How Kerry Can Win
In addition to adopting a bolder style, national Democrats also need to grasp Bill Clinton's role during the 1990s in aborting some national trends and stirring others that did his party considerable harm. Indeed, Clinton's moral notoriety was central to the rise of George W. Bush at two junctures--Bush's initial election as governor of Texas in 1994, a year dominated (especially in Dixie) by an anti-Clinton backlash, and the presidential race of 2000, in which regional disgust with Clinton was so strong that even Tennessee Southern Baptist Al Gore could not carry Arkansas and Tennessee against the religion-linked Bush campaign for moral restoration.
Without these offsets to Clinton's lengthy prosperity, it seems clear that 1992 should have ushered in a twelve-to-sixteen-year Democratic mini-cycle. Indeed, the sixteen-point collapse in Bush Senior's vote between 1988 and 1992 was the sort of hemorrhage mostly seen on previous realignment occasions. Clinton's failure to take advantage of this opportunity, instead facilitating the Bushes' return in dynastic form, is one of the too-little-understood ingredients of the 2000 upheaval.
Part of the emptiness of the Democrats' pinstriped or don't-rock-the-boat strategy is that it doesn't grapple with these circumstances. Not just the South but the kindred pivotal border states and the Ohio Valley cannot be counted on to reward a Democrat trumpeting the Clinton memory and legacy. Nor does bland centrism effectively respond to the Bush family's regaining of the presidency in 2000 by tactics and subsequent inroads on small-d democracy and small-r republicanism to which only a feckless Democratic nominee could turn the other cheek.
However, let it pass for the moment that Bush was put in office only by a 5-to-4 decision of the Supreme Court, hijacked the Democrats' mini-cycle, fought and botched the first father-and-son war in US annals and convinced 55-60 percent of Americans that the nation is on the wrong course. There is a more stark yardstick that even cautious Democrats should understand: In 1991-92, George H.W. Bush, prior to his defeat, fell from a record high job-approval rating of 90 percent after the Gulf War to a low 30s summer bottom before the election. His son, who hit the low 90s right after 9/11, by early June had fallen to 42-43 percent, another fifty-point decline. No elected President has ever done this; the Bushes have done it twice. Maybe it's the gene pool.
Back in 1992, Pat Buchanan and Ross Perot went after Bush with the gloves off, softening him up so that the Democratic nominee Clinton didn't have to do that much. In 2000 Al Gore didn't run a strong campaign--his occasional populism was as labored as fellow Harvard man Dukakis's in 1988--but some Republicans and independents had taken their cues from McCain. This year, by contrast, Bush had no primary challenge and will have no ex-Republican third-party opponent. Sure, some Republicans have attacked Bush through books, but while that's probably been worth a point or two, it's not the same thing.
To win this election decisively, John Kerry is going to have to feel the same outrage that Howard Dean felt, and he's going to have to express some of it with the same merciless candor that the Republican dissidents have employed against two generations of Bushes. In today's circumstances of a nation on the wrong track, most swing voters--especially wavering GOP men who grew up on John Wayne movies--will not be content with pablum. The Edwards selection seemed assertive, but if Kerry reverts to equivocation, he could face the ultimate epitaph on a political tombstone: Here lies John Kerry, the first Democratic nominee to lose to a Bush President who'd already dropped fifty points in job approval and earned the snickers of half the world.