Politics & Policy

Learning From Defeat

Democrats, in recovery.

As President George W. Bush began his second term, his opponents in the Democratic party were still in a curious psychological state composed equally of anger, shock, and disbelief. On the one hand, they regard Bush as a simpleton with extreme and unrealistic views who has presided over a failing war and a mediocre economy.

On the other hand, he defeated them.

They would like to explain this contradiction–as they did in 2000–by convincing themselves that the election was stolen. But the Ohio results, however closely examined, show a majority of well over 100,000 votes for Bush. Besides there is much more evidence of voter fraud in Wisconsin (which Senator Kerry won by a mere 14000 votes) than in Ohio. On the whole, Democrats have prudently accepted that their defeat was genuine–and has to be understood.

So, ever since the election the Democrats have been engaged in a major internal debate on their future. How can they win back a majority of voters? What issues have they got wrong? And how should they reform themselves in order to become electable in future?

That debate had two stages. In the first stage, those wanting to reform the party pointed out that the largest single number of voters in exit polls had given “moral values” as their reason for voting. They drew the conclusion that religiously minded voters had been driven away from the Democrats by their increasing secularism, their seeming hostility to religion, and their specific positions on gay marriage (for it) and abortion (for that too.)

In the second stage, however, some doubt was cast on that analysis. Voters claiming to be actuated by moral or religious concerns had not actually risen in number; they had merely been counted differently. So a second explanation was advanced that the voters saw the Democrats as dangerously “soft” on national security in general and the war on terror in particular.

A cooler look at the polls suggests that both explanations have weight.

True, religious voters are not more numerous than before but there are still–forgive the phrase–a helluva lot of them. They are consolidating in the GOP. And they are likely to remain there unless the Democrats become less secular.

As for national security, the strong antiwar drift of the Democratic-primary season, the early enthusiasm of the party’s rank and file for Howard Dean, and the public prominence of such dovish figures as Michael Moore–all these convinced many voters that the party was deeply unrealistic about the need for a firm military response to enemies like Osama and Saddam in the war on terror. And that was reflected in opinion polls showing that most voters distrusted the Democrats on national-security issues.

At first it seemed that the reformers–citing these discouraging statistics–would succeed in pushing their party in a conservative or at least moderate direction. As Rich Lowry points out, even such stalwart liberals as presidential hopeful Howard Dean and consultant Lanny Davis were calling for pro-life and religious voters to be given an honored place in the Democratic party.

But there were two massive obstacles to any real rethinking of Democrat policy. The first was that the reformers were divided among themselves.

For instance, national-security neoliberals had little sympathy for changing the stance of the party on moral issues. Peter Beinart, the editor of The New Republic, who opened the campaign for tough national-security approaches in a powerful article in his magazine, also opposed any backsliding from Democrat support for gay marriage. And moral traditionalists would hardly support neoliberal who scorned them.

The second obstacle was even more serious: The great majority of Democrats genuinely believed in the policies they were being invited to reject.

That was most obvious in relation to the antiwar wing of the party energized by Howard Dean’s campaign. Indeed, it was so obvious that Beinart conceded that it would need a party purge of “softs” if the Democrats were to commit themselves to a stronger national-security stance. Yet party moderates like Beinart plainly lacked the numbers and the organizational passion to carry out such a purge. Indeed, if a Democrat election campaign dominated organizationally by groups like MoveOn.org was any guide, both numbers and organization were on the “soft” side.

The situation was similar on moral issues where some of the strongest and most entrenched groups in the Democrat coalition were feminists, gays and supporters of “abortion rights.” Even those proposing to win over religious voters were very careful to make clear that any such welcome must be accompanied by a clear and unshakable party commitment to such bedrock Democratic principles as “a woman’s right to choose.”

All that would change was that religious people and defense hawks would not longer be made to feel pariahs in the party. In return for that, however, the new recruits would be expected to support policies they detested. It did not seem a very good bargain.

So when Senator Edward Kennedy charged out to defeat the reformers last week–issuing the clarion call that the Democrats could not win with “pale issues and timid voices”–the old liberal war-horse found that the battle had been won before his arrival. He trumpeted away gamely enough, advocating a quite unrealistic expansion of social programs, and sat down to modified rapture. The Democrats were nervously realizing that, unless something dramatic happens, they will remain firmly committed to policies and attitudes that have lost them the last three elections.

It was reminiscent of the liberal judge who announced from the bench that although he had recently been mugged, he would nonetheless continue to impose short sentences–at which a passer-by yelled: “Mug him again.” What the Democrats need is for someone to shout “Mug them again.”

Unfortunately for them, that will be neither the media nor the other cultural elites in American life. Indeed, they will continue to mislead the Democrats about the relative popularity of Democrat and Republican policies, in part because they mislead themselves on the same topics.

You might say that there are two political spectrums in America today–an elite spectrum and a popular spectrum.

The elite spectrum has the Democrats in the center, the voters on the center-right, and the Republicans on the far right. Thus when some judicial appointee is discovered to have criticized racial preferences, he is described by the New York Times or CBS News as “out of the mainstream” even though about two thirds of the electorate is opposed to preferences too.

The same dismissive treatment is meted out to public figures who criticize the U.N., call for more defense spending, advocate “workfare,” express pro-life views, oppose gay marriage, and so on. All are marginalized as extreme or wayward in the establishment media. As the example of racial preferences suggests, however, these judgments reflect elite opinion rather than the views of the American electorate.

When we look at the latter, a very different arrangement of political players begins to emerge. The popular spectrum of political opinion has the Democrats and liberal elites on the Left, the Republicans in the middle, and the voters out to their Right.

Immigration as an issue illustrates the popular spectrum to an almost embarrassingly exaggerated extent. About 70 percent of Americans (and only about one-fifth of American elites) think that mass immigration is a serious threat to the U.S. and needs to be curtailed. There are votes in cutting immigration levels–but you would never guess this from elite media coverage. And responding to this, both parties favor increasing immigration levels and reducing restrictions on entry.

What makes the Democrats’ task of recovery so difficult is that the issues that most concern voters–namely, national security and moral issues–fit into the popular spectrum better (i.e., the Democrats and the voters are at opposite ends of the spectrum on such issues–with the GOP in the middle). But because the Democrats take their cue from elite institutions such as Hollywood and the media, they never realize their vulnerability. And every election defeat astonishes them.

If a Democrat were to outflank the GOP on an issue with a high salience on the popular spectrum, they might get back in the game. Senator Hillary Clinton has hinted she might do precisely that over illegal immigration–where President Bush is extremely vulnerable. But the Democrats’ first forays into reconsidering such sensitive policies have plainly run into the sands of timidity, dogmatism, and elite complacency.

As long as that is the case, the Democrats will continue to lose–and continue to be surprised.

John O’Sullivan is the editor of The National Interest and editor at large of National Review. He can be contacted through Benador Associates at www.benadorassociates.com..


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