The Security Party

So what went wrong, and what must we do to set it right?

By many measures, the Democrats and progressives never had it so together as they did this year. There were more volunteers and paid activists than ever before, and polling showed that more Americans were contacted by Kerry’s foot soldiers than by Bush’s. The Democrats put their people in the right states, counties and neighborhoods; they seem to have out-registered the Republicans, and the majority of first-time voters went for Kerry. Democratic turnout soared in the battleground states.

And we lost.

It wasn’t an evangelical upsurge that won it for the Republicans. Weekly churchgoers constituted the same share of the electorate than they did four years ago. Both parties turned out their base, but the Republicans won this election in the middle. In particular, they won it among women: The gender gap, which stood at 16 percent in 1996 and 11 percent four years ago, was just 3 percent on November 2.

The group which saw the biggest shift in sentiment during the campaign, says Democratic pollster Anna Greenberg, was white women over 50 with no college education. They supported Kerry last spring, particularly favoring his position on health insurance over Bush’s. But as Kerry came under attack in August and September, his support melted away, and these voters ended up backing Bush by 18 percent.

These were just some of the voters who were still in play this fall — the majority of them white, downscale, worried about the economy, worried about terrorism, and worried about the condition of the cultural climate. Kerry was still an option for them in October, but then came the October surprise.

No, not the Osama tape. It was the failure of Kerry to wrap up his campaign with a strong Democratic populist message. Perhaps the most astonishing nugget in the exit polling and the hardest to find, since the most commonly available version of the poll, on the CNN Web site, doesn’t contain this information, is that when asked which candidates voters trusted more to handle the economy, they preferred Bush to Kerry by a 40 percent to 37 percent margin.

That’s a stunner. Democrats always win that question in the quadrennial exit polling, usually by somewhere between 7 and 10 percent. Does that mean people support the Bush economic program? Privatizing Social Security? Ending all taxation on investment income and taxing only wages? Letting pharmaceutical companies charge whatever they want for prescription drugs? Doing nothing to check the rising cost and declining employer responsibility for health insurance?

Of course not, not if all the polling on these issues is remotely right. What it does mean is that the Democrats’ message problem — progressives’ message problem — is even more serious than it may have seemed on election night.

At that point, it seemed the party’s main problem was cultural: Not that the Dems weren’t reaching right-wing evangelicals who’d never vote Democratic under any circumstances, but that voters in the middle of the spectrum weren’t comfortable with a Northern liberal, all else being equal. It wasn’t so much values as such, but, among the swing women voters, the issue of terrorism, which worked to Bush’s advantage, and the economy, which should have worked to Kerry’s, but mysteriously did not.

Roughly half of Bush’s voters lived in cloud-coo-coo land when it came to terrorism: believing, all government reports to the contrary, that Saddam’s Iraq had weapons of mass destruction and had cooperated with al Qaeda in the period before 9/11. About the only group, other than voters under 30, among whom Kerry did better (by 5 percent) than Al Gore did four years ago was college-educated men, who were cool to the Republicans’ religiosity and downright cold when it came to Bush’s conduct of the war and stewardship of the economy.

Time was when the Democrats had no trouble devising and conveying an economic security agenda. In a national economy, the institutions of the New Deal and the unions that arose during that time turned a low-wage working class into the most highly paid working class in human history. Today, though, the Democrats have lost most of the levers with which they used to raise living standards. The destruction of unions, the openness of the U.S. economy to a global labor market, the ideological de-legitimation of government — all these have made it much harder for the Democrats to present a plausible solution to voters. Addressing the destruction of decent-paying manufacturing jobs by ending the tax deductibility of outsourcing, as Kerry proposed, is the kind of policy you put forth when you don’t really have a policy at all.

Democrats need to rethink an economic security agenda for a global economy — putting a lot more money into education and a lot more teeth into trade accords that promote worker rights and labor standards throughout the world. They need to build "moral values" coalitions of their own in the heartland, by backing, for instance, a mega-campaign to unionize Wal-Marts, and involving churches in those struggles. They need to insist on a reality-based foreign policy, but they can’t cede to Bush the "moral" side of the American foreign-policy tradition, as Kerry sometimes seemed to do with his rhetoric of realpolitik. They need to secure the funding and cobble together the structures that will enable the remarkable institutions that sprung up this year, such as Americans Coming Together, to sink roots into the states where they did such a good job this fall, and into the non-battleground states where thousands of progressives gave them money.

Some of what the Democrats must do amounts to little more than accommodating bias. It’s clear that a purely Northern-state presidential-election strategy won’t work; too few states are in play that way, into which Republicans can concentrate their resources. But the Deep South, and the more winnable Upper South and Midwest won’t vote for a Northern progressive. That means the Democrats have to look elsewhere for a plausible nominee — beginning with their Southern governors and then radiating outward into heartland states.

Victories usually contain the seeds of subsequent defeats, and the early signs of Bush’s second-term agenda point to a domestic agenda far to the right of anything the American public would support. In 1964, Republicans in the wake of the Goldwater defeat were in far worse shape than the Democrats today: Lyndon Johnson had won 61 percent of the popular vote, not the 51 percent Bush pulled down this month. Democrats had 60 more seats in the House and 25 more in the Senate than the Republicans have today. But with the wind in their sails, the Democrats enacted anti-poverty legislation that much of the nation rebelled against. Johnson presided over the quagmire of Vietnam. And within four years, Richard Nixon wrested control of the White House from the Democrats.

Now, the military quagmire and the factional domestic agenda are the Republicans’. In its war on social responsibility, the GOP has become the party of risk, which it re-packages as "opportunity." The Democrats can return to power as the party of security, but that means becoming a beacon of global liberalism in the face of both radical Islam and radical (and culturally amoral) global capitalism. That means playing offense while also playing defense against Bush, both squads on the field at the same time. The world is changing for the worse, and this guy wants to abet it. Welcome to the next four years.


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