Democrats: Into the wilderness

By Ellen Ratner

Tuesday’s election was a reckoning. The Republicans did what no party in power is supposed to be able to do in a midterm vote: They kept control of the House of Representatives and took control of the Senate. For Democrats, Wednesday morning broke with a harsh, cruel light. For at least the next two years, the Democratic Party, my party, will be in the political wilderness. Given the importance of a vigorous, two-party system to America’s future, the big question is what will the Democratic Party learn from Tuesday’s whipping? My fellow Dems had better answer this question correctly, because if not, two years is liable to stretch out much, much longer.

Here’s my no-holds-barred take:

The Democratic Party leadership is a political version of a corporate “Dot.Gone” – more interested in short-term profits than the long-term interests of the stakeholders. Terry McAuliffe, a nice guy who has brought millions into the party, is out of touch with the working-class heart and soul of the Democratic Party. The party has been about means, not ends, pouring money in to win elections without an overall strategy. The vision for the party’s future has to be as important if not more important than fund-raising for the likes of McAuliffe, Tom Daschle, Dick Gephardt. The party now has the option of Martin Frost as a replacement for Dick Gephardt. If they choose Martin Frost to replace Dick Gephardt, Democrats may be electing a compromise candidate with very little ability to rally the party.

Second, the Democratic Party needs to get back to its roots – as the party of ordinary Americans. Instead, the public sees a celebrity-driven party where Hollywood starlets and trial lawyers seem to have more clout than working people. In the old days, to think Democrat was to think hardhat and lunch bucket, a rising tide of opportunity for the poor and minorities, the party of prosperity. Now we’ve stopped talking to the people because we’re too busy talking to their alleged leaders. Here’s a question – does the “official” leadership of many African-Americans, gays, women or Latinos actually represent the views of the rank and file? For example, on national security, I think not. Most people did not understand the details of the Democrats’ obscure objections to the Homeland Security bill. Instead, they listened to, and backed, what their president said. The Democrats should not have acquiesced to the government unions on this bill. That particular bit of genius cost Max Cleland, a good man from Georgia, his seat in the Senate.

Third, given a choice between the Republican Party and a party that’s pretending to be a “gentler” version of the Republican Party, voters will go with the real Republicans every time. What did the Democrats stand for during this election? They whined about the economy, but refused to call for a rollback of Bush’s ill-advised tax cut. The Daschle Democrats whined on the floors of Congress about the un-wisdom of war with Iraq, but as a group, refused to vote against it. They tried to occupy the political center, but instead became the party of special interests – one that can be readily influenced by some special interests. What used to be the party of cleanliness and reform became the Torricelli Democrats. I’m afraid that the Democratic Party is not the party of your parents and grandparents.

What to do? With apologies to Horace Greeley, I say, Go Left, Young Man! (and woman).

After having blown an election, this might sound like strange advice. Historically, when parties lose elections, the conventional wisdom is to move to the center. Blur the losing issues and imitate the winners. After all, that’s exactly what happened when the New Democrats were founded as a reaction to the success of Ronald Reagan in the 1980s. The result was the election of Bill Clinton in ’92 and eight of the most successful years the Democratic Party has had since the days of FDR.

But that was then and this is now. And what “now” means is coming clean, whether or not it happens to pay-off in ’04. It means adopting a politics that truly separates Democrats from Republicans, motivates the faithful and gives people a reason to vote for the party. Democrats must return to their roots – and those roots are certainly not in Hollywood, not on network television and not in the pockets of the purveyors of big bucks. How bizarre is it that Democratic Party strength is increasingly eroded by the Greens, signaling that they no longer feel at home in the party that nurtured them?

Let’s hope it doesn’t take 40 years in the wilderness for the Democrats to regain their footing.