Deja Vu All Over Again

Here's the ultimate irony of Election 2004. In a year that saw the Boston Red Sox, America's long-time symbol of futility in the world of sports, reverse their real or imagined curse and finally win an elusive championship, the Democratic Party firmly established itself as their functional equivalent in the world of politics. Like baseball's former lovable losers, the Democrats have developed a remarkable capacity to turn a silk purse into a sow's ear; they've lost in every conceivable way -- usually after leading their partisans to the brink of success, only to see the prize slip away.

This year's debacle marks the seventh time in the last 10 presidential contests that the Evil Empire (a.k.a. the GOP) has bested the perennial runners-up, and a pattern has begun to emerge. As was the case for decades prior to 1932, the Democrats appear once more to have become the normal "out" party, and the Republicans the normal party of governance. A national realignment foreshadowed by Ronald Reagan and Newt Gingrich seems to have taken hold for the foreseeable future. As of now, Democrats dominate the Northeast, parts of the Upper Midwest, and the Pacific Coast; the GOP controls everything else -- that is to say, enough of the country to rule unimpeded under the Electoral College system.

It's tempting to conclude the Democrats blew this election, their inherent disadvantages (including no TV network of their own) notwithstanding, and to some extent, that's an accurate appraisal. They faced a president presiding over an increasingly unpopular war, a stumbling economy and government red ink as far as the eye can see. His base of support included the worst elements the country has to offer: rabid and nasty right-wingers, intolerant and closeminded fundamentalists, avaricious and selfish corporate interests. George W. Bush provided a hard-to-miss political target; yet, Democrats missed it. The party that wrote the book on American practical politics has evidently forgotten how to get itself elected. Moreover, the problems go beyond just a question of nuts and bolts. Democrats have lost their strategic and tactical sense; they're being outplanned and outmaneuvered.

This year's miscalculations began with the establishment of a front-loaded primary and caucus system. Intended to quickly produce an establishment nominee with broad acceptability and reserves of unused money for the general campaign, it instead created an unnaturally early selection process that preceded the election by too many months. This gave the opposition ample time to prepare and implement a strategy of personal destruction for (in this case) Sen. Kerry, while the Democratic nomination was simultaneously drained of all excitement and spontaneity. Front loading also forced a precipitant nominating decision well before the evolving concerns of the election season (growing disillusionment with Iraq, for instance) became clear. Would John Kerry have been the same consensus choice in June that he was in February? We'll never know for sure.

Next came the Democratic National Convention in Boston, a gathering some have likened to a meeting of the Veterans of Foreign Wars because of its top-heavy emphasis on national security, military virtues and patriotic symbolism. By accentuating the positive to a fault and avoiding anything divisive, the Boston conventioneers threw away an opportunity to dissect the wrongheaded policies of the Bush administration; they gave the president what amounted to a free pass, especially on domestic issues. The Republicans, who play hardball, did not make the same mistake in New York; they roasted Kerry on a spit.

The GOP was more clever and unscrupulous in the timing of its quadrennial get-together, which was arranged as late in the political campaign as possible and planned to coincide with the anniversary of 9/11, in order to milk maximum emotion out of that event. The Democrats met in July and then took a latesummer hiatus, sitting on a nonexistent lead. What were they thinking? The Kerry campaign had what now appears in retrospect to have been a lost spring and summer. The candidate was on cruise control, ambling leisurely around the country, playing it safe and acting as though he were the prohibitive frontrunner. Contrast the puzzling 2004 Democratic strategy with that of 1960, when John F. Kennedy, also a relative unknown involved in a close race, ran allout all of the time and never went off the offensive.

There were also chronic delays in the Kerry camp's reaction time, critical in the failure to blunt the relentless negative campaign waged by the Republicans. The Swift Boat controversy, for example, which ate up the month of August, was addressed in slow motion. Add to this a certain lack of toughness ("We're Democrats; we don't do mean"), which allowed Vice President Cheney to go largely unchallenged when he suggested to voters in early September that their post-9/11 choice, in effect, was to vote Republican or die. And, finally, there was the mind-numbing decision, probably motivated by revenge for 2000, to neglect other priorities and focus inordinately on Florida, a normally unwinnable southern state with a deep conservative bent.

In the end, however, the flawed Kerry campaign owed most of its problems to the phlegmatic, uninspiring persona of the candidate and to his muddled (or "nuanced") message, especially on the key issue of Iraq. Not even the debates, which Kerry won handily (so much for their crucial role), and a clarifying and liberating speech on war policy toward the end of the campaign were enough to offset the negative momentum of the prior weeks.

Yet, despite the Democrats' flaws, mistakes and misjudgments leading to defeat, the good news is that they, like the pre-2004 Red Sox, came close. Running against an incumbent president, in a country traumatized by war and terrorism, John Kerry took 19 states and finished within three percentage points of winning the popular vote. The Bush forces will claim a mandate, but 51% does not a mandate make; this is still a nation divided. The major lesson for Democrats is that, facing opponents who will always outspend them and have acquired the patina of invulnerability, as well as a presumption of the right to govern, they need national candidates who can appeal emotionally beyond the narrow bounds of party and base candidates with that special blend of personal qualities we call charisma. Time to start the search.


Wayne O'Leary is a writer in Orono, Maine.