History Repeats Itself
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You can't get two Democrats together these days without a debate breaking out over what needs to be done to rescue, resuscitate, reanimate, remake, rebrand and redeem the Democratic Party.
The answers thrashed out in the nation's living rooms, kitchens and bedrooms, as well as on the nation's op-ed pages, are far-ranging: move to the center, shift to the left, become class warriors, reclaim moral values, go negative, stay positive, figure out how to better sell the brand. But the underlying premise is the same: Democrats are in a world of trouble, teetering on the verge of what a University of Maryland political scientist recently predicted would be "permanent minority status for a generation or two."
To which I say: poppycock.
Now, don't get me wrong. The Democratic Party is undoubtedly in need of a major overhaul. But for proof that the reclamation project doesn't have to be a long one, we need merely to look at recent political history.
In 1992, the Republican Party found itself in very much the same position as Democrats do today: out of power (with the opposition controlling the White House and both houses of Congress), lacking a compelling core message, and facing the prospect of becoming what any number of pundits at the time deemed – all together now – "a permanent minority party."
Indeed, reading the post-mortems of the 1992 election is like coming across the original template for the post-mortems of the 2004 election. If you take away the names, you would swear that the Republican quotes from back then were being delivered by the Democrats from right now.
Take this Bill Bennett quote from November 1992 placing the blame for the Republican drubbing on "the lack of a clear, coherent, compelling core message." Doesn't it sound like any number of Democrats complaining about 2004?
Or how about this 1992 analysis from John Ashcroft, then governor of Missouri, writing in the Washington Post: "The Republican Party needs to shake itself loose from top-down management, undergo a grassroots renewal and adopt a vigorous, positive agenda that flows from the priorities, views and values of citizens who involve themselves in that process. ... Our party needs to frame its priorities more in terms of what we're for rather than what we are against."
These are precisely the sentiments now being echoed throughout Democratic circles. And then, just as now, a sense of long-term gloom and doom hovered over the losing side. "All that is clear about the GOP's future," forecast the Los Angeles Times in November 1992, "is that its comeback trail will be long and rigorous." It turned out to be short and sweet. Just two years after being given their political last rites, Republicans rose from their deathbed and seized control of both chambers of Congress, picking up 52 seats in the House and nine in the Senate. The shift was so dramatic that President Clinton, in the wake of the GOP victory, felt the need to insist at a press conference that he was still "relevant."
This is but one example of how the political landscape can and does change overnight. And these days, with cable TV and the Internet working 24/7, getting to the tipping point can happen faster than ever. With the right message and the right strategies, Democrats can rapidly turn public opinion on its head, doing in 2006 what Republicans did in 1994. But if they are going to achieve a similarly spectacular reversal of fortune, the Democrats need to take a page out of the GOP playbook and ignore all siren songs urging them to lurch toward the victors. Instead, they must reclaim the Party's true identify and return to the idealism, boldness, generosity of spirit and core values that marked the presidencies of FDR and JFK, and the short-lived presidential campaign of Bobby Kennedy.
They also need to take a number of practical steps: For starters, they need to make sure that there is never another election held with electronic voting machines that don't leave a paper trail, or voter suppression caused by long lines and not enough polling places in poor neighborhoods. Next, they should – to paraphrase Shakespeare – kill all the consultants (and, while they're at it, do away with the bullheaded pollsters, too). The Party needs to find and develop campaign teams that can run winning races in the 21st century, not keep rehiring the same professional losers election after election. Shouldn't there be an "eight strikes and you're out" rule?
Democrats also need to retool their party infrastructure. Conservatives have spent the better part of the last 30 years building a potent message machine – a network of think tanks, policy centers and media outlets – that spends more than $300 million a year to promote its agenda. Instead of sitting around complaining that the big, bad GOP has them overmatched, Democrats need to open their wallets and build their own well-funded message machine.
A key part of this apparatus will inevitably be the Internet, which must now assume a central role in all Party efforts. One of the underreported achievements of the Kerry campaign was its startling success in Internet fund-raising, taking in over $82 million in online donations. This same combination of cyber-savvy and sophisticated marketing must be used to help Democrats spread their message and build citizen participation. To do this, Democrats have got to nationalize the 2006 Congressional races – just as Republicans did in 1994. They don't necessarily need their own version of the Contract with America, but they do need to make their stands on the crucial political battles of the day – including taxes, the environment, the war in Iraq, Social Security and the Supreme Court – part of a larger narrative and not just a laundry list of policy positions and four-point plans.
And, finally, Democrats need to forge ahead with nascent efforts to recruit, train and fund a better crop of candidates. As one film-director friend of mine put it: "It's ultimately about casting; I'm tired of voting for some guy who isn't right for the role but got the part anyway."
So, Democrats, stop moping, whining, picking at the scabs left by Nov. 2 and trying to forecast the length of the coming long, cold Republican winter. There's much work to be done – and then, many victories ahead. Remember the past, but let it be prologue.