For Democrats, a Path Back to Power
In the welter of dissonant voices raised this year during the unending debates about the future of the Democratic Party, few have been as clear as those of Elaine Kamarck and Bill Galston.
The two political scientists -- she is at Harvard and he is at the University of Maryland -- were colleagues in the Clinton White House and collaborators on an earlier analysis, published in 1989, that helped set the direction for Bill Clinton's successful 1992 campaign.
Last week, under the auspices of the Third Way organization, they released their new compendium of polling data and political advice, "The Politics of Polarization." In 64 pages, notably devoid of academic jargon, and 24 easy-to-understand tables, they attempt to steer their party directly back toward the path to power.
Because that path aims down the political center, it will not be easily accepted by many of the activists in the organizations that control the Democratic Party at the grass roots and dominate its fundraising, whether they be Hollywood millionaires or Internet Deaniacs.
These men and women -- who provide most of the energy in Democratic campaigns -- ardently oppose both the domestic and international policies of the Bush administration and yearn for candidates who would reverse President Bush's direction on Iraq, taxes, gay rights, abortion and other issues.
Because of the work they do and the money they raise for the Democratic Party, elected officials -- especially in Washington -- heed their views. Their influence is reflected in Democratic votes against everything from the Central American Free Trade Agreement to the Supreme Court nomination of John Roberts.
Kamarck and Galston are making the case -- hard for these folks to acknowledge -- that victory for the Democrats requires more than ardent anti-Bush rhetoric. It requires, they say, a revision of Democratic doctrine on both national security and social and moral issues.
The perception that Democrats are weak on confronting terrorism and hostile to the culture of the deeply religious has cost the party dearly, especially among married women and Catholics. Galston and Kamarck calculate that the odds of a married woman supporting the Republican candidate rose from just under 40 percent in 1992 to nearly 55 percent last year. Clinton, a Baptist, carried the Catholic vote by nine points in 1992, while John Kerry, a Catholic, lost among his co-religionists by five points.
"Moral values" are particularly important to both groups. Kamarck and Galston are quick to point out, however, that this does not require Democrats to abandon their support for abortion rights or to condemn homosexuality. "Moral values" embrace more than gay marriage and abortion; the voters' definition includes "personal integrity, family solidarity, and the social compact," particularly concern for those in need of help.
This opens the way for Democrats to recoup ground if they find a candidate who conveys strength of conviction on national security -- the opposite, they say, of Kerry saying, "I actually did vote for the $87 billion [for Iraq and Afghanistan], before I voted against it." It would help if the candidate also had a solid marriage, a churchgoing habit and an ability to express sympathetic understanding of those who disagree with his or her personal support of abortion and gay rights.
The final table in their report is one of the most intriguing. It traces the changing partisan patterns of individual states, noting the increasing Democratic strength on the Atlantic and Pacific coasts and the rising Republican allegiance of the South and the Rockies. "The net result of these developments," they say, "is that the Midwest is far more central to presidential campaigns than it was two decades ago."
The six states tracking the national results most closely in the most recent presidential elections are New Mexico, Ohio, Missouri, Michigan, Pennsylvania and Iowa. Not coincidentally, Catholics make up the largest religious group in each of these states.
Kamarck and Galston, avowedly neutral in the 2008 presidential race, were asked at a briefing on their report if they thought it would be an advantage to the Democrats to nominate a candidate from the Midwest. Their answer: It need not be a native of that region, but it ought to be someone who can speak comfortably to those voters.
It sounds to me as if they have made the case for Tom Vilsack, a Catholic from Iowa, or perhaps Evan Bayh, a Protestant from Indiana, both with strikingly able political wives and solid family values.
Others -- including Hillary Clinton, who has migrated from Illinois to Arkansas to Washington to New York -- might try to fit the mold. The real question is whether the activists in the Democratic Party will follow the logic Kamarck and Galston have laid out.