With their bitter defeat in 2004, Democrats are now undeniably a minority party in opposition. Opposition can be fruitful or barren. In 1992 Clinton’s victory gave Democrats control of the White House and Congress in a divided nation, but Newt Gingrich and the right unleashed a relentless opposition, rallied their base and put forth a national agenda, the Contract With America, to win the 1994 Congressional elections. After Clinton demoralized his base with NAFTA, electrified the right over gays in the military and tax increases, and failed to deliver on healthcare, Republicans swept Democrats out of their majority in both houses of Congress for the first time in forty years.
In contrast, after Bush stole the election in 2000, demoralized Democrats rolled over on his tax cuts, authorized Bush to make war on Iraq, offered no unified critique of his failed economics and had no national message in the by-elections. Bush led Republicans to gains in both houses by nationalizing the election, impugning his opponents’ patriotism and developing the mobilization strategies that proved so effective this year.
In the coming months, progressives can drive the response to Bush’s victory, just as the right drove the response to Clinton’s. Thus we must take a close look at 2004, what we can build on and where we should go.
Even in the ashes of this defeat, progressives can take pride in the remarkable role we played, both in arousing opposition to Bush and in building the independent progressive machinery necessary to communicate, educate, register and get out the vote.
Howard Dean gave Democrats their voice. The Dean campaign and MoveOn.org broke the grip of big donors in the Democratic primaries and helped Democrats utilize the Internet. Kerry ended with a 7-to-1 Internet fundraising advantage over Bush. Democrats became competitive with Republicans in raising hard money.
Progressives drove the remarkable mobilization that put together a multicultural democracy movement. Independent progressive groups and leaders–from ACORN to USAction and America Coming Together, to Bruce Springsteen, Russell Simmons, P. Diddy and the hip-hop nation–reached out to workers, the young, minorities and single women. Their success was confirmed in the exit polls. Union households remained at 25 percent of an expanded electorate and voted nearly two to one for Kerry. African-Americans increased their percentage of the electorate and voted nine to one for Kerry. More young people between 18 and 29 voted than in 2000–4.6 million more–and were the only age group to go for Kerry. The proportion of Hispanics in the electorate increased, and, although Bush gained ground, they still supported Kerry 53 to 44.
Progressives expanded our capacity to generate ideas, communicate our message and educate Americans. From MoveOn.org and house parties around Robert Greenwald’s DVDs Outfoxed and Uncovered, to Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11, to Internet portals, Air America Radio, paid ads by MoveOn.org and the Media Fund, the raft of anti-Bush books, progressives drove the debate.
What Went Wrong
Bush won a majority of the popular vote by increasing the turnout and his margin in the “red states,” those that went for Bush in 2000. Kerry edged out Bush in the total vote in battleground states, but Bush won his Electoral College edge in Ohio and Florida by increasing the turnout and his margin in pro-Republican precincts in those states. The Republican mobilization, fueled by volunteers in precincts across the country, often anchored in evangelical churches, tracked down and turned out conservative, pro-Bush voters of every stripe. For the first time, self-described Republicans matched Democrats in the number of voters who turned up at the polls.