Today's quiz: What is a Democrat?
A) Heir to and defender of the New Deal, Fair Deal, New Frontier and Great Society, and all they encompass -- from Social Security and Medicare to the progressive income tax, racial justice and civil rights, federal aid to education, relative fiscal sanity, strong international alliances and institutions, etc.
B) A "progressive" in the culture wars of the late 20th and early 21st centuries, supportive of minorities, tolerant of homosexuals, in favor of gun control and abortion rights, on the side of stronger environmental controls, opposed to the posting of the Ten Commandments in U.S. government buildings and courthouses, etc.
C) A believer in the use of government to make society more just and to give more Americans more opportunities to advance themselves.
D) A pragmatist who believes in trial and error, experiment and discovery, but usually not in ideological certainties.
E) A largely irrelevant voice whistling in an unfamiliar wind.
You've probably figured out the correct answer: All of the above. And therein lies the Democrats' real dilemma.
We've already had at least two rounds of glib explanations from the punditocracy for the Nov. 2 results. In the first wave, the Democrats were done in by "moral values" -- or by evangelical Christians or by their own selection of a Massachusetts liberal as their presidential candidate. In the second wave, you heard a lot of "not-so-fast" sound bites: Hey, John Kerry did fine, he got millions more votes than any previous Democratic candidate; 70,000 changed minds in Ohio would have made him president; religious people voted for Kerry too; Democrats actually made gains around the country in state legislatures.
These one-liners have the usual value of sound bites: not much. In the long run, "All of the above" remains the Democrats' biggest problem. Today's Democrats know what they aren't; voters know too. The Kerry campaign was constructed almost entirely around this knowledge: "We are not Bush" or "We are the anti-Bush." Wasn't that really the Kerry team's message? The campaign's slogan was "We can do better." But the country, or 51 percent of it, wasn't convinced, and decided it preferred to stick with what it had and knew.
Is the Democrats' cause now hopeless? Think how Republicans felt exactly 40 years ago this weekend. Lyndon B. Johnson had just given Barry Goldwater a drubbing for the ages, winning 61 percent of the vote (as compared to George W. Bush's 51 percent) and 486 electoral votes (Bush won 286). After that election, the Democrats held the Senate by a 68-32 margin and the House by 295-140. Talk about hopeless!
Yet four years later, a Republican named Richard M. Nixon was elected president. Twelve years after that, Ronald Reagan brought a brand-new and more conservative Republican Party into power, where it has now won five of the last seven presidential elections and, in 1994, took control of Congress.
In politics, as in life, stuff happens. In those cases, the stuff involved both fortuitous circumstances (Nixon's election) and careful planning plus tireless work (leading to Reagan's and subsequent Republican successes). Before they quaff the hemlock, Democrats might want to study this history. New versions of all the strategies and devices that made those Republican victories possible are available to the Democrats now. But they'll be useful only if Democrats confront the fact that very few Americans who are not Democrats today know what the label "Democrat" might mean to them -- or worse, they assume it would mean something unwelcome.
Democrats older than 55 or so think it's easy to explain who they are. But their litany of heroes and accomplishments, from FDR and Social Security to Bill Clinton's balanced budgets, consists of things that must look to younger voters like history, or ancient history. Next August, the Social Security program will celebrate its 70th birthday!
When conservatives reconstructed the Republican Party from the '60s through the '90s, they never invoked the achievements of earlier GOP presidents. By the time of the Republican National Convention of 1980, held in Detroit, the Moral Majority and its allies were much more important influences in the party than old-line Republicans whose heroes had been relative moderates, such as Everett McKinley Dirksen of Illinois (Senate Republican leader from 1959 to 1969) or virtual liberals, like Nelson Rockefeller, governor of New York and briefly Gerald Ford's vice president, or William Scranton, governor of Pennsylvania. The GOP of the 1970s provided a comfortable home to an ideologically diverse coalition; today it has become a staunchly conservative party.
When Reagan became the first new Republican to win the White House in 1980, he ignored his predecessors. Dwight D. Eisenhower had left office 20 years before, and Nixon was still treated like a pariah, but this didn't matter. Reagan was a new voice for a new America, an America that had become, in the 1970s, a country dominated not by the working class, but by the beneficiaries of the post-World War II boom, the great new middle class. Somehow Reagan felt relevant to a majority of voters who liked him and his straightforward views.
Traditional Democrats resist the suggestion that the country needs a "new" Democratic Party for a new age. Indeed, many traditionalists regard the New Democrats as closet conservatives who want to move the party to the center. But Democrats looking for a way forward might want to take a look back at the gradual and complete restructuring of the Republican Party that took place in the aftermath of the Goldwater debacle.
Democrats won't -- and shouldn't -- turn on their history in the same way, but it is instructive to note that the GOP of Reagan and afterward was constructed independently by people with no great regard for their party's traditions and history. What they had was a determination to march it forcefully in a new direction. They did this by dint of patient and expensive effort.
They created think tanks to cultivate conservative thought, from the Heritage Foundation to the American Enterprise Institute and many more. They created law firms to sue governments in pursuit of conservative aims, and a Federalist Society to cultivate young lawyers. They created campus-based institutions to reach the young and harness their energies.
They mastered the art of direct mail to raise money for their many enterprises and campaigns. They created organizations to nurture and support like-minded politicians at the state and local levels. They created publications, sponsored books, exploited the growth of talk radio, learned to use the Internet, harassed traditional media and ultimately found a home base on television in the Fox cable news network.
In parallel efforts, religious and socially conservative groups with political agendas sprang into existence and also developed influence. From the gloomy days after Goldwater's 1964 humiliation to the exhilaration of this month's electoral sweep, several billion dollars have been donated to conservative causes and institutions.
All this was successful for many reasons, but one important one is too little discussed. The new conservatives were tapping into a demographic shift that obliterated the America that gave rise to the Democratic Party. By early 1973, the postwar economic boom that transformed America was coming to an end, but not before it had created, for the first time, a middle-class majority. From FDR to LBJ, Democratic liberalism had been sustained by a working-class America that all but disappeared in the 1970s. The passion for tax-cutting that caught on in the second half of that decade (California's Proposition 13, curtailing property taxes, ignited it in 1978) was the first political signal that times had changed. Reagan was elected president two years later, and the era of the new conservatism was underway.
Beginning, arguably, with Proposition 13, the new conservatism has evoked grass-roots enthusiasm that Democrats can only envy. Bush's victory this month was made possible by the Republicans' ability to identify, register and turn out more new or sporadic voters than the Democrats did.
The Republicans did this with hundreds of thousands of volunteers who worked in their own churches and neighborhoods to cajole like-minded citizens to the polls. Democrats, too, benefited from a concerted get-out-the-vote effort employing large numbers of volunteers, but theirs also depended on new, generously financed groups such as Americans Coming Together; union employees; and others. There is a lesson in this distinction.
Ronald Reagan offered America a simple-sounding alternative approach to a new era. He promised to be strong on defense, low on taxes and tough on soft-headed liberals. Helped by his own genial personality, he created a winning combination that is still the essence of modern Republicanism.
This fact was obscured by his politically inept successor, George H.W. Bush, who muddied the message and alienated the new conservative faithful. But his own son has revived the Reagan message and the Reagan aura with great success -- a deliberate strategy devised by his principal associate, Karl Rove. They set out in 2001 to distinguish their administration from the first Bush's by deliberately aligning it with Reagan's legacy whenever they could.
It's the Reagan party that Democrats confront now. But that party is vastly stronger than the one that took over Congress in 1994. After adding to its margins in the House and Senate this month, the GOP has put the Democrats in their weakest position in Washington since the 1920s.
Republicans have successfully ridiculed and demonized Democrats as the party of gay marriage, or the party of unilateral disarmament, or the party of dirty songs and violent movies, or the party of divorce, abortion, free birth control for teenagers and the banning of school prayer. They've succeeded because all these labels contain an iota of truth, and, much more important, because the Democrats have no coherent view of themselves that could displace them.
"You always know where I stand," Bush said throughout this campaign. The 51 percent who voted for the president in this election knew what he meant, and liked the sound of it. But no Democrat could credibly say anything like that today, because, both as a party and as individuals, the Democrats' belief systems are muddled, and do not resonate with many millions of Americans.
There are certainly openings Democrats could exploit. Yes, America is a conservative society. It always has been. But it is a particular and mostly good-hearted brand of conservatism. We believe in God, revere family, love hometowns, see ourselves as gentle and benevolent folk who care for one another, and for foreigners in need too. Even the newest immigrants appreciate the most fundamental conservative attributes of American life, beginning with the reliable rule of law.
But we are also, polls make clear, a tolerant and moderate people. Democrats could become the party of tolerance, meaning tolerance for everyone: Bible readers, gay couples and Bible-reading gay couples alike. There is a strain of intolerance in today's conservative Republicanism, and that's an opportunity for the Democrats as they try to bring new people into their tent.
Americans also believe in economic fairness. Most Americans say the Bush administration's policies principally help the wealthy. Most Americans aren't wealthy. This is a potential political opening, but only if the Democrats can offer a plausible path to a fairer society. Just bashing Republicans won't do it.
And a neoconservative foreign policy is hardly a popular platform -- couldn't Democrats come up with a believable approach to national security that actually makes sense?
What won't work is some evocation of the past. Yesterday is not America's thing; tomorrow is. Republicans have found a voice for the 21st century -- not one that swept the nation, just 51 percent of it. Can the Democrats find a way to match it? Or will they just keep on whistling?