I felt pretty foolish when I put my hand through a window just before Election Day. It turns out I was just beating the rush. Across the country, the same Democrats who stood in line for 10 hours to vote George W. Bush out of office are now standing in line to jump off the nearest cliff. After an Election Day that began with nerve-mending surgery at Sibley Hospital in Washington and ended in nerve-shattering despair at Kerry headquarters in Boston, all I can say to my fellow Democrats is: I feel your pain.
This loss hurts so deeply because the stakes were so high, and our side wanted to win so much. In Boston, a Kerry supporter told me of a voter in such a rush to get to the polls that he ran headfirst into a traffic sign. As soon as the man came to his senses, he shook it off, put his head down and charged on to vote.
Even in defeat we can be proud of that resolve. But if Democrats want to become a majority party again anytime soon, we'd better look where we're going. We can start by using this loss to look forward, not back. John Kerry and John Edwards did everything our party asked of them, and then some. No campaign is perfect, but this one did an awful lot right -- winning the debates, raising record sums of money, earning more votes than any Democratic ticket in history.
If we can avoid the circular firing squad that followed past defeats, we will see the deeper, more daunting challenge that awaits us. We ran a good campaign against a bad president, and we still got beat.
For the first time in memory, Republicans are now the majority party from the top of the ballot to the bottom. The South, which helped elect every Democratic president in history, hasn't given us a single electoral vote in the 21st century. Bush won majorities not just of white men and evangelicals, but of white women, married people, couples with children, people over 30, voters who make above $50,000, high school and college graduates, and regular churchgoers. How can a blue party become a red-white-and-blue party once again? Here are four places to start:
Expand the map. If Democrats are going to be born again as a majority party, we have to speak to the whole country again. In the 23 uncontested red states, Bush held Kerry to 40 percent and ran up nearly an 8 million vote margin. That's 202 electoral votes Republicans now win without breaking a sweat, in states where they now hold 39 out of 46 Senate seats.
When we Democrats choose not to compete on three-quarters of American soil, we have no margin for error in the presidential elections -- and we're almost sure to be a permanent minority in Congress. Meanwhile, Republicans squeeze us on the turf we still hold. A majority party must be a national party, not a regional one. And that brings me to point number two.
Crack the cultural code. The number one issue on voters' minds Tuesday was something that we don't discuss in polite company in the blue states: moral values. The heartland -- that great bastion of fiscal conservatism at home and restraint abroad -- had good reasons to doubt Bush's values, but doubted ours instead. Moral values aren't simply the social issues Republicans cynically exploited, such as same-sex marriage and abortion. At a time when some in the world are out to destroy our way of life, many Americans are more concerned than ever about the bedrock values that built it -- patriotism, personal responsibility, opportunity, a clear sense of right and wrong.
Most voters in red states think we look down on them for worrying about the moral direction of the country. They have no idea that we might be concerned about it, too.
The result? Millions of Americans voted against their own interest. Of the 28 states with the lowest per capita income, Bush carried 26. An administration whose overriding motive has been to protect the rich was just given a second term by the very people who will suffer the most for it.
We can crack the cultural code, because we've done it before. When Bill Clinton offered progressive ways to solve problems that Republicans only talked about -- like crime, welfare and family values -- he got through to millions of middle-class Americans who'd been tuning out Democrats for years.
We can't let those hearts close to us again. We need to bridge the trust gap on national security by spelling out our own offense against terrorism, not letting Republicans portray us as the antiwar party in the war on terrorism. We need to lead, not follow, in the family values debate, by pressing our own ideas to give parents more tools to protect their children from a coarsening culture, hold absent fathers accountable for support and enable parents to spend more time with their families.
Instead of scoffing at Bush's faith-based agenda, we could fight for a stronger safety net in which both government and religious groups do more. Even as we oppose a federal amendment to take away the states' right to define marriage, we can do more than Republicans would ever dream of to reward marriage by helping young couples own a home and start saving for college and retirement.
If we're looking for a values issue that speaks to the forgotten middle class across the cultural divide, we should go after President Bush's other war -- the war on work. Democrats should offer a tax reform plan as ambitious in rewarding work as Bush's disastrous plan to protect wealth. Above all, like so many of our most successful leaders, from Martin Luther King Jr. to Clinton, we must be willing to speak the rich language of faith, which can move mountains. It's not a matter of quoting Scripture; the key is to make clear that our policies are animated by principles, not focus groups. Remember that values -- not programs -- move nations.
Make ideas matter most. Even as we celebrate and expand the important gains Democrats made this year through the Internet and stronger organization, we should recognize their limits. The fortune we spend on campaign ads is only as good as what we have to say. The best ground game in the world can't win ground that's off-limits to our message. If we want to take back the majority, we need to mount just as massive an effort at pioneering new ideas.
This election was mostly about Bush. The 2008 election will be a fair fight about the future, where ideas will matter more than opposition. This was a turnout election. The next one will have to be a persuasion election as well. The best thing we can do is come up with new, innovative, bold ideas to tackle the big challenges facing our country. If we give voters a compelling reason to vote for us, campaign tactics will take care of themselves.
Surprise people. Why did Bush become a divider, not a uniter? Because he and Karl Rove understood that a polarized nation works to their advantage. When both parties play to their respective stereotypes, Republicans win.
A minority party that wants to become a majority party has to surprise people so they realize it's better than they thought. Clinton geared his entire 1992 campaign to proving he was a different kind of Democrat from those they'd been voting against for years. He proposed cutting bureaucracy, linking college aid to national service, putting more police on the street and ending welfare as we know it.
The last two campaigns have been short on such shock therapy. Next time, we have to surprise people by becoming an insurgent reform party again. Indeed, the one silver lining in defeat is that we're finally free to reform a status quo we neither condone nor control.
If we don't have at least one position that forces skeptics to take a whole new look at the Democratic Party, they won't. But if a new Democratic insurgency can earn our party a second look, it's only a matter of time before Republicans will be the ones feeling our pain again. Freedom's just another word for everything left to win.
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