What the Democrats should do next

By Joshua Steinman

I hate excuses. I’ve been listening to the radio over the past few days, and excuses are all I’ve heard from Democrats. A friend of mine came by my room Tuesday night and asked me how I could be angry, the people voted, and the results came in. He was absolutely right. I wasn’t angry at the Republicans for winning; I was angry at the Democrats for losing.

As a party, we’ve been in a bind for the last two years. Our only two nationally cultivated leaders, President Clinton and Vice President Gore, retreated from the spotlight two years ago. Gore grew a beard, and Clinton attended fundraiser after fundraiser trying to make enough money to pay off all the lawyers he had to hire in order to defend himself against impeachment and other legal difficulties.

On top of that, every congressman, senator, and governor has been making the rounds on the Sunday talk shows in an attempt to somehow be crowned the heir to the Democratic throne. Fifty or more voices, all with different criticisms of the Republican Party, have been circulating around the airwaves. The Democratic National Committee, the group responsible for a national agenda, made no attempt to unify the messages that were being sent out to voters. One week, candidates were focusing on social security, and the next week, they were somehow focusing on Iraq, yet without being specifically critical of the Republicans. There were no negative advertisements; there were no letters to the editor. On every issue there was no real debate.

The Democrats need a single voice. I’m not talking about a single press release typed up by some pimple-faced intern in Tom Daschle’s office in the Capitol. I’m talking about a real, honest, visionary voice. The thing that made the Republicans so successful in 1994, when they swept into power in Congress, was that they weren’t afraid of presenting the country with a vision, and then attacking the Democrats’ mismanagement. The thing that made George W. Bush so successful in 2000 was that he wasn’t afraid of the issues; he simply glossed over them and presented the country with a vision: compassionate conservatism. Al Gore had no theme, no phrase, and no detectable vision in the final weeks of the election.

This year, the Democrats continued to lack vision and refrained from attacking Republicans. However, they did raise money. Lots of money. They did not use that money to develop a vision. They did not use it to portray the financial chaos into which the Bush administration has driven this country, nor did they use it to attack Republicans for the ultraconservative agenda that they have pushed for the past two years. Instead, they used it to run fluff spots on local TV, and rail against the abstract concept of social security privatization. The Republicans sidestepped this argument quite easily by simply saying that they weren’t for “privatization,” they were for “private accounts” (the two phrases mean the same thing). Genius.

The Democrats need a leader. I’m not talking about someone who acts as a spokesperson; I mean a real honest-to-goodness leader. Franklin D. Roosevelt, John F. Kennedy, and William Jefferson Clinton were three of the best negative politicians this country has ever seen; all three were able to simultaneously define the opposition, and then articulate why their vision of the future was not only better, but right. The Democratic Party needs someone with the guts to pick a battle, take a stand, and then fight to the death. The electorate isn’t dumb. They just get treated like it during an election year. They aren’t going to be swayed by soft images of a man with his family and the words, “Vote for Johnson.” They want a battle. Like it or not, negative campaigning wins elections. This is not because people like to see public figures get mad at each other. It is because the electorate depends on the candidates to define the election, define the issues, and give the voters a choice.

This doesn’t mean someone who will simply oppose the Republicans on every issue. Far from it. But there are certain areas where the Republicans have shown themselves to be actually criminally negligent. They passed a corporate responsibility bill that allocated $750 million to a newly created corporate oversight board. Financial insiders argued that this was not enough money for the board to fulfill its mandate, and a month ago the Bush administration scaled the budget to $500 million.

Just last week, the administration’s choice for chairman of the oversight board was shown to have been guilty of the same crimes he is supposed to be investigating. And what did we hear from the Democrats? Nothing. Now is the time for the party to step back, evaluate the playing field, pick its battles, and mobilize.

In politics there are moral, ethical, and political absolutes. This means that compromise comes after the elections, not before. For the Democrats, the vision needs to be articulated, the players need to be assembled, and the battle for the minds, but more importantly, the hearts of America, needs to begin.