Throughout the '80s, we heard it again and again: progressive Democrats are political anachronisms, relics of a time when resources were plentiful and people were hopeful and generous. In short, we were losers.
Some of us never believed it. And while it is always dangerous to draw sweeping conclusions from elections because their outcomes are often determined by peculiarly indigenous issues, the recent election results suggest that others should never have believed it either.
In race after race, candidates who ran on traditional Democratic, people-oriented platforms won or nearly won. Paul Wellstone was the only candidate to defeat an incumbent senator, and he did so by articulating an unabashedly people-oriented message.
Then there were gubernatorial races in Texas and Florida. This is where the Reagan Republican revolution had grabbed the electorate by the throat, where Democrats with liberal views had fallen into disrepute. But Ann Richards and Lawton Chiles won as Democratic candidates espousing traditional, people-oriented programs.
There are other examples: Sens. Tom Harkin in Iowa, Paul Simon in Illinois, Carl Levin in Michigan, Claiborne Pell in Rhode Island, Govs. Mario Cuomo in New York and Barbara Roberts in Oregon, to name a few. All offer evidence that the principles that defined the Democratic Party for decades are not discredited.
Perhaps even more important are the races in which candidates who articulated a progressive Democratic agenda nearly overcame impossible odds. Harvey Gantt in North Carolina, Harry Lonsdale in Oregon, Ted Muenster in South Dakota and Harvey Sloane in Kentucky all came from nowhere and nearly captured Senate seats.
Rather than being a cause of their defeat, their support of traditional Democratic, people-oriented positions is one explanation for their surprising strength.
There is a lesson in these returns for the Democratic Party. In the last half of the '80s, more and more Democrats adopted the conventional wisdom that they could only ride to the White House, Congress or the state house on the back of an animal that looked suspiciously like an elephant.
Candidates stopped saying things Democrats had championed for years, like support of modernizing education, support for federal housing, the virtues of a progressive tax code and the need for tough environmental laws. Instead of championing the cause of average Americans and consumers, they cozied up to corporate chieftains and monied interests. Every time we looked up, some Democratic leader or political pundit was saying Democrats would have to become more Republican to succeed.
In fact, few progressive Democrats had the courage of their own convictions through the Reagan years. Some went into hibernation, many more sought to recast their political images, convinced that only if they abandoned long-held beliefs would they be able to retain their positions.
But the recent election tells us this was nonsense. The nation does not want two Republican parties. Candidates can embrace the progressive principles that have historically defined Democrats and win. They need not fear the consequences of remaining true to their values.
As pundits and politicians look toward 1992, it is clear that the country is entering an era of ideological flux. It is too early to tell whether it will move left or right. Just as there are signs that progressivism can be a winning ideology, the victory of Jesse Helms, the near victory of David Duke and some of the campaign appeal of John Silber offer signs that right-wing populism can also take hold.
But Democrats can't run from our own principles and win. John Silber in Massachusetts and Neil Hartigan in Illinois were Democrats running for governor who often sounded more like Republicans. The public chose to vote for the real Republican article. If we don't stand for and trust our principles, why should anyone stand for and trust us?
We believe the election results send a message to Democrats to be true to the values we have embraced for years. The American voters responded to our attack on misguided capital gains policies, they responded to our demand for higher taxes on the rich, they responded to our demand that government take care of its middle- and low-income senior citizens. That's how Democrats can win in the '90s: speaking with conviction on issues that matter.
It seems fair to conclude now that those who said progressive Democrats had become historical curiosities were wrong. People-oriented platforms are a recipe for political success. The question for Democrats is which way we will turn. We believe the path is clear. It is time for progressive Democrats to seize the day.
The writer is a Democratic senator from Ohio and president of an organization called the Coalition for Democratic Values.