A Functional Party No More

Whither the Democrats?


A few days ago this writer took a swipe at the "liberal hawks" for, among many other things, being satisfied with President Bush's momentous decision to invade Iraq but then splitting with him over such relative trivialities as FCC indecency fines and the No Child Left Behind Act. It turns out the President's fair-weather warriors weren't the only ones voting over trifles. What brought out the Bush base in whopping numbers was not the war in Iraq, homeland security, or the election of Hamid Karzai. It was same-sex marriage.

Of all the hard facts Democrats have to consider today, the mass mobilization of evangelical Christians must certainly be the most painful. It's easy enough for the party to produce GOP-clone positions on issues ranging from Iraq to education to "saving" Social Security. But the Democrats will never be able to turn out the anti-gay marriage vote (even as they lack the conviction to field a strong pro-gay marriage candidate).

It's getting harder to see just what the Democrats can turn out. The party remains in thrall to unattractive special interests that don't matter anymore: unions, teachers, trial lawyers, and so on. With the caveat that diagnoses are always easy after an election (If the Democratic Party manages to mobilize the seething anger of its rank and file and make a major assault on the legislative branch in 2006, I or somebody like me will be writing an article like this one about how the Republicans are history), the Democratic malady offers few avenues of hope.

This morning, Allan L. Lichtman, inventor of something called the "Keys To the White House," appeared on CNN, offering the first defense against the "liberalism is dead" theme we'll all be hearing about for at least two years. Lichtman's rebuttal: Kerry didn't run as a liberal.

Having considered all the claims that Kerry is actually to the left of The Gargoyle, I agree with Lichtman. Because Kerry was neither hot nor cold, America spewed him out. The Kerry campaign was not nearly as bad or incompetent as friend and foe alike claimed; it just wasn't very good, an obvious case of a candidate trying to fit an agenda rather than set one.

But I can't help thinking what might have been. What if the Democratic true believers had followed their instincts, made no compromise with the nation, and nominated Howard Dean? Kerry's upset win in the Iowa Caucus against the news- and polls-dominating Dean not only was the most suspicious event of the 2004 race (and note how many people will now tell you that Dean lost because of The Scream, conveniently forgetting that the scream came after the loss); it also signaled a Democratic party in peril. In their hearts they believed Dean was right; they just didn't have the balls to do what their hearts told them.

The counterargument here is that if Dean had gotten the nomination, Bush would have demolished him in a world-historic electoral catastrophe; at least Kerry, goes the argument, was merely beaten respectably. I can't dispute that, but as with all counterfactuals, we'll never know. Whatever else he might have done, Dean would have fired people up, on all sides. A Dean candidacy would have forced the question about Iraq: Was the war a mistake, and if so how do we get out of it? He certainly would have inspired the Democratic base in ways Kerry's simply-not-Bush appeal never did. He might even have brought out the Godot-like "youth vote" we kept hearing about this fall. But the energy of a Dean campaign would not have come about because the candidate was even more firmly wedded than Kerry to failed leftist ideas (though he was) but because, as evidenced by his notorious Confederate flag comment, Dean was clearly willing to innovate.

Such a vigorous campaign would have been good for America. More important, from Terry McAuliffe's view, it would have been good for the Democratic Party.

Let's stipulate that the DNC's cooler heads were right, and a Bush-Dean race would have ended in a slaughter of Johnson-Goldwater proportions. Would that have been as bad as what actually happened? Rick Perlstein's 2001 study Before the Storm: Barry Goldwater and the Unmaking of the American Consensus, helped to reconceptualize the 1964 election not as conservatism's Waterloo but as its Bunker Hill, the defeat that purified and energized the movement.

This theme was taken up earlier this week in an excellent Boston Globe article by Drake Bennett. Channeling the Perlstein argument, Bennett asked whether a defeat in the presidential race might help the losing party refocus and regroup. "The hunger that comes with time spent in the wilderness can…spur ideological innovation," Bennett wrote. Perlstein himself revisited his thesis a few months back, in a Boston Review article positing a loss that might force the Democrats from the short-term election tactics of the Clinton/McAuliffe axis back to the long-term, active-government, idea-driven strategy that was the party's backbone in its heyday. "If the Democrats lose," Perlstein wrote, "it will be time for a very, very long march and a moment-of-truth decision about what kind of party the Democratic Party is going to be."

It is quite possible that a galvanizing loss might bring soul-searching and discipline to the Democrats. The problem is that yesterday's vote wasn't it. In order to have a meaningful defeat you have to understand what kind of team you're on. You have to pit your ideas against the opposition's, and see which ones hit or miss. The candidate who could have done that wasn't John Kerry; it was Howard Dean. Right now, it's impossible to know which parts of the Democratic message the public rejects.

It's a commonplace now that the Democrats are selling a product America doesn't want, but this is too easy an answer. There are certainly aspects of traditional Democratic liberalism that by all logic should be resonating (free money from the government being the most prominent, though the Republicans seem to have taken that issue all for themselves). Whatever issues there are that sell in the "Blue States," Democrats seem to have access to them, and that's got to count for something. What the party needs may not be George Soros but Warren Buffett—somebody who can recognize value in the undervalued. More important, it needs to test its product in the market.

I don't claim to know what kind of party would emerge from a period in the wilderness, though I know what I'd wish for. At the moment, sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll—not to mention free speech, privacy, and the right to a speedy trial—have no national champion in either major party. One obvious place for the Democrats to start finding a voice again might be in a renewed commitment to civil liberties. But the issue isn't whether the DNC decides to upgrade the New Deal for the digital age, or reinvents itself entirely as the party of small government, or stands up for the Common Man like Barton Fink, or returns to its roots as the party of McClellan. It isn't that there's no answer; it's that Harry Reid and the in denial Nancy Pelosi are not the sort of people to start asking the question.

There are many today who claim that Barack Obama is the party's future. I wish the Prairie State's junior senator well, and it would certainly be fun to pronounce, in a portentous John Facenda voice, that "the future rests on the shoulders of a skinny kid with a funny name." But this is pretty thin soup. Obama's sales pitch is that he's handsome, he's got an intriguingly multi-cultural background, he served competently in state government, he ran for Congress in 2000 (and lost, quite a feat for a Democrat in Illinois), and he managed to beat Alan Keyes in an election. The Democrats didn't anoint Obama because he was a visionary but because he was a shoo-in.

But the Democrats need new ideas more than they need new faces. To become a real national party again, they'll need a real crisis and a real reckoning. And those may only happen when Howard Dean comes screaming back into all our lives.