WE’RE ALREADY A WEEK into the post-11/02 world, and the liberals and moderates of the Democratic Party are grieving but have not yet begun their customary civil war. You know, that old, never-ending argument: The-party-must-go-left versus the-party-is-too-left. Is that because the Dems are shell-shocked? Or is it because they realize — in partial contradiction to all the talk of a Democratic massacre — that had 70,000 Ohioans voted for John Kerry instead of for George W. Bush, the party and its operatives would be hailed as geniuses for having orchestrated a win without nabbing a single Southern state or placing first in the popular vote?
Or is it because Kerry’s loss was not a matter of his ideological leanings? Indeed, Kerry was embraced by both the Democratic Leadership Council (the more conservative Democrats) and traditional Democratic liberals (environmentalists and abortion-rights outfits). Though he could be — and was — tagged by the Bush mob as another Massachusetts liberal (he couldn’t help where he came from), Kerry campaigned as both a progressive populist who vowed to oppose special interests to help the middle class and as a New Democrat who believed in fiscal discipline and advocated targeted business tax cuts to spur economic growth. That is, he represented both wings of the party. He just didn’t do it as well as he needed to. And the party machine was outgunned — and, worse, surprised — by a GOP that was finally able to clobber the Democrats in the get-out-the-vote contest.
In the aftermath of the election, it is easy, on one level, to say what the Democrats probably have to do the next time. They need to win Ohio, secure their declining leads in Wisconsin and Minnesota, claim back Iowa, and be competitive in the Southwest. How to do that — well, that’s the question. But becoming more conservative — issues-wise — is not necessarily the answer.
As soon as Kerry’s defeat became apparent, the insta-analysis held that Kerry was done in by hordes of social conservatives who flooded the polls to cast votes in favor of “moral values.” The exit polls (which were wrong on the Bush-Kerry margin in the early versions but not on the final one) noted that 22 percent of the voters considered “moral values” the top issue of the election. This was a larger number than those voters who chose terrorism, the war in Iraq or the economy, and this bloc broke for Bush 4-to-1. According to the first wave of punditry, Kerry’s goose was cooked by the “values voters,” and the Democrats would be sunk unless they could figure out how to appeal to this lot.
But the term “moral values” was undefined by the survey takers. Moreover, the number of voters who say they attend religious services weekly — 41 percent — did not go up from 2000. And Bush did not significantly increase his share of the votes cast by weekly churchgoers. He only received an extra one percentage point over 2000 from these voters. Yet he more dramatically boosted his share among voters who never attend religious services (by 4 percent) and among those who hit the pews but a few times a year (by 3 percent). In the critical state of Ohio, according to Democratic pollster Geoffrey Garin, the electorate’s share of frequent churchgoers declined from 45 percent in 2000 to 40 percent this year, with Bush receiving a larger share of this declining bloc. And Garin noted that the voters’ position on abortion shifted only slightly. In 2000, 56 percent of voters said abortion should be legal in all or most cases; in 2004, the figure was 55 percent. “I do not share the view . . . that the outcome of this election was determined by a new pre-eminence of moral values in Americans’ voting decisions,” Garin says.
So what happened? The GOP did a kick-ass job of driving their voters to the polls. And no doubt, some of these voters were propelled by the opportunity to vote for initiatives in Ohio and elsewhere that would ban gay marriage. The social-cons group may even represent Bush’s winning majority. After 2000, a Bush strategist said he believed the Bush campaign had failed to bring 4 million Christian evangelicals to the polls. This time Bush won by 3.5 million.
BUT THESE VOTERS WERE NOT Kerry’s main problem. He was creamed by voters concerned with Iraq and the so-called war on terrorism. In the summer, polls showed that a majority of the public believed the war in Iraq was a mistake. But on Election Day, the exit polls found that 52 percent of the voters supported the war, and 55 percent said they considered it part of the war on terrorism. Thirty-four percent of the voters said that the war in Iraq or terrorism was their chief concern. And when it came to handling terrorism, only 40 percent of the voters said they trusted Kerry. Fifty-eight percent reported they had faith in Bush. That’s one big gap.
Kerry had no chance of winning over those folks who obsess over what Bob and Bob do in their bedroom. But to beat Bush he had to persuade a larger slice of the electorate that he could be a better commander in chief than the present one. He failed to do so. And Kerry had built up no lead in the who-would-better-handle-the-economy category to compensate for his commander-in-chief deficit.
What led to this gap? Kerry’s occasional unartful explanation of his Iraq position? His less-than-swift reaction to the scurrilous Swift Boat vet attack? It certainly was not because Kerry was too dovish in his policies (although Bush did lie about Kerry’s positions to make Kerry seem a weak fellow who would hand over U.S. national security decisions to the French). Kerry repeatedly stated he wanted to kill the terrorists. He called for expanding the military. He celebrated his military service (and downplayed his anti-war activism). Would a greater number of voters have seen Howard Dean as a more credible commander in chief than Kerry?
So what is there for the Democrats to argue about? In the first post-9/11 election, their candidate — a war hero with almost 20 years of foreign-policy experience — failed to convince enough voters that he could be a stronger and more effective leader in the struggle against al Qaeda and Islamic jihadism. This was not a failure of ideology or values but one of tactics, strategies and message. Which means there may not be much for the Democrats to learn from this calamity other than this: Do better. That is overly glib. The Dems have to connect more with battleground voters on economic issues (particularly if they want to dream of one day being in the majority in the Senate, where they now only hold a measly 44 seats). They must address Bush’s nine-point gain among Latino voters. They have to force the GOPers to play defense on a few red states. And even after spending hundreds of millions of dollars to locate and mobilize voters, their assignment is to find several million more Democratic voters among those Americans who did not vote. Developing and effectively presenting the right issues combo is crucial for all of this. But there is no need for an all-out, internal ideological mud wrestle within the party. As long as terrorism is the issue, the Democrats’ primary challenge is to develop and field appealing candidates who are strong and sensible and who have the political skills to convey that. It’s about talent, stupid.