When we last left the Democrats, they were alternating between conspiracy theories on the last election (Bush operatives tampered with all of the electronic voting machines) to the same thing we heard after the landslide loss to Ronald Reagan 24 years ago: "We have a great message, but we just are not packaging it in the right way."
In other words, we are listening to people in denial, and a political party that is in denial will prove to be poor opposition to the Republicans. (I must say that Republicans also are in denial about the war in Iraq and other things, but the Democrats are doing such a good job riling up the Republican faithful that Bush supporters apparently were not forced to deal with the hard questions posed by Republican rule.)
That being the situation, I am going to offer some observations, and add to those suggestions when I offered the Democrats free advice soon after the November 2 election. First, let me give the observations.
- Hillary Clinton is not going to be an attractive candidate in 2008
Democrats, and especially those Clintonistas like James Carville and Paul Begala who served so faithfully as Bill Clinton’s button men during the Monica Lewinsky presidency, are looking forward to their opportunity to put Hillary on stage and no doubt are holding strategy meetings even now. However, there are some flaws in their reasoning and perhaps some level talk is needed to explain why nominating the junior senator from New York is not a good idea.
First, and most important, there is no more polarizing figure in this country today than Hillary Clinton. Part of that reputation is deserved, and some of it comes from the same nonsensical sources that claim that George Bush is the second coming of Christ. (I happen to believe that while Hillary is bad, most likely she would not govern any worse than Bush, but that is not saying much.) While her husband as a politician "connected" (in more ways than one) with the voters, Hillary has no real presence and is as manufactured a candidate as I have seen in my lifetime.
Second, there is this problem of winning the party’s nomination. In the old days, such things were done at the party conventions held every four years; today, the process consists of primary elections that succeed in giving the voters the last person standing. A true party system as existed 50 years ago would not have nominated either a Hillary Clinton or George W. Bush.
In order to win elections, including primaries, one must not only present a positive message to voters, but also be able to savage one’s opponents, and that is going to be tricky business if Mrs. Clinton is in the race. Anyone who tries to lay even a glove on her quickly will be kneecapped by a team of assassins led by her husband, Carville, Begala, and the others in that camp. John Kerry already has hinted at another race, and John Edwards is going to have to find a way to spend all that money he has made by suing doctors under false pretenses, so I would not be surprised to see him back for another round.
An effective way to view the Clintons and their acolytes is to see them as a political version of the Snopes family, made famous in William Faulkner’s novel, The Hamlet. The Snopeses, as one might recall, moved into Frenchman’s Bend and slowly took over everything. Their reputation as barn burners had proceeded them, and soon everyone had to live with the consequences of that dirty family in their midst. (I like the comparison of Bill Clinton and Flem Snopes.)
As the Democrats now understand, to their everlasting sorrow, once the Clintons moved in, they never left. Most presidents, following the expiration of their terms in office, do something constructive, like play golf and disappear from public view. The most responsible die soon after leaving office, but since Clinton was able to have surgery before his arteries completely closed, he is likely to be around for a long time.
The one consistent characteristic of ex-presidents, however, has been their lack of desire to control their respective political parties. None of the former presidents in my lifetime tried to be party kingpins — that is until Bill Clinton left 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. While each ex-president tried to exert some influence either on politics or elsewhere, they were mature enough to realize that their day in the sun had ended and it was time for others to take over.
Not Flem Snopes — err, Bill Clinton — however, and that is going to spell trouble in 2008. The Clintonistas from Carville to Flem, uh, Bill, are going to be back in full force and any other Democrat with any ambitions of reaching the White House is going to find rat poison in his water supply and vipers in his bed. (I can hardly wait to see the "unity" display on the podium after the nominee makes his/her speech at the Democratic National Convention.)
However, Hillary can spare the Democrats this agony simply by declaring her allegiance to New York and its senate seat. This is not a likely scenario, but unless I were a Clintonista, that is what I would want.
- The problem is not in the packaging; the contents of your message stink
Once upon a time, the Democrats had a "big tent" party. Democrats included socialists, elitists, Baptists, atheists, rednecks, sophisticated people, pro-lifers, feminists, and male chauvinist pigs. Today, we see a coalition of leftists who seem to believe that anyone who doesn’t buy the party message (whatever that message might be) is nothing more than an undeserving rube. Anyone who might want to differ should read Bob Herbert’s latest column in the New York Times. Writes Herbert:
You have to be careful when you toss the word values around. All values are not created equal. Some Democrats are casting covetous eyes on voters whose values, in many cases, are frankly repellent. Does it make sense for the progressive elements in our society to undermine their own deeply held beliefs in tolerance, fairness and justice in an effort to embrace those who deliberately seek to divide?
Before one rushes to congratulate Herbert for his "integrity," one needs to keep in mind that Herbert has no problem with appealing to voters in his own city whose views are little better than the worst stuff that came from the Third Reich. For example, Al Sharpton in 1991 was instrumental in starting one of the few true anti-Jewish pogroms in our nation’s history, the infamous Crown Heights riots in which a Jewish rabbinical student from Australia was stabbed to death.
To make matters worse, the evidence clearly pointed to Limerick Nelson, who then was tried before a local court. During the trial, Nelson’s defense team engaged in some of the worst Jew-baiting taking place in a courtroom since the Scottsboro Boys trial of the 1930s. The jurors, however, quickly acquitted Nelson, not because he was not guilty, but rather because the jury was giving tacit approval to the murder of Jews. By the way, the jurors came from a district that votes overwhelmingly Democratic.
Thus, Herbert is not trying to appeal to the good conscience in us all, but rather is picking and choosing among things to call evil. If an evangelical Christian believes the practice of homosexuality is wrong, well that is evil; if a good Democrat like Sharpton engages in some Jew baiting, well that is another story.
Now, there is plenty to condemn in the antics and statements made by those on the so-called religious right, but there is as much to condemn on the other side, too. For example, when she ran for governor of Maryland two years ago, Kathleen Kennedy Townsend (Bobby Kennedy’s daughter) had people at her rallies passing out Oreo cookies to make fun of the Republican’s candidate for lieutenant governor, who was black. As someone who has adopted two Ethiopian children, I understood what she was saying to me, and one can be sure that the woman did not receive my vote. So, one can be a "good" Democrat and also engage in race baiting. No doubt, Herbert would approve.
Where in this past presidential campaign did anyone see John Kerry actually supporting civil liberties? All of his denunciations of the Patriot Act were general, not specific. One had the sense that Kerry had no problem with the loss of financial privacy that dominates the federal laws these days. Kerry also had no problem with the evisceration of the mens rea standard for criminal law; his few "tough on crime" pronouncements made it clear to me that he had no commitment to liberties — other than complete sexual license.
In other words, whatever commitment Democrats once had to liberty is gone. They did not have an attractive message because they had no message at all, other than "we are not Bush." This is not political strategy; it is simple pandering to the voters.
What to do? In following up from my last directive to Democrats, here is more advice:
- Don’t be so quick to dismiss the evangelicals
Being that so many influential party members are utterly secular in their thinking, Democrats at first are likely to take Herbert’s advice. However, it was not that long ago that Democrats had many of the evangelicals in their fold. Not until the 1980 election did conservative Protestants begin to vote consistently for Republicans, and especially Republican presidential candidates. The only Democrat who could make a dent in that vote was Clinton, and much of the connection was personal, not ideological.
The problem is that the current "religious" elements in the Democratic Party either are liberal Protestants or wayward "pro-choice" Catholics, and they have despised conservative Christians for decades. (Keep in mind that once upon a time, the Episcopal Church used to be called "the Republican Party at prayer." That moniker no longer fits.)
To be honest, most Democrats that I know are absolutely ignorant about evangelicals, and they are incensed that they even go to the polls. Their first inclination, unfortunately, is to try to find ways to suppress that brand of religion. As James Hitchcock notes, many Democratic intellectuals already claim to have "discovered" that the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution actually encourages the suppression of conservative Christianity. He writes:
According to Kathleen M. Sullivan of the Stanford University Law School, the "establishment clause" actually establishes a culture from which there can be no legitimate dissentu2014in which religion is tolerated only "insofar as it is consistent with the establishment of the secular moral order." She candidly admits that "the religion clauses enable the government to endorse a culture of liberal democracy that will predictably clash over many issues with religious subcultures." But believers "must pay for the secular army which engineers the truce among them" for the sake of civil peace. Critics of the theory of evolution, for example, are accused by Sullivan of being in violation of the spirit of the Constitution, which, she claims, has been "shaped by an argument honoring Galileo’s defense of empirical rationality against the abuses of Bible interpretation." Hence the state is obligated to encourage "scientific rationality."
It follows logically that churches should be denied the right to be fully self-governing. Thus in A Wall of Separation (1998) Ted Jelen accuses a Catholic bishop who threatens religious sanctions against dissident church members of being guilty of "a religiously based threat to the prerogatives of democratic citizenship." The same charge would be brought against religious officials who express or enforce opposition to homosexual marriages or abortion. Sullivan thinks that churches can be allowed to exclude women from the ranks of the clergy only so long as this does not "impede the functioning of the civil public order." In Please Don’t Wish Me a Merry Christmas (1997), Steven Feldman goes so far as to argue against allowing the major Christian denominations to proselytize among non-Christians.
The liberal state, Sadurski argues, should discriminate among religious groups on the basis of how "progressive" each is thought to be, and Rogers Smith insists in Liberalism and American Constitutional Law (1990) that religion can only enjoy constitutional liberties if it undergoes a basic transformation to make itself more "rational" or "self-critical." Going further, Steven Macedo, who explicitly identifies his view as "comprehensive," defines liberalism in The New Right Versus the Constitution (1987) as "a permanently educative order" for the preservation of liberal values and argues that the power of government can be legitimately used against illiberal churches because doing so promotes greater overall freedom. He urges "the right sort of liberal partisanship in all spheres of life," and, despite the Constitution’s explicit prohibition of any religious test for public office, he argues that certain religious believers (notably Catholics) can justly be excluded from certain public functions, such as serving as judges.
To quote Martha Stewart, this "is not a good thing." The more Democrats howl about those Christian "rubes," the more likely those "rubes" are going to be a presence at the polls. The question is how Democrats can win at least some of those Christians. Let me suggest the following:
- Do not be so militantly pro-abortion that anyone who believes that abortion is wrong is treated as a pariah. The 1992 refusal of the Democratic National Committee to permit then pro-life Pennsylvania Governor Bob Casey to speak still resonates with pro-life voters.
- Acknowledge that one can go to church, believe in something like the resurrection of Christ, and not be a racist or bigot.
- Appeal to pro-lifers regarding the carnage of the war in Iraq and U.S. wars elsewhere. I go to a conservative church and I have found people there willing to listen to my arguments against this war. But, first, Democrats have to be anti-war, not people who make the ridiculous claim that they can manage the war better than the Republicans are doing.
- Take time to meet with evangelicals and talk to them. After reading people like Herbert and Maureen Dowd, not to mention Paul Krugman, I doubt that any of them even know someone who might fall into the evangelical camp. As long as evangelicals know that Democrats openly hate them, they will see no reason to support people who seem willing to shut down their churches and take their children from their home. (Yes, as Hitchcock has written, many Democratic intellectuals see these things as legal and viable options.)
- Stop your jihad against gun owners
Kerry, like Gore before him, lost states like West Virginia and Ohio precisely because of the party’s absolute stand on gun control. While Kerry did not make gun control the centerpiece of his campaign, his statements on banning "assault" weapons demonstrated to gun owners like me that his view of gun owners was condescending and just plain wrong. As long as Democrats continue to claim that the Second Amendment offers nothing more than a "collective right" of the U.S. Government to have weapons — a viewpoint that is sheer legal nonsense — gun owners are going to view them with great suspicion.
- End your love affair with European and Canadian socialism
I do not know how many times I have heard Democrats declare: "This is the only industrialized country in the world that does not have u2018universal’ government medical care." In his first term, Clinton was openly enamored with the European welfare states. However, by the 1996 election, he had abandoned his socialist rhetoric, and easily won re-election.
However, it was obvious to many voters that a patrician of Boston whose wealth either was inherited or came from his wives had no understanding of free markets or even what it takes to save, invest, take financial risks, and serve a relevant market. Are there no Democrats left with real business backgrounds? If that is the case, perhaps the party needs to do more recruiting.
One would hope that Democrats would seek once again to be a party of liberty. The Republicans, in my opinion, are hopeless. However, from what I have seen from the party faithful in the past week, the message seems to be "stay the course." Herbert writes:
What the Democratic Party needs above all is a clear message and a bold and compelling candidate. The message has to convince Americans that they would be better off following a progressive Democratic vision of the future. The candidate has to be a person of integrity capable of earning the respect and the affection of the American people.
I could not disagree more. What the Democratic Party needs above all is to abandon those things that are driving Middle America into voting Republican. If the Democrats really are not a threat to religious liberty, the conservative Christians will not feel compelled to seek protection (as bad as it is) from Republicans.