Democrats typically luxuriate in having a useless debate after every defeat: Should the party "move to the left" to "mobilize the base" or "move to the center" to "appeal to the middle"?
The debate is useless because it is about abstractions that few voters ever use themselves and because it often raises the question of what the words "left" or "center" mean for specific issues.
The debate is particularly irrelevant to the 2004 election, a contest in which John Kerry mobilized the base to an unprecedented degree but also won voters who call themselves "moderate" by a healthy, if insufficient, margin. The real problem Kerry faced, beyond his own mistakes ("I actually did vote for the $87 billion before . . .") is that voters who call themselves conservative now substantially outnumber those who call themselves liberal.
The network exit polls found that while 34 percent of voters said they were conservative, only 21 percent called themselves liberal. (A plurality, 45 percent, were moderates.) Kerry had a nine-point lead among moderates and a 72-point lead among liberals. But Bush crushed Kerry among conservatives by 69 points. Given the big conservative edge over liberals, that was the election. Unless liberalism can refurbish itself, it will continue to be a drag on Democratic opportunities.
Enter Sen. Edward M. Kennedy. It's appropriate that a Massachusetts Democrat named Kennedy would give, every year or so, what amounts to a State of the Union address for liberals. Kennedy's effort this year, delivered at the National Press Club on Wednesday, was interpreted in the first news accounts as a take-no-prisoners, make-no-concessions clarion call for Democrats to oppose President Bush.
Well, yes, Democrats should oppose Bush. As Kennedy noted, it is "deceptive and dangerous" for Bush to claim "a sweeping, or a modest, or even a miniature mandate for reactionary measures like privatizing Social Security, redistributing the tax burden in the wrong direction, or packing the federal courts with reactionary judges." If Democrats can't stand up for Social Security and tax fairness and against Bush's court-packing, they might as well become Republicans.
But Kennedy did more. He suggested that Democrats could prevail not by retreating from their core principles but by demonstrating that those principles were consistent with the values held by many Americans who call themselves conservative.
Most moderates and many conservatives, for example, have nothing against Democrats' commitment to expanding health coverage or educational opportunity. That's why Kennedy's bold proposal to open Medicare to all Americans regardless of age is likely to appeal beyond liberal precincts. He called on the country to produce more math and science students, to raise standards on those subjects, and to guarantee every student who qualifies the opportunity to go to college. In all these areas, liberal programs are popular programs.
But Kennedy was also mindful that the word liberal is associated by many voters not with "liberty" but with "license." So he sought to relink liberalism with "family values." If you are for family values, how can you oppose Kennedy's call to give all employees at least seven days of paid sick leave a year so they don't face "a cruel choice between losing their job, or neglecting their sick child or sick spouse at home." Who can disagree that companies should make it easier for parents to "attend a PTA meeting or a school play or a sports contest"? Why, in short, shouldn't liberals challenge the economic marketplace to be more friendly to the needs of families?
And on abortion, Kennedy reached to those outside liberalism's heartland. While maintaining his support for legal abortion, Kennedy added: "Surely, we can all agree that abortion should be rare, and that we should do all we can to help women avoid the need to face that decision."
His challenge to the right-to-life movement was plain. "History teaches that abortions do not stop because they are made illegal. Indeed, half of all abortions in the world are performed in places where abortions are illegal." Those who oppose abortion need to face the fact that "the number of abortions is reduced when women and parents have education and economic opportunity." Don't those who care about the right to life have a special obligation to make universal prenatal care -- and health care generally -- a priority?
Democrats, even moderate Democrats, will have trouble winning if liberalism does not redeem itself. Liberalism will not redeem itself as long as so many voters associate it with "alien" values. If Ted Kennedy, the avatar of liberalism, knows this, every other liberal should be able to realize it, too.