What the Democrats need to do

I’m writing this under the reasonable assumptions that John Kerry will not win the White House in 2004 and that the Republicans have increased the size of their majorities in both the House and the Senate. In addition the Democrats have suffered the humiliation of their Senate Minority leader Tom Daschle being rejected at the polls in his home state and increasing Republican State house memberships in many states.

The George W. Bush re-election, the health problems of Chief Justice Rehnquist, and the relatively advanced age of the current court will mean that it’s overwhelmingly likely that Mr. Bush will have the opportunity to appoint one or several new members to the Supreme Court. The increased Republican Senate majority will make it that much harder to prevent candidates that Senate Democrats find unacceptable by parliamentary tactics.

Influence of more conservative political philosophies than many Democrats will be pleased with are likely to wax far into the future.

Over the last few weeks the strategy of the Kerry campaign has become clearer. Match Republican spending on campaign advertising. Concentrate on the traditional Democratic strengths of bread-and-butter issues like health care, education, jobs. Rely on the strength of the Democratic ground game: voter registration and turnout. And let current events take their course, assuming that they will not reflect well on Bush.

The result are in and the conclusion is overwhelming: that strategy didn’t work.

Match Republican campaign spending

Kerry outspent Bush on campaign advertising. And Kerry-leaning and Democrat-leaning 527’s outspent Bush- and Republican-leaning 527’s by a very wide margin—orders of magnitude. It’s clear that Kerry’s loss was not because he was out-spent.

Concentrate on bread-and-butter-issues

The unemployment figures and inflation rate are no worse than they were in 1996 when Bill Clinton won re-election largely on the basis of good performance of the economy under his administration. But there’s something that needs to be considered when considering the economic issues: a reasonable conclusion to draw from Ray Fair’s econometric model of the presidential election is that current events, the War on Terror, and Iraq probably depressed George Bush’s results. If the Democrats hadn’t gotten a bit of headwind from them the results wouldn’t even have been close.

Education is not the issue that once it was for Democrats. The Democrats’ obvious joined-at-the-hip relationship with the teachers’ unions and the Republicans reasonable emphasis on demonstrable results have neutralized this issue somewhat for Democrats.

Kerry didn’t lose by failing to concentrate on bread-and-butter issues or by not pandering enough to enough constituencies. It’s not just the economy, stupid.

The Democratic ground game

George W. Bush has accomplished something that Bill Clinton never achieved: he has received a majority of the popular vote. More Americans showed up at the polls yesterday than ever before and more of them voted for Bush than for any candidate in history. Here’s a look at some of the popular vote results from prior elections:

Year Candidate Votes
1992 Bill Clinton 44,908,254
George H. W. Bush 39,102,343
1996 Bill Clinton 47,402,357
Bob Dole 39,198,755
2000 Al Gore 50,999,897
George W. Bush 50,456,002
2004 George W. Bush 58,301,150
John Kerry 54,782,697

Population increase alone doesn’t account for the difference. Increased voter registration and turnout helped both Bush and Kerry. But it’s clear: a superior ground game is not going to give Democrats a victory.

Hoping for bad news

It’s been said often enough—hope is not a strategy. And I believe that hoping for bad news is unbecoming and will not ultimately help Democrats.

What should they do?

So now we know what won’t work: increased campaign spending, concentration on bread-and-butter issues, rely on superior voter registration and turnout, and hoping for bad news. What will work?

I’m a registered Democrat and I sincerely want the Democratic Party to prosper. But I’m what used to be called a Scoop Jackson Democrat and what could now be called a Joe Lieberman Democrat. I’d have voted for Joe Lieberman in a heartbeat. But I voted for George W. Bush. It’s the only time I’ve ever voted for a Republican and I think the only time I’ve ever voted for a candidate that won. Of course in my home state of Illinois that was equivalent to throwing my vote away—the state went overwhelmingly for Kerry.

I believe the Democrats need a credible foreign policy and defense policy and they won’t get it on the basis of the politics of either John Kerry or Howard Dean.

Cokie Roberts was on ABC News not long ago and she said that the issues that were picked by voters as the number one issues were not economics issues, health care, jobs, or education. They were moral values (Red state) and the War in Iraq (Blue state). And I just heard Barack Obama on TV a bit ago in response to that talking about public morality.

I don’t think that dog will hunt. Virtue is fundamentally based on individual conduct. Not on what bureaucrats do in government offices. I believe that the Democratic Party needs to stand for both public and private virtue and morality.

All parties have crazy people in them. There are people who are so viciously partisan that they’ll say and do anything solely for partisan political advantage. It’s not unique to either party. The Democratic Party has to get their crazy people off the front porch.

In the primaries Democratic primary voters overwhelming repudiated the policies of Bill Clinton. The more a candidate’s policies were like those of Clinton, the more soundly they were rejected. In the same interview I mentioned above Cokie Roberts characterized the coming struggle within the Democratic Party as a struggle between moderates like Lieberman and the Deaniacs who believe that the Democratic Party would have succeeded this time around if they had done more of the same—been more viciously partisan, spent more money, been more pacifist, been more isolationist, more soak-the-rich, register more voters, get better turnout, and so on.

That’s the path to irrelevance on the national scene.

UPDATE: Outside the Beltway has a good roundup of the expected cris de coeurs from the Democrat punditry. Apparently, the electorate is too stupid to comprehend the sublimity of Mr. Kerry’s plans. They don’t get it.

21 comments… add one
  • I’m about at the same place on the Democratic continuum, and I haven’t defected largely because I had hoped the party would, well, get its crazy people off the front porch. John Kerry ran aground at least partially because he perisisted in wearing a Moderate mask in public, leaving him wide open to charges of cognitive dissonance/cynicism/outright deception (choose one). I can understand him wanting to appear less insane than the Chomskyites, but he dared not repudiate them.

  • l cox Link

    Unfortunately, the Democratic Party displayed before all the world that they did not represent the majority of Americans – the picture that was “seared” in our minds was the shot of former President Jimmy Carter sitting next to Michael Moore at the Democratic National Convention. I pray the Democrats will find their soul.

    The American people are not stupid. They want to be inspired and do not want to be scorned by vile, hateful people.

  • AMac Link


    I too am a lifetime Dem, and I defected–for the reasons you outlined above. Many of Kerry’s positions were disingenuous if not outright dishonest, especially on the issue I cared about most this time–foreign policy. I’d rather see my party go down to defeat, as it did, than have a policy of accomodation to the Moore-Chomsky wing ratified by victory.

    Maybe some constructive rebuilding can start.

  • Richard Aubrey Link

    I think you missed the point on the importance of virtue. True, it isn’t what is done by ‘crats in government offices.
    If it’s a matter of individual actions, then, how come it was decisive?
    I don’t see that you addressed it. That dog sure as hell hunted.
    What the voters want is evidence of virtue in the folks they elect. Contingencies cannot be predicted–by definition. If we have a virtuous person in office, we can be more certain he will act virtuously in new circumstances.
    He will also do the moral and virtuous thing in matters now under consideration.
    Whether or not you think of this as silly, this is the reason for the consideration of virtue in the voters’ choice.
    It does apply.

  • You miss my point, Richard Aubrey. Perhaps I didn’t articulate it well enough. I agree with you. I disagree with Barack Obama’s point that the Democratic Party should rely on a call for institutional or public virtue alone.

  • Catherine Link

    Terrific post–thank you!

    I’m going to print it out.

    This line should become the Party’s motto, or one of them:

    The Democratic Party has to get their crazy people off the front porch.

  • Hi, Catherine. Long time no see. I’ve got your book on order. They tell me it’ll be here any day now.

  • superdestroyer Link

    If you want to determine why Kerry lost, look at the ethnic breakdown of the votes. The number of states where whites favored for Kerry instead of Bush you can counted on about two hands. Basically Democrats get 45% of the white vote, 90% of the black vote, and 60% of the Hispanic vote.

    If Democrats think the Obama is going to solve these problems, they are fools. The more Democrats tolerate Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson, the higher the percentage of Hispanic votes for Republicans and the higher the percentage of white votes for Republicans.

  • I’m a John F Kennedy Democrat, born in Massachusetts, now living in the Kansas Flint Hills. I voted a straight Republican ticket for the first time in my life last night.

    During the campaign a woman who was running as a Democrat for state senate stopped by and asked for my vote. I told her that, while I was a Democrat, I could not in good conscience support her. I told her that the party needed to return to its roots.

    I honestly believe the party has strayed from those roots. The voices the party heard were the shrill voices, the Michael Moores and the Whoopi Goldbergs. They refused to listen to us when we pleaded for a voice in the party, a voice to be heard about issues like abortion, cultural values, and, yes, national defense, the moral case for war, etc. We got no hearing, only the epithet that folks like me were stupid (interstingly I have an undergraduate degree in linguistics and a masters in theology), ignorant, and a neo-nazi or a fanatic to boot.

    John Kerry and John Edwards and my party allowed those voices to hold sway and they lost good people in the process.

    I hope this election has been an eye opener for them, Only time will tell.

  • Jim R Link

    Interesting to hear a Democrat say only their party needs to ‘get their crazy people off the front porch.’

    I would have at least expect to hear ‘both parties need to get their crazy people off the front porch.’


  • Jim R, my interests in this post are how to make my party viable at the national level again. Over the period of the last 36 years, Republicans held the White House 2/3 of the time. Over that same period Democrats have gone from controlling both the Senate and the House (and the Supreme Court) to controlling none of them. I think that constitutes a problem at the national level for the Democratic Party. How about you?

    During the course of the Democractic primaries I saw my fellow Democrats reject the policies of the only Democratic president to achieve re-election in living memory by rejecting the candidates who took positions closest to his in favor of candidates who took positions that had been repeatedly rejected at the polls by the national electorate. I think that’s the wrong direction for my Party.

    When I cast my ballot on Tuesday, I voted for Democrats for every office except the top of the ticket. And that was the first time I’ve ever voted for a Republican. How dare you question my credentials. Let Republicans give advice on how to consolidate their victories. If you think that’s suspicious, I think you’re reaching for conspiracies.

  • David Link

    I think the Democrats are going to have a hard time getting the crazies off the front porch until either you get your MSM allies to stop putting them on the front porch or you get them to march off in a snit. The Republicans got their crazies off the front porch because they marched off in a snit with NAFTA (the America firsters) and Dole (the so called Christian Right, the probably voted for Bush this time, but they did not campaign). Find the one or two places that you are willing to compromise with the right and have your crazies march off in a snit.

  • Nice post Dave.

    The Democrats will continue to fail not merely because the wingnuts in the party are powerful but because those wingnuts choose to exert their power to stifle the honest discussion required to assess weaknesses accurately and brainstorm new ideas.

    Running everything past the race/gender/orientation/PC gauleiters- or engaging in self-censorship for fear of aggravating them and their bloodthirsty and vindictive minions- is no way to come up with an innovative policy menu or attractive message.

  • Or a big tent, mark. And part of the problem is illustrated right here in this comments thread. The moment I say “do something different” I’m attacked for apostasy.

  • michael Link

    I voted republican for president first time in my life. There are many things the dems need to do, but the most important is to PUBLICLY AND LOUDLY KICK THE EXTREME LEFT OUT OF THE PARTY. The KOSs and Atrios’s and DUers and MoveOns and Michael Moores. They have spoiled the party image and are killing it slowly. Like an old friend who refuses to grow with time and no longer is in your family’s best interests, you have to send them away. Not send to the back, quiet them down, tone down their influence etc. They simply MUST be thrown out and told their kind aren’t wanted here. Until the party is willing to do that, it will lose credibility and elections.

  • Dave,

    I think it’s vital for the country’s well-being that the Democrats are able to function as a responsible party on defense and foreign affairs again like they did from 1933 -1968.

    The short-run electoral benefits to the Republicans from the antics of leftist wingnuts are outweighed by the risk of a major political party of the world’s most powerful nation being dominated by self-loathing zealots.

    Kevin Drum took a shellacking as well for admitting Bush had a legitimate mandate to govern ( evidently some Democrats do not get the meaning of their own party’s name – or don’t subscribe to it and sort of see themselves as a vanguard)

  • We’re in complete agreement on this point, mark. I was deeply disappointed that John Kerry didn’t get out in front of George W. Bush on the War on Terror. There were several ways it could have been done but he missed his opportunity. There’s a nice relationship between the ideas in PNM and traditional liberal values for example.

    BTW there’s a great discussion going on over on Winds of Change: A Democratic Reformation. I’m planning on posting about it myself tomorrow but I’m thinking it over right now.

  • James Foerster Link

    As a moderate Republican married to a Democrat who I respect, I’m overjoyed to find this site and your sentiments. The country needs two good parties, and the Democrats must make the necessary changes which you have so clearly summarized.
    Until the country developes alternative sources of energy, this economy will be in jepardy. We need a national program for solar, nuclear, and wind energy. The necessary debate requires a healthy two party system, and right now, we can’t even agree to cooperate on national defense. More power to you.

  • Thank you for your kind words, James Foerster. My own family situation is the reverse of your—my wife is the Republican while I consider myself a moderate Democrat. My mother is a Goldwater Republican (moderate by today’s standards) and I have at least two sisters who are, shall we say, left of center. I’ve heard one refer to Tom Brokaw as a “right-wing ideologue” (she wasn’t kidding).

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