Saturday, December 1, 2007

The Democrats' Moment of Truth

Losing candidates are always dreadful in retrospect. John Kerry, we now believe, was wooden, indecisive, and effete. Al Gore simultaneously bored and condescended. Bob Dole was too old and too mean. Michael Dukakis lacked the personality God gave a kumquat. And so forth.

Some truth can be found in each of these conclusions. But they are also evidence of the tendency of the human mind to work the maze backwards, finding fatal flaws in candidates who were once considered formidable. It was, for example, just about four years ago that Democrats were beginning to abandon their autumn crush, Howard Dean, in favor of Senator Kerry, a man of presumed gravitas and evident electability. Indeed, consider how much differently we would regard George W. Bush today had a few hundred voters in South Florida been able to master their butterfly ballots back in 2000. His would be a cautionary tale about the perils of relying on personality and charisma rather than competence and experience.

There are two ways to look at the Democratic Party's failures since the day Bill Clinton left the White House in a flurry of plaudits and pardons. The first is optimistic. Despite the burden of consecutive feckless candidacies, the party twice came within a single state of claiming the presidency. The second time they almost pulled it off against the commander in chief during wartime. Had Al Gore properly embraced the Clinton legacy, had John Kerry responded quickly and effectively to the swift boat liars, George W. Bush would today be merely a bad memory awaiting history's dismissive final judgment. From this perspective, the Democrats are in a reasonably good electoral position. They simply need better candidates.

There is, however, another interpretation, far darker in its implications for the Dems. In 2000, they failed to hold the presidency despite a popular incumbent, a successful record, and a callow, inarticulate opponent. Four years later, they were beaten by that same opponent, now widely derided and mired in a war that was already evoking memories of Da Nang and Khe Sanh. Under such circumstances, even suboptimal candidates should have prevailed, as George H.W. Bush did in 1988 and Richard Nixon twenty years earlier. By this line of reasoning, the Democrats' failures, even under the most promising conditions, are dictated by an increasingly unfavorable electoral map in which they are uncompetitive in every state on or near a diagonal line drawn between Boise and Atlanta. Beginning each election season down nearly 200 votes in the Electoral College, the party needs the equivalent of drawing to an inside straight even to have a chance at victory.

Hillary Clinton, from all appearances, is a strong believer in the more optimistic, candidate-centered explanation of Democratic failure. Her strategy, though nobody will admit it, consists of being a better Gore, a stronger Kerry. Hers is, as Democrats go, a centrist candidacy, one that assumes that the party would have triumphed in 2000 and 2004 had they persuaded moderate voters—especially women—in the suburbs of Orlando and Columbus that they could be trusted to exercise fiscal restraint and, especially after 9/11, to keep the country safe. Where Al Gore seemed pensive and brooding, Hillary exudes a vigorous self-confidence. Where John Kerry wavered, she is—or tries to be—the very picture of determination and decisiveness. The soccer moms, she hopes, will rally around her, some will bring their husbands along for the ride, and Florida and Ohio will finally turn blue, sating the national thirst for a restoration of the Clinton dynasty.

By contrast, Barack Obama and John Edwards are implicitly selling the more pessimistic interpretation of the last two presidential elections. Adhering to the politics of the past, they suggest, is a recipe for almost certain failure. For the Democrats to emerge victorious one year from now, they must mobilize new voters, or at least those who do not habitually appear at the polls. The cautious, centrist strategy has failed twice, and the party needs to become at least a little daring. For Edwards, that means giving poor and working class Americans a more appealing choice than the usual corporate, free trade Democrat. For Obama, it means a Kennedy-like mission to inspire greater participation by young people, African Americans, and other members of previously neglected groups. To be sure, Obama's platform is more moderate than Edwards', but each is running unmistakably to the left of the former First Lady.

In less than one hundred days, we will see just how daring the Democratic electorate wants to be. Hillary Clinton is the safest choice, and her range of possibilities seems fairly narrow. She may, indeed, move just enough swing voters to her side—women, suburbanites, Latinos—to win where Gore and Kerry could not. Or, conversely, she might barely fail just as her predecessors did, providing the party with another four years of recriminations and what ifs. It seems unlikely that she will either win or lose in a landside, though not impossible (events, as we are often and painfully reminded, sometimes alter the electoral landscape in unpredictable ways).

The possible benefits and risks of an Edwards or Obama candidacy are far greater. Add a million more Hispanics to the voter rolls and New Mexico, Colorado, Nevada, and even Arizona are in play. Persuade African Americans to turn out in record numbers and Arkansas, Missouri, Tennessee, and Virginia are within reach. Generate record participation by 18 to 25 year olds, and the sky is truly the limit. Republicans changed the nation thirty years ago by awakening a sleeping giant, the evangelical Christian movement, that was once considered marginal and unreliable. If Democrats can find their own analog, 2008 could be the start of a realignment that would turn Karl Rove's dreams of a Republican century to dust while he was still alive to witness the disintegration.

On the other hand, parties have miscalculated before, and the results have been both painful and lasting. At the end of the Nineteenth Century, a series of close presidential elections convinced the Democratic leadership that an infusion of new voters was necessary. So they adopted the free silver agenda of the prairie populists, nominated Nebraskan William Jennings Bryan for president, and watched big business and its allies scare the voters (Rejecting the Gold Standard will mean economic disaster!) and cruise to an easy victory. It would be a generation before the Democrats fully recovered from their ruinous gamble.

Neither John Edwards nor Barack Obama promises the sort of radicalism represented by Bryan and the free silver Democrats, so a thirty-year debacle is unlikely. Still, if these new voters remain unmobilized and the soccer moms and security dads are turned off by the relative inexperience and liberalism of the Democratic nominee, an Electoral College wipeout could result. Even a movement of three to five points in favor of the GOP would force states like Minnesota, Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania into the Republican camp.

So what do you say, Democrats? Are you feeling lucky?

No comments: