In fairness, the problem isn't Kerry's alone. As Washington Post columnist E.J. Dionne Jr. notes in Stand Up Fight Back, the Democrats have become a party whose members define their identity by telling voters what they are not: "We're not tax-and-spend liberals, we're not weak on defense, we're not soft on crime, we're not feckless on family values." The mere hint of a set of affirmative values--standing up for shareholders against corporate criminals, say, or insisting that every American should have access to affordable healthcare and a college education, or expressing indignation at the scandal of poverty in the world's wealthiest nation--has generally been avoided. It's no wonder that, in light of this, many people nod their heads when Republicans tell them the GOP alone stands for clear values. And it's no mystery why, in the absence of a vigorous case for something different, Democrats constantly find themselves reacting to what the other side proposes.
"What if progressives were to become bolder--and more candid--about the philosophy behind their ideas?" Dionne asks. The party's more timid consultants never seem to tire of warning that such an approach risks alienating the moderate middle. It is a reflex rooted in fear, but also in the shadow cast over the party by the last Democrat to have succeeded on the national stage. It is a sign of how desperate liberals have grown that the losing streak they have been on lately, combined with the sense that they are invariably being outsmarted by tougher and more politically savvy conservatives, has fueled nostalgia for Bill Clinton. Then again, perhaps such nostalgia is inevitable in a party that has put up the charisma-challenged Kerry and Al Gore in the last two presidential elections. For all his faults, Clinton was an undeniably gifted politician with a natural ability to telegraph empathy and to parse issues in a manner that appeased his supporters and frustrated his foes. It is hard to read John Harris's recent biography of the ex-President, aptly titled The Survivor, and not come away impressed by Clinton's ability to stay on his feet. Unlike Gore and Kerry, Clinton took the GOP's best punches and didn't fall to the mat. Like Ali in the Rumble in the Jungle, he did the rope-a-dope, absorbing his enemies' harshest blows and then, just when he looked to be finished, striking back with some combinations of his own.
The "Man from Hope" made liberals feel like winners again. Watching Clinton deliver a speech at the Democratic National Convention last year, it was possible to imagine that Kerry might defeat Bush. And yet, paradoxically, Clinton's legacy and example is something the Democrats urgently need to shed, not embrace. For it is from Clinton that the party's leaders inherited some of their most debilitating traits: the obsessive fixation on polls (mined in a desperate effort to predict what the public wants them to say); the elevation of expediency over principle; the search for compromise in a tug of war with an opponent that has made no secret of its desire to quash them at every turn. Again and again during his two terms in office, Clinton neutralized his conservative critics by co-opting their ideas and blurring the distinction between himself and them. Many people looking back believe this was smart politics. But any honest assessment must reckon with the costs. As Harris notes, Clinton's two major achievements--reforming welfare and balancing the budget--were conservative goals. In announcing that the era of big government was over, he was reading from a script written by the right. Clinton was a brilliant politician but a terrible party leader. His personal survival came, it appears increasingly clear over time, at the Democrats' collective expense.
Harris tells a story about an event in the spring of 1995 that ought to dampen the enthusiasm of anyone dreaming that in 2008 Hillary will restore the pride of liberalism by carrying on her husband's legacy. It was the fiftieth anniversary of Franklin Roosevelt's death and, at the cottage in Warm Springs, Georgia, where the architect of the New Deal had died, Clinton held forth, telling the audience that FDR would have supported his efforts to cooperate with Republicans, reform the welfare system and make incremental progressive change. In the audience were Arthur Schlesinger Jr., author of an acclaimed three-volume history of the New Deal, and John Kenneth Galbraith, who served in Roosevelt's Administration. They were not persuaded. In the next morning's Washington Post, Galbraith quipped, "FDR enjoyed his enemies. I'd like to see Bill Clinton enjoy them more." Schlesinger noted that Roosevelt "loved a good fight," whereas Clinton "seems by temperament an accommodator." When Clinton read the article he was furious, and responded by doing the quintessential Clintonian thing--inviting Schlesinger, Galbraith and other prominent liberals to a seafood luncheon, where he turned on the charm and told them he was looking forward to using his veto pen in the period ahead. "I think all of us were both impressed and disarmed," Schlesinger wrote in his journal that night. "I also think we all felt that if he acts the way he talked, things would improve--but still wonder about the 'if.'"
Bill Clinton is no longer around. And there is some evidence--the recent maneuver by Senate Democrats to force Republicans into a closed session over the failure to investigate prewar intelligence, for example--that the GOP's plummeting fortunes have begun to swing the balance of power in Washington. Although they control every branch of the government, Republicans have had to retreat from some of their top priorities lately, such as making repeal of the estate tax permanent, and have had no luck preventing the American people from believing they were lied to about Iraq. You can fool some people some of the time, it appears, but even the Rove-led GOP can't fool all of them all of the time.
Strikingly, however, the Democrats still appear unable--or unwilling--to seize the moment and explain how they would govern the country differently. They bemoan the phenomenon of working-class voters getting suckered into voting for the GOP yet shy away from embracing a populist economic agenda that might win back their allegiance. They criticize the Bush Administration for leading America into a disastrous war yet refrain from issuing a unified call for withdrawal (when Pennsylvania Representative John Murtha recently did just that, Democrats from Hillary Clinton to John Kerry scrambled to distance themselves from his remarks). Perhaps this is why, in a recent Pew Research Center poll, while the voters said they trusted the Democrats more on a wide range of issues, the party's approval ratings were no better than the Republicans', with discontent particularly strong among their own usual supporters. Sixty-three percent of Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents believe "the party is doing only a fair or a poor job standing up for its traditional positions on such things as protecting the interests of minorities, helping the poor and needy, and representing working people." Until this changes, there will be no reason to believe that the Republican Party's recent problems will have a lasting effect. And, for all the flaws and contortions in our political culture and system of representative government, the Democrats will have nobody but themselves to blame.