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E.J. Dionne Jr.

Lessons for Democrats

By E. J. Dionne Jr.
Friday, December 31, 2004; Page A29

MIDDLETOWN, R.I. -- Except for the glorious victories of the Red Sox and the Patriots, 2004 was a disappointing year. But bad years offer useful lessons. Here are a few:

• Relentlessness pays off. President Bush won reelection by ignoring the conventional wisdom that vicious attacks on your opponent don't work and turn off voters. As soon as John Kerry won the Democratic nomination, Bush's campaign went on the attack and never stopped. It worked.

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Kerry was painted as arrogant and privileged, compared with an arrogant president who was far more privileged.

Kerry was made out to be a flip-flopping liberal, and never mind asking how someone can be a flip-flopper and an ideologue. Kerry, who shot people in battle and was wounded himself, was painted as weaker than Bush, the guy who said he supported the Vietnam War but was not willing to fight in it.

The sheer negative genius of the Bush campaign is worthy of close study. Face it: Liberals and Democrats are way too sensitive to elite editorial page opinion that asks more responsibility from the side it supposedly supports than from the side it supposedly opposes. Liberals worry themselves sick that if they fight Bush's cockamamie idea of borrowing billions for a shaky Social Security privatization scheme, those editorial writers will savage them. A lead opinion is likely to demand that they enter into negotiations with the president, even if the very act of doing so is certain to give Bush the upper hand.

Memo to Democrats: Forget the editorial writers and ask yourselves: What Would Bush Do? If you are not as tough as he is, he will crush you -- again. Memo to liberal commentators: Why bend over backward to demand of your own side what you don't demand of the right, or of Bush?

• Cultural hypocrisy should be exposed. I cannot understand why liberals who regularly criticize the excesses of the economic market let conservatives get away with being the advocates of "traditional values."

When television networks and Hollywood exploit sex to make money, why aren't liberals asking why the free market so revered by the right wing promotes values the very same right wing claims to despise? The coarsening of the culture that traditionalist conservatives denounce is abetted by the very media concentration that economic conservatives defend. Why are liberals so tongue-tied in exposing this contradiction?

• Class matters. Bush and the Republicans condemn "class warfare" -- and then play the class card with a vengeance. Bush has pushed through policies that, by any impartial reckoning, have transferred massive amounts of money to the wealthiest people in our country. Yet it is conservatives, Bush supporters, who trash the "elites," especially when it comes to culture. Class warfare is evil -- unless a conservative is playing the class card.

Somebody has to call this bluff. Why is it taboo to talk about a Wall Street "elite" that has benefited from Bush's tax cuts and would win big-time from Social Security privatization? Why is it just terrible to point out that pharmaceutical industry and HMO "elites" were paid off handsomely in the Medicare drug bill? Why is it so dreadfully radical to denounce corporate "elites" when conservatives can denounce "the Hollywood elite" with impunity? Why does the right wing get away, year after year, with this double standard on elitism and class warfare?

• Stand for something. Bush won this year because of those attacks on Kerry. But he also won because swing voters who didn't like him very much were nonetheless quite certain that he knew what he wanted to do and would try to get it done.

One line of attack against Bush is to say that his certainties are mistaken and that he never, ever questions them. That's true. It's also inadequate. Those who oppose the direction in which Bush is leading us need to propose an alternative.

They need to demonstrate that we could be much safer -- and fight a more effective war on terrorism -- if so much of the world did not mistrust us. They must create a realistic narrative about a more just and prosperous society. Policies on jobs, health insurance, child care, education and taxes should be more than a list. They ought to form a coherent picture of how things could be better, for everyone.

The long-term need for alternatives should not stop the loyal opposition from being tough. But the short-term need to be tough should not stop the opposition's search for alternatives. For Bush's adversaries, 2005 will be a difficult year. It also could be exhilarating.


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