How the Left Can Get Its Groove Back

The follow excerpts are drawn from chapters 14 and 15 of the just published "Dispatches from the Culture Wars: How the Left Lost Teen Spirit."

A few months the 2002 election I opened an envelope from the Democratic Senatorial Election Committee (DSEC) to find an invitation to a fund-raiser, featuring Senate majority leader Tom Daschle. The entire front page of the mailing consisted of the following quote: "Never before in modern history have the essential differences between the two major political American parties stood out in such striking contrast, as they do today." The quote was from former president Franklin Delano Roosevelt and dated 1945. It seemed to me a terrible commentary on today's Democrats that they had to go back to the 1940s to evoke a contrast with Republicans.

The differences between the parties were indeed vivid 57 years ago in the wake of the New Deal and during the end of World War II. The Democrats' problem is that unlike the way it was during the late 1940s, the differences between the parties today are not clear to many of their own supporters, not to mention nonvoters, Nader voters, and swing voters.

By the early summer of 2002 it was clear that the Washington consultants for the Democrats had determined that "swing voters" could be swayed by focusing on prescription drug benefits, protecting Social Security, and warning of the impact of Bush economics on the stock market. These were all perfectly valid issues, but again most Democratic candidates had deliberately avoided issues of interest to younger voters and to many other parts of the Democratic base. There was no overarching moral vision of the appropriate role of government, a role that could have been articulated vividly after September 11. There were little or no references to poverty, to public financing of political campaigns, or to national service.

There was no questioning of the drug war nor any passion about the environment. This all took place against the backdrop of a Democratic strategy in the years leading up to the election in which consultants treated all messages as if they were in the last stages of a hotly contested election. Instead of looking at long-term opinion growth, they were focusing year-round on the sliver of "swing voters" who represent approximately 10 percent of those who actually vote. No attention was given to the half of the eligible people who choose not to vote. Far too little attention was given to issues that inspire emotional intensity on the part of activists who can influence media and turnout. Even among "swing voters" the assumption was that they are undecided because they are centrist on every issue. In fact, many such voters have strong convictions but can't figure out which party's candidate represents their views.

If one were to dig down and read every detailed position paper of the Democrats, in many cases one would find that there were indeed significant differences from Republicans. For someone like me, who places importance on judicial appointments, and who closely follows the Senate debates, it was not difficult to root for a Democratic Senate. But it was not at all surprising to me that most voters who follow the popular media had no idea what Democrats stood for.

Democratic strategists seem to have assumed that any reference to September 11 would automatically benefit Republicans. Instead of offering a much-needed debate about security and foreign policy, they naïvely tried to avoid the subjects that were uppermost in the minds of most Americans. As Arthur Schlesinger had pointed out, the Democrats had traditionally been the party that stressed the need for collective action via government. Why hadn't there been a more aggressive government action to protect harbors, train stations, and nuclear power facilities? Why was it so important to the Bush administration to prevent new union members from being minted in a department of homeland security that the Republicans were willing to put off the creation of such a department? These were not esoteric challenges but ones that could have put Democrats at the emotional heart of the concerns of most Americans. Instead, most Democrats robotically repeated concerns about "prescription drugs" as their advisors had directed as if all other issues were irrelevant.

I couldn't understand why the Democrats weren't calling for energy independence. It seemed obvious to me that oil affects our relationships in the Middle East, where so much terrorism originates. Moreover, Bush and Cheney both have oil industry backgrounds. Progressive publicist David Fenton suggested that a goal of energy independence could be a progressive goal similar to President Kennedy's commitment to get a man on the moon . . . .

Why assume that Republicans had the unique ability to prepare the nation for future attacks? September 11 had occurred on the Republicans' watch. No one was held accountable for security lapses. Senate Democratic leader Tom Daschle had enormous moral authority on the subject of fighting terrorism because his office had been the target of an anthrax attack. Yet Daschle mysteriously avoided debating the Bush security policy and rarely mentioned that the search for the anthrax criminals had turned up no suspects nor even any theories of the attack's source. Another issue that Washington mavens avoided was the performance of Attorney General Ashcroft.

Early in the year Bob Borosage, who ran a progressive think tank called the American Future, floated the idea to civil liberties groups and progressive Democrats that there should be a national campaign demanding the resignation of Ashcroft. Many progressives felt that Ashcroft had crossed the line on a number of important civil liberties issues and seemed oddly focused on unpopular cultural conservative issues. Weeks after September 11, when the nation was looking toward Washington for ideas about improving security, Ashcroft's Justice Department instead filed a lawsuit in Oregon to prevent implementation of a "right to die" law that Oregon voters had supported in a ballot initiative. For months Ashcroft had kept FBI agents focused on the drug war instead of the war on terrorism. Most absurdly, Ashcroft ordered covering for nude statues in front of the Justice Department Building.

However, neither public interest groups nor progressive Democrats chose to make Ashcroft an issue. As summer turned to fall, the Bush administration's push for a preemptive war against Iraq intensified. Bush chief of staff Andy Card implicitly acknowledged the administration's PR strategy when he told a reporter that "August is not a good time to introduce a new product," in reference to the timing of the planned initiative to convert the American public to support of a war. Bush was said to have insisted to his staff that the resolution authorizing a war against Iraq be "so simple that the boys in Lubbock can understand it."

Given the awkward and jumbled response of those Democrats who opposed Bush's policy, it was obvious that the antiwar forces were not thinking anywhere near as effectively. I recognize that there are many progressives, people who are passionately pro-environment, pro-civil liberties, and deeply concerned about poverty, who nonetheless agree with the Bush foreign policy relative to Saddam Hussein and Iraq. However, much of the Democratic support of Bush's foreign policy was said to be based on the dubious theory that by avoiding debate on the war, Democrats could get the focus of the nation back on the economy, which pollsters indicated was a better issue for the Democrats. The conventional wisdom of centrist Democrats relative to Iraq was laid out by Senator Zell Miller of Georgia in a Wall Street Journal op-ed piece in October. Cleverly entitled "That 70's Show," the piece managed to get in the now fetishistic Democratic insult to entertainment stars who supported the party. Miller's thesis was that the failed McGovern campaign of 1972 was still, thirty years later, the key cautionary tale for twenty-first-century Democrats. Miller, who had been a delegate for Vietnam hawk Henry Jackson at the Democratic Convention in 1972, recalled smelling "tear gas mingling with marijuana smoke."

Miller opined that "the 'peace at almost any price' position is a loser for the Democrats," adding that "the extreme left will . . . put their money, their emotion, their Ms. Streisand's vocal cords" into an antiwar movement. Of course, no one on the antiwar side advocated "peace at any price." The debate was over whether or not to initiate an unprecedented preemptive war, and the most coherent arguments from the political world against war with Iraq had come from Republicans such as Brent Scowcroft, the national security advisor for the first President Bush, and conservative Democratic senator Robert Byrd of West Virginia. Miller advised Democrats to "respond with strength and boldness not with the same failed script that doomed us 30 years ago."

No national Democrat saw fit to remind Miller that the biggest "failed script" of the early seventies was the continuation of the Vietnam War itself, nor that a "message" tailored for conservative Georgia might not be appropriate for national Democrats. Instead, national Democrats, as expressed through the views of House leader Richard Gephardt and Senate leader Tom Daschle, bought into Miller's argument and supported the president's request for authorization for a war against Iraq. Those Democrats who disagreed with their congressional leadership made speeches on the floor of Congress and dutifully voted against the bill, but none of them spoke at antiwar rallies or staged teach-ins or expressed themselves in a way that was comprehensible to most Americans. At a moment when the Bush administration was making a radical change in American foreign policy, Democrats allowed the Bush administration to decide that a preemptive war was morally and politically valid without so much as a spirited and detailed debate. Why would anyone other than lifelong Democrats be attracted to candidates of a party who so stubbornly refused to engage this crucial issue?

Al Gore, who had been eerily absent from the public stage since winning a plurality of votes for president, made one speech articulating reservations about Bush's plan for a preemptive war, but rather than expanding on his position, he hastily retreated from public debate on the issue. Hillary Clinton, like the Democratic congressional leadership, voted in favor of Bush's war authorization bill. Of those Democratic senators up for reelection, only the late Paul Wellstone, who was tragically killed in an airplane accident shortly before the election, voted against Bush. Wellstone was leading in Minnesota polls taken just prior to his death. When Minnesota Democrats picked former vice president Walter Mondale, he followed the lead of national Democratic leaders and avoided the issue of Iraq, emphasizing instead his detailed knowledge of Senate rules. He lost.

After both houses of Congress passed the resolution giving President Bush the authority to go to war with Iraq, New York Times columnist Frank Rich pointedly wrote, "Perhaps more than he intended, Tom Daschle summed up the feeble thrust of his party's opposition on Meet the Press last weekend when he observed, 'The bottom line is . . . we want to move on.' Now his wish has come true -- but move on to what? The dirty secret of the Democrats is that they have no more of an economic plan than they had an Iraq plan." As I mentioned in the introduction to this book, the Democrats in 2002 did such a poor job of defending their agenda that a New York Times poll published on the Sunday before the election showed that only 31 percent of the electorate thought that the party had "a clear plan for the country." What makes this heartbreaking for progressives is that there are plenty of excellent plans gathering dust in the offices of policy wonks in Washington. What was lacking was the political judgment to advocate progressive government, and what was present was a cultural myopia among political consultants that actively prevented Democrats from expressing a clear agenda.

On Election Day, the low Democratic turnout permitted Republicans to control all three major branches of government for the first time in several decades. As Clinton media advisor and CNN commentator James Carville lamented on election night, "A party that won't defend itself is not going to be trusted to defend the country."

The left as well as the right can learn to communicate so that "the boys in Lubbock can understand it". Unless it connects with a mass constituency, progressive politics is like the proverbial trees falling in a forest that no one hears. Professors and critics can and should have rarefied taste. Political activists must learn to speak the language of the people, not solely the "Latin" of the political elite.

As Sid Blumenthal, former aide to President Clinton, observes, "Most people in Washington, including those on the left, love the idea of America, which is the ideals, the symbols, the monuments, and the history books, but they don't like actual Americans very much. Americans are those gross people who go to shopping malls and watch television."

This is another indulgence that the left cannot afford. Bob Dylan's message of four decades ago still works: "You better start swimming or you'll sink like a stone, for the times they are a changing."

Let's swim.

Danny Goldberg, CEO of Artemis Records and long-time political and civil liberties activist, is currently the President of the ACLU Foundation of Southern California.

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