The turn-off ideology central to the Democratic message

Posted: Nov 11, 2004 12:00 AM

Obviously, we missed something.
- David Thorne, Kerry confidant.

What, precisely, did the Kerry campaign miss? How did it fall down? Seemingly so destined to win, where did it fail?

Reading after-action reports in The New York Times and other such dailies gives one the sense - having figured out the codes - of tapping into the other side's message traffic. It's all there - warts and all.

For instance:

We read it was the candidate (stiff and supercilious, self-centered, no compelling message, limited likability, short on vision, long on ambition and inconsistency) and the campaign (slow-moving, indecisive, unfocused). An anonymous former Kerry strategist: Partly it was his style, the way he looked, the way he talked, his wife, the windsurfing, the houses - (all aiding the Republican caricature of Kerry as vaguely foreign).

We read it was the party's fault, as possible new party chairman Harold Ickes put it: "I'm not saying that Kerry did anything wrong on this, but I think that we ignored in large measure the three big cultural issues of this election: guns, abortion and gay rights, epitomized by gay marriage. These are very, very big issues. They really, really motivate people."

Noted Indiana Senator Evan Bayh, mentioned as a contender for the Democratic nomination in 2008: "We need to be a party that stands for more than the sum of our resentments. In the heartland, where I am from, there are doubts. Too often we're caricatured as a bicoastal cultural elite that is condescending at best and contemptuous at worst to the values that Americans hold in their daily lives."

New Mexico governor Bill Richardson, another 2008 prospect, echoed Bayh: "This is I think an example of the East Coast not connecting with the West Coast and with the rest of the country."

And Arizona Gov. Janet Napolitano: "You can't write off everything from Atlanta to California. You've got to find some beachheads there. Obviously it's going to be more uphill than we thought."

We read of tactics - registration and turnout - and how the Republicans performed in those areas startlingly better. We read of poor communication rendering persuasion difficult. We read of issues perceived as prospectively helping Kerry (Iraq, Abu Ghraib, missing weapons, Osama's late-innings tape; terrorism, the economy, Vietnam, Kerry's military record, Kerry's Senate record, Kerry's debating skill) as actually helping Bush.

We read of smug, arrogant contempt, as in these comments culled by a Times reporter visiting "stunned" and "bereft" lefties in a San Francisco "all-organic, wheat-free, vegetarian coffee and food shop which is run as a collective":

(1) "As (the song) said, 'Freedom's just another word for nothing left to lose.' I think people should start using that line again."

(2) "I am prepared to keep my head down, possibly for the rest of my life, under a totalitarian regime."

(3) "I am depressed, but I am also just really angry at the rest of the country's ignorance."

And we read about the fundamental miscalculation that presidential campaigns are overwhelmingly about the mind (issues, right policy and wrong), when the truth is that in determining how a voter will vote, the mind is overwhelmingly secondary to the heart.

All contain kernels of truth, of course, but together they do not constitute the whole truth - far from it. A major element is message, and some Democrats are talking about it.

Campaign manager to successful Colorado Democratic Senate candidate Ken Salazar: "It's difficult for an East Coast Senator to get the trust of the voters out here."

Iowa Democratic Chairman Gordon Fischer: "We are in a tremendous amount of trouble. There are fundamental problems not only with the candidates, but also with our tactics and the message - who Democrats are and what we believe."

Retiring Florida Democratic Sen. Bob Graham: "(The Democrats) ought to debate what our strategy should be in the war on terrorism. We also ought to have a debate on how we can move the debate on values beyond God, guns and gays to tolerance, concern for others, love.

Michigan Democratic Gov. Jennifer Granholm: (To be competitive with Republicans, Democrats must have a message that is) strong and strongly pro-work, pro-responsibility, pro-duty, pro-service, pro-child, pro-seniors."

Democratic Leadership Council head Al From: "This is the second election in a row where (the Republicans) got a majority of the popular vote, because they did in 2002. . . . We need to persuade people who would otherwise vote for them to vote for us. And you do that with good ideas. And: "Over the last 40 years we've seen the turf that we compete on shrink. We've got to be a national party."

Anonymous senior Democratic official: "I do believe there is a cultural shift going on in this country. I think the country is becoming more conservative. I think their base is growing."

So, what is missing? The answer lies in the one word absent in all this discussion: liberalism.

Socialists appropriated the label of a liberalism that now dares not speak its name. These days it goes by high-sounding moderation or sometimes centrism and mainstream. Even uttering the word liberal is deviationist, verboten, shudderingly anathema; liberals run from it like scalded dogs.

Yet by any other name, liberalism is liberalism still. And in shunning the word the Democrats do themselves no favor, because - ideologues that they tend to be - they refuse to address the liberalism that is the turn-off essence of their message.

The navel-gazing going on in the wake of the Gore and Kerry losses is as routine at such times as it is necessary for a party confronting a dubious future absent consequential change. With a perceptive electorate conservative and growing more so, a liberal message cannot sell - no matter how slick the communication. In 2000, George Bush made a Tennessee Democrat look like a Massachusetts liberal, and now he has done an even better job on the real thing.

The problem for the Democrats is in the ideology central to their message - an ideology obvious to any voter with his eyes open and his brain engaged, no matter how seductively robed as something else. To begin winning again, the Democrats must wrestle their liberalism out of their being, out of their party, and out of their message. However counterintuitive it may seem, they need to revisit - re-embrace? - precisely the values they have done so much to purge from the public square.

Oh, and if they come back with Hillary Clinton in 2008 - or with Gore or Kerry again, as some are suggesting - do not fear. Who better than she embodies the Northeastern, secular Upper Midwestern values that two presidential elections and a congressional one have testified cannot long remain afloat in the electoral mainstream?