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.
“Morals trumped economics, even in Ohio,” conclude the pundits. But the reality was more complicated. In an election day poll for the Institute for America’s Future, taken by Greenberg Quinlan Rosner Research, respondents were split on what factor most influenced their choice. About 20 percent said it was economics and jobs; these people voted two to one for Kerry. About 20 percent said it was the war on terror; they voted three to one for Bush. The 20 percent who named Iraq as most important voted overwhelmingly for Kerry. A similar number chose morals and voted overwhelmingly for Bush, while the smaller percentages that chose healthcare and education went big for Kerry. Where the question was performance–Iraq and the economy, healthcare, education–Bush lost. Where it was worldview–morals and the war on terror–Bush won big.
A majority of voters did not support the President’s policies. By 51 to 41, voters considered the country to be “substantially on the wrong course.” A majority wanted change. A plurality–49 to 46–said that the war on Iraq was making America less safe, not more safe. By significant majorities, voters supported protecting Social Security over privatizing it, fair trade over free trade, investment in education and healthcare over paring back spending and reducing the deficit. The voters who handed Florida and Nevada to Bush also voted overwhelmingly to pass initiatives to raise the minimum wage in the those states.
In the America’s Future poll, most voters said they were looking for an election that provided answers about the economy and jobs rather than how to make America safe. This was particularly true among wavering Bush voters–those who ended up voting for Bush but thought about voting for Kerry. With a campaign focused on Iraq and the war on terror, with little attention paid to kitchen-table concerns, many ended up voting their social conservatism.
The power of the so-called “moral issues”–God, guns and gays–is apparent. But the potential of a compelling populist economic argument is too often slighted. Consider the so-called Nascar Dads–socially conservative, patriotic white males who’ve voted Republican in large numbers since the early 1980s and who have lost ground in the new economy. The AFL-CIO and associated unions showed how economic issues could matter. They made a concerted effort to reach their members on issues like vanishing overtime pay, soaring healthcare costs, the loss of jobs. This effort paid off. White men in general voted for Bush by a margin of eighteen percentage points; white men who were union members favored Kerry by twenty-one points. Weekly churchgoers favored Bush by twenty-one points; weekly churchgoers who were union members favored Kerry by twelve. Gun owners chose Bush by twenty points; union gun owners opted for Kerry by twelve. And it didn’t take a lifetime of union membership to produce this effect. This year, the AFL’s Working America enlisted more than 750,000 people as associate members of the federation and educated them on kitchen-table issues like outsourcing and healthcare. In Ohio, Florida and Missouri, white males went for Bush by twenty-three percentage points. In tracking polls leading up to the election, Working America’s white male members chose Kerry by twenty-one points. Married women in those states favored Bush by thirteen; Working America wives preferred Kerry by twenty-three. Morals didn’t trump economics; the economic cards simply weren’t dealt.
What Is to Be Done?
In the wake of defeat, there will and should be reassessment inside the Democratic Party. But progressives drive this party now–we provide the energy, the organizers, the ground forces, the ideas and much of the money. We should organize the opposition. Here’s a start:
§ Get Ready to Fight. Bush’s agenda will ignite opposition. The current offensive in Iraq will galvanize antiwar sentiment across the world–including among the conservative realists in the Republican Party. The President’s budget, featuring some $70 billion more for Iraq plus cuts across the board for education and other domestic programs, will highlight the financial costs of his folly. Progressives should continue to challenge this war and educate Americans on how it is making us less safe.
The President claims a mandate for a radical domestic agenda–privatization of Social Security, tax reform to reward wealth over work, drill-and-burn energy policy, tort “reform” to limit victims’ rights to recover from negligent corporations, more testing in schools while cutting resources needed to fix the problems. He’s likely to make an early Supreme Court appointment. These are all battles that progressives should fight, offering Americans a clear choice.
§ Take the Offensive. Progressives should mount a powerful assault on Republican boss Tom DeLay and the most corrupt Congress in memory, exposing the blatant giveaway of taxpayers’ money to corporate contributors and spreading the word to Republican districts so voters learn about the crony corruption that is emblematic of this crowd.
§ Ideas and Local Invention. Progressives have to do more than oppose. We have to develop compelling arguments for moving the country in a different direction: What should America’s role in the world be? How can we create a fairer economy? What kind of society do we want to be? This requires new big ideas–strategic initiatives for good jobs and energy independence like those of the Apollo Alliance. Progressives should turn states and localities into “laboratories of democracy.” California voters just passed an initiative to borrow $3 billion to seed stem-cell research, insuring that that state will be a global center in this area. The Apollo Alliance is developing state initiatives on energy efficiency and renewable energy. In the Midwest, conservative Federal Reserve analysts are leading the argument for investing in preschool and early-childhood healthcare as an economic development policy.
In this election Progressive Majority recruited a team of progressive candidates for state and local office in three battleground states–Washington, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin. In Washington, their victories helped shift the State Senate into Democratic hands. All told, their candidates won 57 percent of open seats. Now they are gearing up to expand to ten states in the next cycle, finding the next generation of Paul Wellstones who see themselves as part of a movement.
§ Argue Our Case. Progressives should be aggressively arguing our case–and learning how to argue our case more effectively. Politicians are now scrambling for ways to appeal to the “values” voter. Some of this is common sense: Religious observance is not a Republican monopoly. Democrats who are comfortable with religion, like Jimmy Carter, Jesse Jackson and Bill Clinton, fare better in this very religious country. And progressives should be making our case in moral terms, not simply in the language of policy seminars.
But that does not mean abandoning the party’s principles on social issues like choice or equal rights. Democrats champion the values of the civilizing movements of recent decades–the civil rights movement, the women’s movement, the environmental movement, the human rights movement. We should lead the forces of tolerance against the forces of intolerance. We win by being the party of progress, not by blurring differences with the new reactionaries.
§ Build Independent Capacity. Progressives should build on this year’s extraordinary efforts to register, educate and mobilize voters. New focus should be on building volunteer networks from community organizations (as the right has done with evangelical churches). The competition over the growing Hispanic vote is a case in point. With Republicans in control of the leading Hispanic TV and radio networks, this project can’t be left to the party, or to chance.
At the same time, progressives have to expand their capacity to generate ideas, develop a message, communicate issues and carry out campaigns that can compete with the right. This is a long-term project that requires significant investment. Major donors and national and grassroots groups are already discussing it. MoveOn.org and Dean’s Democracy for America have demonstrated the potential for building powerful movements based upon citizen involvement and small-donor support. That will be key if the debate is to break out of the narrow constraints of the Clinton years.
Progressives did more this year than anyone could have anticipated–and we still got beat by a bad President espousing a politics of division and distraction. So we have to get smarter, work harder, learn how to make our case better and find ways to communicate it across America’s increasingly separated nations. The task is daunting. But we can undertake it, confident that, as Dr. King taught, the arc of history is long but it bends toward justice.