and explanations, I have one of my own—the better party is winning. I think this must have something to do with identity. If the two poles of American life are liberal and conservative, only one of those poles can be used as an insult. It was Bush who panned Kerry, in the waning days, as a liberal. Kerry would never have gotten away with it the other way around. It was Bush Senior, back in ’88, who called Dukakis “a card-carrying member of ACLU.” Think Dukakis could have gotten away with calling Bush “a card-carrying member of the NRA?” While there are Democrats who call themselves “conservative Democrats,” there are no Republicans who call themselves “liberal Republicans.”

The point I’m making is that, for whatever reason, the Dems are always playing at the Republicans home stadium. Time and time again—despite Kerry’s efforts to look as tough as Dubya (how many times did he say he would “kill the terrorists”?)—voters have repeatedly chosen real Republicans over Democrats who attempt to talk like Republicans.

This isn’t an argument for a return to old-left politics. It is in fact the opposite. The Democrats are haunted by an identity crisis. What exactly does the party stand for? The fact is that both Bush and Kerry were for the war. Both are against gay marriage. Both supported the Patriot Act. That doesn’t mean that anti-war, pro-marriage Democrat would have won (paging Walter Mondale). The point is that lines between Dems and Republicans aren’t delineated enough for the average voter. Which leads to the million dollar question: What will be the new ideas that will define the Democratic Party? Sorry DLCers, aping the Republicans platform doesn’t work.

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