December 30, 2004


Why the Democrats Keep Losing (Joshua Muravchik, January 2005, Commentary)

The era of Democratic dominance in the 20th century was shaped by the muscular presidency of Franklin Roosevelt—activist at home as well as abroad. FDR’s New Deal defined a domestic liberalism that consisted of government intervention in the economy to provide jobs and social insurance. Its constituency was blue-collar, and its exemplars, after Roosevelt, were Presidents Truman, Kennedy, and Johnson.

This tradition was ruptured in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s when the movement against the Vietnam war redefined liberalism around the issues of peace, race, and freedom of “lifestyle,” and on behalf of a new constituency of college students and graduates. The new liberalism was effective in defeating the old liberalism in the battle for control of the Democratic party, but it proved pitifully weak against the Republicans.

In the 30 to 40 years following this transformation, only two Democrats captured the White House. The first was Carter in 1976 and the second was Clinton. Both were governors from the South who were taken for conservatives and who labored to reinforce that impression. Carter, as one of his long-time associates explained at the time, liked to “campaign conservative and govern liberal.” It was a formula that could work for one election with any given electorate. He used it to become governor of Georgia, then forsook reelection to run for the presidency. For this it also proved successful, but when he sought reelection, his true colors having been revealed, he was roundly trounced by the upstart Reagan.

Clinton’s was a more complicated story. He campaigned in 1992 as a “New Democrat,” code for “not a liberal.” Once in office, he too shifted abruptly to the Left, but, perhaps to his good fortune, retribution came down on him faster than on Carter. In the mid-term elections of 1994, the Republicans, led by Newt Gingrich touting his “contract with America,” won a stunning sweep, impelling the agile Clinton to execute a sharp turn back to the center. Announcing that “the age of big government is over,” he signed conservative legislation on welfare reform and the “defense of marriage, and spoke out for stronger anti-crime measures,” V-chips on televisions, school uniforms, and restrictions on teen smoking. In short, he made himself the champion of what were then called “family values,” more or less the same issues that in the 2004 exit polls acquired the label “moral values.”

Liberals, like one-time Kennedy aide Richard N. Goodwin, protested that “the venerable principles of the party . . . have been abandoned.” But few Democratic politicians were willing to argue with Clinton’s success. “We’re all New Democrats now,” declared the then House minority leader Richard Gephardt.

One lingering illustration of the change was the bipartisan support for the war against terrorism following the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon on September 11, 2001. Not only did most Democrats support the Republican President in using force to oust Afghanistan’s Taliban regime, but Senate Democrats voted to authorize the more controversial war in Iraq by 29 to 21. By comparison, when Bush’s father had sought authorization for war in 1990 in the face of Iraq’s outright aggression against Kuwait, only ten Democratic Senators had voted “yea” to 45 “nays.” (In the House, Democrats opposed the recent war by a ratio of three to two; they had opposed the first Gulf war by more than two to one.)

But no sooner had the presidential sweepstakes opened than the Democrats’ newfound hawkishness started to fade. Howard Dean, an obscure Vermont governor, leaped to the head of the pack by positioning himself as the party’s antiwar candidate. Conversely, contenders like Gephardt and Senator Joseph Lieberman, who supported the war on terror and in Iraq, soon saw their campaigns founder. Only Kerry managed to withstand the Dean momentum and eventually subdue it. He tilted his message toward the antiwar camp by voting in the Senate against an $87-billion appropriation of funds for the occupation and reconstruction of Afghanistan and Iraq, and, much to the relief of the party establishment, succeeded in besting Dean in the Iowa caucuses and the New Hampshire primary.

Kerry, however, was a peculiar standard-bearer for Democratic centrism. He was from Massachusetts, the only state that had voted for George McGovern in 1972, and analyses of congressional voting records, whether by non-partisan sources like National Journal or by liberal groups like Americans for Democratic Action, showed him to be one of the Senate’s most liberal members. As Newsweek’s correspondent described it, Kerry was “a little hurt that Dean had run as the ‘movement’ candidate against” him, since he “still saw himself as the reform-minded antiwar protester who had . . . tossed away his ribbons.”

The reference was to a 1971 demonstration sponsored by Vietnam Veterans Against the War (VVAW), a radical group of which Kerry was the most prominent leader. In 1970 and again in 1971, he had traveled to Paris to meet with representatives of North Vietnam and the Vietcong, and he had returned as an ardent advocate of their official “eight-point peace plan.” While working hand in hand with the Communists, he accused American forces of war crimes “committed on a day-to-day basis with the full awareness of officers at all levels of command.”

The publicity Kerry garnered as an antiwar spokesman was his springboard to public office. He served first in local and state government, but on winning election to the Senate in 1984 he declared that his “passion” remained the “issue of war and peace.” As his first major foreign-policy cause, he championed the “nuclear freeze.” He sought cancellation of numerous American weapons systems, both nuclear and conventional, railing against what he called “the military-industrial corporate welfare complex.” He criticized the U.S. intervention in Grenada as “a bully’s show of force,” and made himself one of the two most implacable Senate critics of aid to anti-Communist guerrillas in Nicaragua.

This dovishness lasted throughout the cold war but did not end with it. When Saddam Hussein swallowed up Kuwait in 1990, Kerry was one of the Democrats voting no on the use of force against him. And in 1995, he was one of 29 Senators to oppose lifting the embargo on Bosnian Muslims facing ethnic cleansing at the hands of the Serbs.

A record like this would have been too much baggage to carry in a presidential race even in normal times, much less with the nation at war. But Kerry held a trump card of sorts—his four months of perilous service captaining a Swift Boat in Vietnam—and he played it artfully. First, he arranged for the respected historian Douglas Brinkley to publish a 500-page book at the start of the election year based on Kerry’s own war-time diaries, chronicling those intense days in vivid detail. Then, he made his service in the Navy the theme of the Democratic convention: the dais appeared designed to evoke a nautical setting, the stage was jammed with officers, and Kerry introduced himself with a salute and the corny declaration, “I’m reporting for duty.”

The stratagem seemed to be working perfectly. Unfortunately for Kerry, it also roiled a group of veterans still bitter over his antiwar declamations, including a few of his old mates and commanders who had come in for rough treatment in Brinkley’s book. They organized Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, published a book of their own, and produced a string of TV ads impeaching Kerry’s war record and decrying his antiwar activities. In the ads, former POW’s testified that they had endured torture for refusing to make the kind of war-crimes accusations against American forces that Kerry had tossed around so blithely. While some of Kerry’s fellow sailors appeared by his side at campaign stops, a larger number of the Swift Boat crewmen associated themselves with his detractors.

The response from Kerry’s supporters in the press was quick in coming. The New York Times weighed in with a 3,500-word, front-page article debunking the claims of the Swift Boat ads as “riddled with inconsistencies” and revealing, as if this meant anything, that the group had received donations from some individuals who also helped finance Republican causes. Thereafter, Times news stories mentioning the Swift Boat group regularly carried the description, “whose past accusations have frequently been unsubstantiated,” or similar words. But the Times’s indictment cast doubt only on what these veterans said about the battles in which Kerry had won his medals. The more important part of their case focused on his antiwar activities, and on this the paper was notably quiet.

In fact, no doubt fell on the Swift Boat veterans’ charges on this score, whereas it was Kerry himself who misrepresented his record. He had, for example, denied being present at a climactic November 1971 leadership meeting of Vietnam Veterans Against the War, which debated whether the group should launch a campaign of assassination of U.S. political leaders. The proposal was voted down, but the very fact that it was seriously considered shows just how far out VVAW was. When FBI files (released under the Freedom of Information Act) revealed that Kerry had indeed been present at the meeting, he changed his story, admitting he may have been there but claiming he had “no personal recollection” of it. The FBI files, however, show Kerry to have been a main protagonist in two days of ferocious debate, culminating in his withdrawal from leadership of the group. This was high drama, a turning point in his career—and impossible to forget.

Nor was this the only untruth that Kerry told about Vietnam. Again and again over 25 years, in news interviews and in one dramatic speech on the Senate floor, he claimed that he had been sent across the Vietnamese border into Cambodia on a secret and illegal mission that was “seared” in his memory. Kerry’s Swift Boat mates called this into question, and it emerged that he had simply made up the story out of whole cloth. The Times passed lightly over this episode, as if the lies or fantasies of a man who might be President were less newsworthy than the “unsubstantiated” statements of his critics.

Despite the Times, the veterans’ broadside was probably the turning point of the campaign. It punctured Kerry’s image as a hero, and it reinforced questions about his suitability to lead the country in wartime. These questions stemmed not only from his past but also from his recent stance, or rather stances, on the Iraq war.

Kerry’s vote against the $87-billion appropriation was hard to square with his prior vote to authorize the war. His explanations only made things worse—like his famous statement that “I actually did vote for the 87 billion before I voted against it,” or his assertion that he had voted to authorize force because he believed it would help avert the use of force. As if this were not confusing enough, Kerry told an interviewer in August that if he had to do it over again, knowing there were no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, he would have supported the war nonetheless; and then he unleashed the campaign slogan that Iraq was “the wrong war in the wrong place at the wrong time.” To Kerry, Iraq showed that the U.S. should meet a “global test” before using force, but in 1990, after the elder Bush had passed the global test by winning authorization from the UN Security Council, Kerry voted against the use of force anyway—and then in 2004 he said that, despite that vote, he had actually been in favor of the use of force.

The Times’s election postmortem put the best face on it: “Kerry[’s] nuanced statements about Iraq gave the [Republicans] an opening . . . to attack him as a ‘flip-flopper.’” [...]

Asked in a Newsweek poll whether Kerry was too liberal, 48 percent said yes while 45 percent said no. The same poll asked if Bush was too conservative. Thirty-seven percent said yes, 58 percent said no. A Gallup poll, with a question worded somewhat differently, showed a smaller discrepancy but pointed in the same direction.

This difference was crucial. Thirty-four percent of voters described themselves as conservative, and they went for Bush overwhelmingly. Twenty-one percent called themselves liberals, and they overwhelmingly preferred Kerry. As always, moderates were the largest bloc (45 percent), and they tilted modestly toward the Democrat (54 to 45); but that was not enough to overcome the 3-to-2 ratio of conservatives to liberals. Unsurprisingly, four-fifths of the voters who said their family’s financial situation was better now than four years ago favored Bush, and the same proportion of those who said they were worse off favored Kerry. But even this most personal and self-interested of indicators was a less powerful vote-determinant than ideology.

The exit poll yielded many interesting and suggestive correlations. Men preferred Bush by 11 percentage points, while women preferred Kerry by 3, adding up to a “gender gap” of 14 points. This was dwarfed, however, by a 33-point “marriage gap,” with married voters favoring Bush by 15 points while the unmarried favored Kerry by 18. There was also a large church-going gap. Those who said they attended religious services one or more times per week went for Bush 61 to 39; those who attended only occasionally preferred Kerry 53 to 47; and those who never attended gave Kerry a margin of 62 to 36. A majority of Hispanics voted for the Democrat, but a much smaller one than four years earlier. Other minority groups—Asians, blacks, Jews—also backed Kerry, but again gave Bush a little more support than last time.

It was in light of these numbers that Democrats after the election began to ask themselves what to do, and where to look, next. A few voices urged their party rightward. The Times’s Nicholas Kristof cited the model of Tony Blair’s revivification of the British Labor party, adding: “I wish that winning were just a matter of presentation, but it’s not. It involves compromising on principles.” A group of Senators from states that voted for Bush announced the formation of a new organization, Third Way, aimed at pushing the party away from the Left. This was reminiscent of the Coalition for a Democratic Majority (CDM), created in 1972 following George McGovern’s disastrous loss to Richard Nixon, and of the Democratic Leadership Council (DLC), established in 1984 following Mondale’s loss to Reagan.

But neither of those earlier groups succeeded in overcoming the weight of opinion among party activists and thinkers. CDM was soundly defeated by party liberals, while the DLC was largely coopted by liberal Democratic politicians who flocked to its “moderate” banner without much changing their stands on issues.

Other voices urged the party leftward. The Times’s Bob Herbert warned that “Some Democrats are casting covetous eyes on voters whose values, in many cases, are frankly repellent.” His colleague Paul Krugman argued in a similar vein that “rather than catering to voters who will never support them, the Democrats . . . need to become equally effective at mobilizing their own base.” And Joe Trippi, Howard Dean’s campaign manager, argued that what has done in the Democrats has been “ignoring their base” by “running to the middle.”

This group is likely to be reinforced by the considerable muscle of organized labor within the party. Once, under the leadership of George Meany and Lane Kirkland, the labor movement provided ballast for Democratic centrists against the party’s Left. But a decade ago the Left triumphed within the labor movement itself, ousting Kirkland from the presidency of the AFL-CIO in favor of John Sweeney, a member of Democratic Socialists of America. Sweeney failed in his pledge to make the movement grow, and today he is being pressed by insurgents who stand even further to the Left.

Still other Democrats called on their party to adopt the language of values and religion, as if these were foreign tongues that could be mastered through effort. E.J. Dionne urged “religious moderates and progressives to insist that social justice and inclusion are ‘moral values’ and that war and peace are ‘life issues.’” The liberal columnist Harold Meyerson said the party should put forward candidates “who can wrap the values of tolerance in the language of faith.” A consortium of liberal church groups released a poll purporting to show that what the largest number of Americans think of as moral issues are the war in Iraq, “greed and materialism,” and “poverty and economic justice.”

All of this seemed to rest on the premise that religious voters or those emphasizing values do not really know their own minds, and it rightly earned a reprimand from Democratic Congressman Rahm Emanuel: “People aren’t going to hear what we say until they know that we don’t approach them as Margaret Mead would an anthropological experiment.”

Mr. Kerry was caught on the horns of a dilemma which, instructively, is unique to the Democrats. In order to secure either party's nomination you have to cater to its activists and true believers; but when a Democrat does so they generally have to jog so far to the Left as to make themselves unpalatable to the nation as a whole. Here it is important to note that not only did Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton position themselves as conservatives, but each had the good fortune to have his main threat come from further Right--Scoop Jackson in '76 and Paul Tsongas in '92. When Al Gore ran Left, in an inexcplicable over-reaction to Bill Bradley, he squandered what should have been an easy victory in 2000.

Consider, on the other hand, that lurching Right enabled George H. W. Bush, a notorously weak candidate, to win in '88; got Bob Dole far closer to beating Bill Clinton in '96 than anyone would have dreamed possible; and did not prevent George W. Bush from beating a popular incumbent vice president in a time of unprecedented peace and prosperity.

Whatever else may be true of the two parties, it appears that a Democrat has to run Right and a Republican can not ever be so far Right that it will hurt his prospects.

Posted by Orrin Judd at December 30, 2004 4:25 PM

The Democrats have utterly abandoned the notion of challenging the GOP on economic issues, despite the fact that the American voting public is far from unanimous about the virtues of NAFTA and outsourcing. Due to their dependence for campaign contributions on the narrow sector of the capitalist class that considers 'progressive' positions on defense, foreign affairs and social policy to be essential, the Democrats, at least on the national level, cannot move from a paradigm of being at best the 40 in a 60-40 nation, and they dare not propose policies which 'kill the goose that lays the golden egg.' In a nation where the vast majority of people are patriotic to the point of chauvinism and where people tend to be conservative on social matters, certainly by EU standards, this is a recipe for continued suicide.

The Democrats have hoped to muddy the waters by appealing to people on age(Mediscare), race(George Bush dragging Black people behind cars) and religion(Bush represents fundamentalists no different from the Taliban). As people observe the behavior of the GOP in power and see that none of these fears have even the merest basis in reality, the Democrats will continue to lose votes.

Sweeney, the first public sector unionist to head the AFL-CIO, is part of the problem not part of the solution. They need someone at AFL-CIO who knows how to organize workers in the new economy, paralleling similar trends in Europe and Japan.

Posted by: Bart at December 30, 2004 4:39 PM

It's hard to even find a parallel to the Democrats' reaction to this year's election defeat and any past election loss. Certainly not 1984 -- as much as the left may have hated Reagan and disparaged his intellect in the same way they do Bush's today, there was no way they could shrug off Mondale's 49-state loss as not being a refutation of their ideas (Dukakis ran as a liberal in 1988, but as one who was competent enough to run a state government, leaving unsaid the general idea that previous liberal Democrats couldn't tie their own shoelaces without federal assistance).

The left right now exhibits only the slightest amount of introspection, with a far greater belief that even if Karl Rove and Diebold didn't stuff the ballot boxes, their main mistake was that Kerry wasn't able to dazzle (or if you prefer, bamboozle) enough Red Staters to pull out the victory. Some are still defiant enough to say they won't hold their noses and back Hillary! in 2008, because she's too willing to change her ideology to attract more conservative voters.

People like Sweeney are far more practical than that, even if he is part of pulling the Democrats too far to the left in recent years. I expect the power brokers to coalesce around the missus four years from now, and most on the left in the end will hold their noses and back her. But if she loses, their voices will scream even louder that the Democrats failed because they ran as an echo, not as a choice, even if local and state elections show voters aren't going for that choice in the downballot races, either.

Posted by: John at December 30, 2004 5:06 PM


I don't understand it either. It seems as if the Democrats see their losses in 2002 and 2004 as a simple matter of marketing, not about issues. Perhaps, they were spoiled by Bill Clinton, who was a magnificent politician and self-promoter, perhaps the finest since FDR. Even though the Democrats started bloviating about a return to the draft, resulting in a partial stampede by the stupider section of new voters, they still couldn't win.

Five points is not a close race. Plus the GOP gained House seats for the 3rd consecutive race and Senate seats for the 2d, while maintaining an overwhelming edge in governorships. You would think someone would say they should perhaps change the playbook. The post-election spoiled brat behavior doesn't impress swing voters.

It is fair to say that 2008 has a significant likelihood of being the dirtiest, nastiest campaign in American Presidential history.

Posted by: Bart at December 30, 2004 5:23 PM

"It is fair to say that 2008 has a significant likelihood of being the dirtiest, nastiest campaign in American Presidential history."

They'd have to go some way to beat what Andrew Jackson had to endure.

Although yeah, when you see Dems on TV they always emphasise how they didn't win the battle of images and Reoublicans simply fight too dirty, not that their ideas are basically unappealing.

Posted by: Ali Choudhury at December 30, 2004 7:22 PM

If Kerry was too stupid to try to make a virtue out of him quitting the VVAW when they proposed something like assassination, he deserved to lose. Could've been one of those "Sister Souljah" moments, you know.

Posted by: John Thacker at December 30, 2004 7:29 PM

It might not have been that easy to sell, "I was part of a radical anti-war group until they started arguing about assasinating congressmen" at all that heroic, but it was actually more complicated than that.

First, Kerry quit, but never reported the debate to the authorities.

Second, and as a conservative it gives me a little chill to say this, but the transcript of the VVAW meeting makes clear that it was a Communist front organization, and that Kerry knew that.

Third, it wasn't just a debate. One of the members of VVAW had actually taken concrete steps to set up a training ground for assasination squads and, I think, had obtained some weapons. Either way, Kerry was arguably guilty of conspiracy to commit murder and even attempted murder.

Posted by: David Cohen at December 30, 2004 9:17 PM

I still think it likely that Kerry got a less than honorable discharge in 1972, necessitating his hearing and new discharge and metals in 1978. Perhaps someday **all** his military records will come out and we will know.

Posted by: jd watson at December 30, 2004 9:45 PM

Most of the excellent comments above agree on the fact that the DemocRATS think that their problem is just one of spin or marketing or propaganda.

We might guess that this could be an idea Hanoi John picked up from his KGB handlers, but it is not necessary to go that far. Contempt for Americans as Bible-thumping nincompoops has long been a pinko tradition, as has the notion that truth is no more than a reactionary affectation, and words are nothing more than tools to be manipulated by the intelligencia. The reality, of course, is that truth catches up to the manipulators of language and you cannot forever trade on your lying words--that would be just too gay.

Posted by: Lou Gots at December 30, 2004 10:57 PM

In short, dems keep losing cos they're commies.

I only read this excerpt, but it looks like just the facts to me.

Posted by: Sandy p at December 30, 2004 11:42 PM