Taking back our country
Herb Engstrom


Loss of our razor thin majority in the U.S. Senate in the 2002 election put Republicans in control of all three branches of government.  Although that control is not really very strong, at least in the Supreme Court and legislature, it has led to a great debate within the Democratic Party about what went wrong and what we should do in the future.  We in the Santa Clara County Democratic Party should participate in this debate, develop ideas and strategies, and influence the Democratic Party at the state and national levels.  That debate has already begun.  Here I wish to summarize some of the points already made, to invite additional comments, and, most importantly, to solicit specific actions that we might take as individuals.

Two main observations about the November election and the future have been made: 1)  Democrats need a clear message, and, often as a corollary, we must further distinguish ourselves from the Republicans.  2) We must campaign effectively; we must disseminate our message, and that requires both organization and money.  We must secure those parts of the state and nation in which Democrats are traditionally weak.

The first of these observations is often put forth by the more liberal wing of the Party, and that includes many of the grass roots activists who constitute the local Party organizations.  One seems to hear the second approach more from the Party insiders at higher levels and from elected officials.  Obviously, there are exceptions to that generalization - Nancy Pelosi, Howard Dean, and Dennis Kucinich, for example, strongly emphasize having a clear message.  The two views too often put the grass roots at odds with the professionals leading both to unproductive, endless debate and ultimately to no clear program.

Thoughtful consideration of our predicament will lead to the conclusion that both approaches are absolutely necessary.  With no clear alternatives to Republican policies the very best organization and well financed campaigns will leave voters with no compelling reason to choose Democrats.  But the most carefully thought out, humane, and effective programs will also be unachievable if no one knows about them.  Dissemination of the program takes organization and money.  Without both a message and an effective organization we lose, and extensive debate on the relative merits of each is unproductive.

We must, then, address both of these approaches.


One important advantage that Republicans have is that they are a more ideological party.  Their ideology is simple: Republicans believe in the free market and a strong defense.

Can anybody summarize the Democratic Party ideology in 10 words (or even 15) or less?  I put that question to the California Democratic Council chat list some months ago and guess how many responses I got.  Zero.  I can't do it, either.

From the Republican ideology comes a host of sound bites that are very effective with the American public:  "Government is the problem."  (Thank Ronald Reagan for that one.)  "Lower taxes."  "Privatize Social Security."  "School vouchers." "Increase defense spending."  "Homeland security."  "Anti-missile defense."

Then the Republicans, perhaps unwittingly, apply the Big Lie technique.  These sound bites are repeated over and over and over.  The public comes to accept them.  The public no longer questions them.

The Republican ideology is simple-minded and wrong.  But it is effective.  We must find a way to counter this ideology with something more effective.

This is not to say that Democrats have no perspective or philosophy.  We do.  It is that government and private enterprise should cooperate in making America a better place.  That is, government does have an important role to play.  The problem is that this perspective is not as hard-hitting and convincing as that of the Republicans, who would respond that government programs means higher taxes.

Democrats in government are more intelligent and have a better grasp of issues than Republicans.  Why then, was our message so ineffective?  And what then should we do?  Here is one cause and one suggestion.

To put it bluntly, the American public does not appreciate subtlety.  If we are to reach them, our message must also be short and simple, and we must repeat it over and over and over, just as the Republicans do.  What should those sound bites be?

In reading the news account of Nancy Pelosi's House campaign for minority leader she was quoted in saying something that I regard as brilliant:  Democrats are the party of the public interest.  That's our bumper sticker! That's our sound bite!

Democrats: the party of the PUBLIC interest.

This is brilliant because it reminds voters of Enron and World Com and Kenny Boy Lay and the other sleazy characters inside and associated with the Bush administration.

Here's another:

Nancy Pelosi: Women can rise to the top in the Democratic Party!

Let us remind the public that the Bush tax cuts have led to huge budget deficits.  How about this:

Republicans: the RED INK party!

I believe we need to bombard the media with letters to the editor and the radio talk shows with slogans such as these.  And we need to do this over and over and over until November 2008.


I'm going to begin by making a statement that is very often misinterpreted.  People, many of them passionate, committed Democrats, often jump to unjustified conclusions when I say this, so hear me out.  We must always bear in mind the lesson that Bill Clinton so ably taught in his election of 1992: You don't win elections without capturing the center.  On hearing this many Democrats immediately conclude that I am suggesting that the Democratic Party "move to the right" where it will be even less distinguishable from the Republicans.  Not true at all.  I am simply stating a fact: you don't win unless you receive a majority of the votes, and that majority must include the center of the political spectrum.  Face it.

What we must do, then, is to consider carefully how we present our liberal, progressive message in terms that will appeal to the majority of voters.  Those voters are often people working hard for a not very comfortable living, maybe in danger of losing their jobs and/or their health care coverage, concerned about how they will get good education for their kids, how they will pay their rent, how they will ever get out of debt.  People that are, often, unlike most of the activists of the Democratic Party.

Here's an example.  We Democrats are all for universal health care.  If we simply say, "universal health care is the right thing to do," the reaction is likely to be.  "Hey, I got my own problems.  I don't need another wasteful government program that takes my money and gives it so someone else."  Rather our approach should emphasize that ultimately universal coverage will save you, the voter, money and at the same time provide you, the voter, with better care.

We must not repeat the mistake that the Republicans made in the 2002 gubernatorial election.  The far right activists that dominate the party succeeded in nominating their favorite conservative, Bill Simon, over moderate LA Mayor Richard Riordon.  They proceeded, then, to lose the governor's race to Gray Davis, who was, political observers agreed, a rather weak candidate.  Just as the Republican Party is dominated by its right wing, the Democratic Party activists are far more liberal than Democratic voters as a whole.  As illustration, delegates to the CDP convention in March loudly cheered the passionate antiwar comments of presidential candidates Howard Dean and Dennis Kucinich, and many literally booed John Edwards, who had the temerity to suggest that we cannot allow Saddam Hussein to acquire nuclear arms.  Yet,  a California Field Poll published on April 8 indicated that 62% of registered Democrats in California supported the war in Iraq.  And support among Republicans support was far higher.  Those observations might be painful, but they are facts that we must keep in mind if we are serious about recovering the White House.

We must assiduously avoid the very common temptation to say, "I feel passionately about this issue (and so do two or three of my friends), so this issue must form the basis of the Democratic election campaign."

Instead, we must base our campaign approaches on hard, empirical evidence.  My favorite issue just might not resonate with the people whose votes we need to gain to win the election.  This means we must, yes, consult the public opinion polls.  That does not mean that we base the campaign exclusively on what is popular.  It means we identify our strengths and campaign to those strengths.  We identify our weaknesses and address them.

One comment that is heard frequently from the Greens is that there is no difference between Democrats and Republicans.  Even the more liberal wing of the Democratic Party often says that the public perceives little difference between us and the Republicans.

These allegations are unsupported by any of the hard evidence that I have seen and that I have suggested we need.  There have been many public opinion polls recently in which Americans are asked about their perceptions of the parties on various issues, and the results are pretty much the same.  The most complete that I have found was a Gallup poll taken in May, 2002.  On the issues of education, saving Social Security, prescription drugs, the environment, and the problems of ordinary Americans, the public feels that the Democratic Party is substantially better than the Republican.  It is clear, then, that the public does understand that there is a big difference between the parties, and we Democrats have important advantages.

However, despite two Bush recessions and the Clinton boom, the public, by a slight margin of 9%  felt that Republicans are better on the economy.  Here, I think, is compelling evidence that we are not pressing our advantage; we are not getting the message out.  The public also felt, incredibly, that Republicans were better in reducing the deficit.  Again, it shows the effectiveness the Republican big lie technique.

One more issue requires that we Democrats take a much more vocal stand -- that issue is family values.  We are the party of family values.  We want health care and education for children; we want good, productive well paying jobs for their parents; we want drug benefits, security, and a comfortable retirement for their grandparents.  Yet the American public feels that the Republicans best represent family values.  Let's face it: Bill Clinton's peccadillo opened himself and the Democratic Party to merciless -- and hypocritical -- exploitation by the Republicans.

There are two more issues, which are very important to the public, that the Republicans dominate.  In fact the issue of highest importance to the public was the war on terrorism, and the Republicans were favored in handling that issue by a whopping margin of 32%.  The other issue, only slightly less important to the public, was military defense, in which the Republicans got an even larger margin of 36%.  This despite the fact that most of the Vietnam veterans in public office (John Kerry, Bob Kerrey, formerly Max Cleland and Al Gore) are Democrats.  Here the conclusion is that we have allowed the Republicans to capture the sentiments and symbols of nationalism and patriotism.  Many among the American public feel that Democrats are more comfortable about burning the flag than waving it, and hence our failure to loudly and sincerely proclaim the goodness and the greatness of America keeps Republicans returning to power at the national level.  I know it is bitter medicine for some Democrats to stand by our country, right or wrong, but if we fail to do so, we guarantee that our country will be wrong at the hands of thoughtless, compassionless, selfish, and reactionary Republicans.

The fundamental problem is that Democrats have allowed Republicans to take the lead in national security issues.  Then we react politically trying desperately, and unconvincingly, not to appear weak.  We worry more about the reaction to our votes in Congress rather than whether we have any coherent ideas about Iraq.  When did we last see a thorough, realistic analysis within the Democratic Party based on liberal Democratic principles about when to use American power and military force?  Perhaps under President Truman and Secretary of State George C. Marshall.  And Truman stunned the Republicans by winning in 1948 against all odds. Almost all Democrats these days have a strong aversion to military affairs, and consequently we have little incentive to think about them.  This is as profound a mistake as is made by Republicans who are just as uninterested in the problems of the inner city, abandoning them to Democrats.   But since 9/11 issues of national security have greatly superseded those of the inner city, education, Social Security, and the other areas where Democrats are traditionally strong.  We are left in the unenviable position of hoping and praying that the economy continues to tank just so the voters will forget 9/11 and vote Democratic -- not what I'd call a positive program.  That it worked for Bill Clinton is no guarantee that it will work in 2004.  What we need are tougher, more carefully thought out programs and policies addressing national security issues than Republicans have.  At the end of the Clinton administration, some Democrats were doing just that, proposing a smaller, leaner, quicker, more flexible military, a military less designed to fight the Soviet Union in massive tank battles on the steppes and better able to handle terrorist and genocidal type wars.  Unfortunately, as a result of November, 2000, we lost the opportunity.  Public opinion polls show that Americans do favor the Democratic multilateralist approach, but they also want leaders that understand the military and are not unwilling to use it when needed.  They trust the Republicans more than the Democrats in this regard.

Aren't we tired of losing national elections?  Then we must address all issues of concern to the American public.  Those include national security.  We need more than to ask the tough questions about military policy; we need a credible alternative to the Republican policies of go-it-alone with both guns blazing.

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