Into the Breach

Into the Breach

The Democratic muddle continues in post-election hangover. The corporate wing of the party, the Democratic Leadership Council, once more urges the party to move even further to the right.


The Democratic muddle continues in post-election hangover. The corporate wing of the party, the Democratic Leadership Council, once more urges the party to move even further to the right. Former president Clinton, who should know, bemoans the fact that Republicans have a “personal destruction” machine and Democrats don’t. House Democrats chose a strong liberal, Nancy Pelosi, as their leader and immediately surrounded her with “the guys” who fear a liberal bent. At this point, it isn’t clear the party can stand up and fight for anything.

In the postelection skirmishes, party conservatives are stuffing how this election was actually run and lost down a memory hole. In the event, Democratic leaders chose consciously not to put forth a program to get the economy going. They purposefully stood “shoulder to shoulder” with Bush in the war on terror and Iraq. Most endangered senators embraced Bush’s tax cuts at home and wars abroad. Democrats were so committed to budget balancing that they were unable to agree on a serious prescription-drug program. With the DLC warning against being too anticorporate, they let Bush co-opt the corporate scandals. Conservative antichoice, progun candidates were recruited for supposedly conservative rural swing districts. Senators like Jean Carnahan went out of their way to brandish their hunting rifles. With honorable exceptions, what Donna Brazile called “drive by” campaigns predominated, with candidates driving by their base to focus on swing voters in the suburbs and exurbs.

The results were apparent. The most comprehensive election day polling available–that done by Greenberg/Quinlan for the Institute for America’s Future and the Democracy Corps–showed that voters were most concerned about the economy, but got no clear idea from either party about what to do about it. Republicans used war and the President to rally their base. Democrats did better among independents than in 2000, but didn’t match the Republican turnout.

Yet the DLC once more wants to blame the debacle on liberals. In a “confidential” memo titled “The Road Ahead,” the DLC’s Al From and Bruce Reed argue that the party suffers from being “too liberal,” too associated with tax-and-spend politics, “not tough enough” on terror, too identified with gun control and prochoice politics, and too beholden to its base. Their remedy? Democrats should be tougher than Bush on terror and Iraq. They should stop “promising the moon” on programs like prescription drugs. They should be the keepers of fiscal discipline, suggesting no program without showing how they would pay for it. They should “respect the values of mainstream America” by retreating on gun control, choice and states’ rights. Above all, they should stop catering to their base and reach out to independent swing voters–presumably the white “office park dads” whom the DLC has offered up as the key target for the party–the most Republican cohort of the electorate.

It is hard to conjure up a more dispiriting example of ideology trumping reality–or a better recipe for continued Democratic decline.

Ironically, the memo also reveals that the DLC’s leaders have moved significantly and sensibly toward a more progressive agenda. They used to rail against class-warfare politics; they now attack Bush’s “tax cuts for the rich.” Six months ago they cautioned against being too aggressive on the corporate scandals; now they censure Democrats for not pushing harder. They used to champion Clinton’s politics of gesture and rope-a-dope passivity; they now upbraid Democrats for not offering bold alternatives, particularly “a coherent plan for economic growth.” They even agree that Democrats must broaden the security debate and champion a drive toward energy independence and greater investment in homeland security. They favor addressing concerns that Americans struggle with every day–from educating their children, to paying for college, to retirement security and exploding healthcare costs.

But perversely, the DLC’s first instinct is to draw bright lines not between Bush and Democrats but between the Democratic base and the “forgotten middle class.” And in this, their posture feeds both bad politics and bad policy.

The first lesson Democrats must learn is to walk and chew gum at the same time. They must fight furiously for the base of the party–union workers, minorities, prochoice women, environmentalists–whose causes, leaders and organizations are under direct assault from the Bush Administration. And at the same time, party leaders should put forth a bold agenda for the country, addressing both real security concerns and how to make this economy work for working people, appealing to the broad majority of American voters.

Republicans have learned how to pander shamelessly to the demands of the radical right and the rapacious corporate interests that are the base of their party, while presenting a “compassionate conservative” face to the country. They manage this despite the yawning gulf between the reactionary agenda of that base and the values and needs of “mainstream America.”

For Democrats, the task should be much easier. The base of the party yearns for candidates who will fight for what the vast majority of Americans want–jobs, healthcare, retirement security, clean air and water, fair taxes, a voice at work, civil rights, privacy and the freedom to make our own choices. The money wing of the Democratic Party must learn what Republican financiers learned: Defending the base and carrying the banner for its causes are central to generating the passion that wins elections. It means the party stands for something. It is not in contradiction with putting forth a broad agenda for the country that appeals to moderate and swing voters. By pitting base politics against a broad message, the DLC gets Politics 101 wrong–and fosters the push-off politics and “drive by” campaigning that are central to Democratic defeats.

Contrary to the DLC, the Democratic Party is not a dirigible that can be repositioned to fit the passing winds. It is a party of working people against the Republican Party of corporations and wealth. It is a party of diversity against the whites-only Republican Party. It is a party of prochoice women against the party of the radical right. It is a party of unions and of environmentalists against the party of Ken Lay and Dick Cheney. It won’t ever be more muscular than Republicans on war abroad or guns at home. It will win elections by fighting for the causes of its base, while putting forth a bold, full-employment economic program and a real security agenda that challenges Bush for defining threats solely in military terms. The DLC may call that “too liberal.” For Democrats, it’s just common sense.

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