Weaker Than Ever

Never mind that George W. Bush won re-election by 4 million votes. Or that Democrats lost in 28 out of 50 states. Or that more than a third of Latino votes went to the Republicans. And that something like 40 percent of union votes went Republican.

Don’t worry — be happy. "We are truly stronger than ever." I know that because the liberal political action group MoveOn wrote me to tell me so. Indeed, it was so darn pleased with itself and so amped up after a pre-Thanksgiving, coast-to-coast round of house meetings that the follow-up report issued by MoveOn quoted one participant as jubilantly proclaiming: "A groundswell is happening."

Yessir. One more groundswell like that of the last month and MoveOn and the rest of us can start carrying out our meetings inside submarines. Please, for the moment, no more little ripples, let alone a groundswell.

Just the title alone under which the meetings took place is enough to make you scratch ... um ... your head. "Bush Beat Kerry But He Didn’t Beat Me" was the perky slogan that brought what MoveOn says are "tens of thousands" of supporters to these post-defeat huddles. And I do mean defeat. Because while Bush didn’t beat MoveOn, he sure as hell whipped MoveOn’s candidate which, the last time I checked, is the only thing that counts in an election.

It’s more than appropriate to distance yourself from a defeated candidate. In the case of Kerry, the quicker the better. Distancing yourself from your mistakes without first acknowledging what they were, however, is quite another trick.

I demand no mea culpas from the Democrats. In fact, I don’t really care what the Democrats do. The hardened inner shell of the party can and will go on as it pleases, raising gazillions and favoring sure-fire loser candidates like Hillary Clinton.

I do care, however, about all those liberals and radicals and young voters who invested so much of their hope in MoveOn and similar groups as the backbone of some new progressive movement. Please proceed with great caution and even more skepticism.

The attendees at the MoveOn parties were asked to vote on what they think are the most important issues to be pursued over the next four years. The results, by my reckoning, are mind-blowing. Election reform and media reform came in first and second.

This is classic denial, a clumsy outsourcing of political responsibility. The inherent message: We or, if you prefer, Kerry lost because the voting was fishy and the media were skewed. Not our fault that we couldn’t rouse a majority. The only big problem Democrats have are external, not internal.

I’d actually be okay with these results if some of the root issues of the Democratic defeat — or at least their correctives — had been listed among the other top priorities chosen. But the war in Iraq came in as the third priority, followed by the environment, the Supreme Court and civil liberties. MoveOn lists no others.

Let’s give each selected issue a quick glance:

Voting reform. Yes, let’s tighten up the process. That would be about the 39th item on my "Fix America" list.

Media reform. Does that mean breaking up the conglomerates? A great idea. And one that is doable shortly after the working class seizes power and abolishes capitalism.

The war in Iraq. What does that mean? For or against? As soon as the Democrats decide, let me know.

The environment, the Supremes and civil liberties. All worthy issues. None of them, however, offers a clue to a political strategy capable of building a political majority broad enough to govern and effect reform (remember that winning the White House alone ain’t enough).

Notably missing from the recipe dashed out by the MoveOn meetings are anything resembling an aggressive agenda that directly confronts the phony populism of the Republicans. Make no mistake about it. A progressive strategy has to consciously undercut the GOP’s appeal among working- and middle-class families by offering a tangible realignment of national politics. Urging people to vote against Republicans because they are bad and evil, or convincing yourself people vote Republican because they are ill-informed, stupid or brainwashed ain’t gonna cut it. I hope that that much, at least, has been learned from the November debacle.

But apparently not. What would the MoveOn agenda — as listed in those six priorities — mean for Americans worried about their jobs, their wages, their schools, their housing, their health care? And yes, their taxes (that remain too high for individuals and way too low for corporations)?

No doubt these omissions reflect some of the class and cultural limitations of groups like MoveOn. These are fundamentally middle-class or better congregations of comfortable Volvo Democrats who don’t have excessive (if any) concern over such details as wages and insurance premiums. Fact is, whether a Republican or a Democrat or anyone else sits in the Oval Office has but negligible effect on their daily lives.

Meeting together was probably in itself a mistake. What is accomplished by getting a group of like-minded folks in one room to ask each other what they want? How about trying something really different — like asking people who don’t automatically agree with you (but ought to) what they want? Wouldn’t it have been a more useful exercise for MoveOn to send its "tens of thousands" of adherents into the field with the assignment of each one talking to 10 people who are just like them — except that they voted for Bush? Might something more useful had been learned?

Maybe then we would have seen at least a suggestion of self-criticism on the MoveOn wish list. Last week, interviewed on MSNBC, former Howard Dean campaign manager Joe Trippi lamented that the only way Democrats beat Republicans this last election was in racking up million-dollar-level contributions. And, he said, the only hope Democrats had for the future was to completely rethink the Democratic Party. One way to begin is to not kid yourself into believing you are stronger than ever.


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