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How About a Little Country Twang?

By Harold Meyerson
Wednesday, November 10, 2004; Page A27

Listen closely. That silence you hear is the sound of Democrats not recriminating.

We are, to be sure, post-morteming like nobody's business. It could scarcely be otherwise after the most heartbreaking defeat just about any Democrat can recall. But this year, I sense, there is a little more consensus than conflict -- and a lot more confusion than either -- Democratic ranks about what went wrong and where we go from here.

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Democrats In a Divided Land (The Washington Post, Nov 5, 2004)
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About Harold Meyerson

To begin, there's a genuine respect for John Kerry that will spare him from the kind of morning-after rage that many Democrats directed at Al Gore four years ago. Kerry, and Kerry alone (well, with some help from George Bush), put himself back into contention with his three debate performances. They did not win him the White House, but they won him a respite from the kind of backbiting for which we Dems are justly famous.

That's not to say we don't all have criticisms of Kerry's campaign. It was too slow to respond to the summer's character assassinations. Kerry's plan for Iraq never sounded very plausible, but that's chiefly because the administration has made such a hash of the war that there are no good alternative policies. Kerry managed to get nearly the entire antiwar vote in any event; he probably would not have upped his totals -- he most probably would have downed them -- had he called for flat-out withdrawal.

Above all, Kerry was unable to sufficiently press the Democrats' advantage on issues such as health care, education and jobs. Iraq and Osama bin Laden never relinquished center stage, and Kerry never felt comfortable turning his full attention to the bread-and-butter issues that Democrats need to campaign on among working-class voters. In the end, says Democratic pollster Stan Greenberg, just enough of those voters failed to see how Kerry would champion them economically and opted instead for Bush, whom they knew would champion them culturally.

But Kerry's shortcomings were always more idiosyncratic and geographic than they were factional and ideological. He was never the candidate of any particular wing of the party. Voters in the Iowa caucuses and New Hampshire primary chose him because he was a mainstream Democrat who seemed best positioned to neutralize Bush's advantages as a war president. Kerry's positions on health care, taxes and trade and those of his main primary rivals were all pretty much the same. All the Democrats put forth ways to increase health coverage substantially without dismantling our current system; all embraced a more managed trade policy; and all favored rolling back tax cuts on the wealthiest Americans to get the funds for increases in health coverage and college tuition aid. These were popular positions, though the Democrats' and Kerry's ability to embed them in a national populist narrative often came up short.

Kerry was both the personification and beneficiary of an extraordinary Democratic consensus this year: George W. Bush and a sputtering economy had concentrated the Democratic mind. In selecting John Edwards as his running mate, Kerry seemed more to be ratifying a decision already reached among party elites and activists than making a choice on his own. In large ways and small, campaign 2004 was marked by unprecedented Democratic unity. That's one reason why the defeat feels so shattering: The whole team was on the field, working together as well as if not better than ever before.

For this reason among others, the Democrats' postgame analysis has not yet assumed its accustomed form of a circular firing squad. Among Democrats I speak to from all corners of the party, the same points come up over and over again. The mobilization of the Democratic base that the party and the "527" groups threw themselves into this year remains essential, but it is plainly not a ticket to victory in itself. Democrats cannot go into the next presidential election with just a handful of states truly in play; they need to be competitive in more red states to keep the Republicans from concentrating their resources in Florida and Ohio and some borderline blue states.

Above all, the fact that the only two successful Democratic presidential nominees since Lyndon Johnson were both governors of Southern states now looms hugely in Democratic calculations. Republicans have been framing and winning the war of cultural polarization since the Nixon presidency, save only when the Democrats put forth Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton as their standard-bearers. That's why Hillary Clinton's stock has been falling since Election Day, and why that of Virginia Gov. Mark Warner and other red-state Democrats has been rising.

"Paris is worth a Mass," Henry of Navarre is reputed to have said when he converted to Catholicism in order to assume the throne of France. The White House, Democrats may similarly conclude, is worth a drawl.


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