Taking back our country
TWO CRITICAL COMPONENTS
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
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
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
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."
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
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.
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
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
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
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
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.