Monday, November 08, 2004

Peter Beinart--What Went Wrong

Peter Beinart is a very good writer and editor at the New Republic--While at the opposite end of my political spectrum--he's is reasoned in his beliefs--there are implications for republicans in his suggestions

by Peter Beinart. (The New Republic)

The other side may be euphoric, but the intensity of their happiness can't match the intensity of our despair. Honest conservatives, even those who admire President Bush, know he didn't earn a second term. They know he staked his presidency on a catastrophe, and that, by all rights, Iraq should be his political epitaph. Their victory, while sweet, can't be fully enjoyed because it isn't fully deserved.

Our despair, on the other hand, is undiluted. American liberalism is going into a deep internal exile. This will be, at least with regard to our public institutions, Tom DeLay's America -- craven toward the economically powerful and vicious toward the economically weak, contemptuous of open debate and thuggish toward an increasingly embittered world. It would be comforting to believe the pendulum will naturally swing back. But, as my colleague Jonathan Chait has argued, the Bush administration and its allies have gone to great lengths to insulate themselves from democratic pressure, to make decisions in secret, and thus to prevent public opinion from forcing their hand. Already, the president is claiming a mandate for partial Social Security privatization and regressive changes in the tax code -- even though he rarely campaigned on these issues and there is no evidence the American public voted for them. The pendulum will not inevitably swing back. It will have to be moved back by a political opposition that knows what it believes and knows how to fight for it.

For Democrats, the moment presents two dangerous, and opposing, temptations. The first, which will appeal to the party's practical wing, is to pander furiously to the culturally conservative voters who gave Bush his margin of victory. Of course, Democrats should show respect for the traditionally religious. In retrospect, the party should have been more wary of the New England political style, with its awkwardness about public declarations of faith. (Michael Dukakis should have been experience enough.) One of the great challenges in the coming years for the Democratic Party -- a party that has just lost five senate seats in the South -- will be to nurture a new generation of Southern Democratic politicians, since it is Southerners who most often possess an ease with overt faith that helps them connect to more religious voters, black and white.

But cultural sensitivity is one thing; principle is another. In their attempts to win rural voters, Democrats have already essentially abandoned gun control. That doesn't keep me up at night. But gay marriage is different. The fact that it is widely unpopular cannot obscure the fact that it is morally momentous and morally right. Liberals once lost elections for supporting civil rights as well and now look back on those losses as badges of honor. Eventually, since young people are far more tolerant of homosexuality than their parents, gay marriage will stop hurting Democrats at the polls. Until then, the party should try to win elections on other issues -- and look forward to the day when conservatives apologize for trying to deny yet another group of Americans their full human rights.

The second, opposite, danger is that, instead of pandering to culturally conservative voters, Democrats -- particularly upscale liberal Democrats -- will revile them. This week's devastating loss may produce a spasm of liberal anti-Americanism akin to the conservative anti-Americanism that followed the failure to impeach Bill Clinton. Little could be worse for the Democratic Party than a surge of cultural elitism, something that has hurt it immeasurably over the years. It must be resisted ferociously.

Both of these impulses -- to surrender to red-state values and to mock them -- are diversions from the real work ahead. The path back to Democratic victory does not lie in cultural issues -- it never has, and the best that can be hoped for in that arena is a draw. It lies in a more compelling economic agenda and a more convincing national security one. John Kerry spoke a lot about jobs in this election, and he pledged to protect popular government programs like Social Security. But, beyond his admirable health care plan, he offered no bold ideas for reducing the economic insecurity that terrifies so many working-class, middle-class, and even upper-middle-class Americans (see Jacob S. Hacker, "False Positive," August 16 & 23). It is true that Kerry failed to win back many lunchpail, working-class former Democrats. But, instead of focusing merely on why those voters were alienated by the Democrats' cultural message, party strategists need to pay more attention to why they weren't attracted by its economic message.

In foreign policy, the work is even more urgent. Kerry found his voice in mid-September with effective critiques of Bush's Iraq policy. But that is all they were: critiques. He devoted very little time to articulating his own vision of how to fight the war on terrorism. The belief that Kerry would match Bush on national security simply by citing his Vietnam service was a textbook case of Democratic incoherence and condescension. Kerry's war record said nothing about how he would fight al Qaeda, and, to the Democrats' surprise, voters were smart enough to recognize that almost immediately.

Instead, voters took solace in Bush's clear sense of direction -- even when they felt he made mistakes -- and Kerry never provided a competing framework. He rarely spoke about his vision for bringing freedom to the Muslim world, thus ceding this terrain to Bush, who has done little in office to back up his rhetoric. The only principle Kerry talked about consistently was multilateralism -- more a method of achieving foreign policy goals than a goal itself. For all his vaunted intellectualism, Kerry tried to project strength in the war on terrorism without projecting ideas, and, as a result, he gave culturally conservative voters yet another reason to vote against him.

The Democratic Party has been in the wilderness before. And it has returned to transform the country. Today's despair is so great it sometimes clouds out intelligent thought. And the fear of political oblivion can produce moral lapses. The challenge is to move from despair to strategy. And win the country back.

Peter Beinart is the editor of TNR.

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