Strategy for Democrats

As I sit here in the early winter of liberal discontent nursing the blue-state blues (and plotting, red-staters might well imagine, the moral destruction of the heartland), the thought occurs that the Democratic Party is at a crossroads.

Democrats threw everything into the 2004 race and lost. In truth, they shouldn't really have been surprised; it wasn't an open election at the presidential level, and White House incumbents are rarely denied a second term barring national catastrophe. Things were bad, to be sure (the war, the economy), but not quite bad enough to alter the time-honored habit of sticking with the one who brought you to the dance, even when the band is playing out of tune.

Nevertheless, the wish being father to the thought, as Shakespeare wrote, Democrats expected to prevail and the hunt is now on for scapegoats, quick fixes and novel ideas. By losing an election they weren't likely to win in the first place, Democrats have convinced themselves the sky is falling; many have concluded that nothing short of a sharp move to the right is called for, in order to purge the party of its lingering leftist image and legacy. Strategic, tactical and personnel changes are certainly needed -- especially a culling of the Clinton-era deadwood -- but not a total ideological remodeling aimed at coming to terms with some irresistible social conservatism permanently overspreading the political landscape.

Look, first of all, at the winners. Much of the punditocracy (and for a brief time, I admit, this writer) viewed the Republican victory as the culmination of a party realignment presaging the final death throes of modern liberalism. Columnist George Will termed it an expression of maturing conservative dominance based geographically in the South and West, a development abetted by the Democrats' "metabolic impulse" to ignore reality by persisting in the nomination of center-left presidential candidates from the northern tier of states. This was a conservative country now, Will argued, and the sooner Democrats recognized it, the better off they'd be.

It's tempting to take this bait, and in the first flush of post-election analysis, it was easy to see the long-predicted Republican realignment coming to fruition. The outlines are there and it may yet come to pass, but upon reflection, it is obvious the current GOP hold on government is a tenuous one based less on ideology and more on strategic and tactical adroitness, perceived managerial competence, and the luck to have been in power during a national security emergency. Those who see a generation-long political shift like that ushered in by the New Deal need to examine history more closely.

The last major party realignment, a product of the famous Roosevelt coalition, lasted from 1932 to roughly 1980, when it finally ran out of steam; we have been in political stasis ever since, with neither party able to fully assert dominance and fashion a lasting national majority. If one is emerging now, making George W. Bush this era's FDR, it's a very pale imitation of the genuine article.

Roosevelt placed his stamp on the Democratic realignment of the mid-20th century with two personal landslide victories in 1932 and 1936, capturing 57 and 61 percent of the vote, respectively, while his party swept three consecutive congressional elections (in 1932, '34, and '36) and picked up 111 House and 29 Senate seats for a lopsided four-to-one advantage in Congress.

Over a comparable period (2000 to 2004), George W. Bush has won two supposed realignment victories with 48 and 51 percent of the vote, respectively, and his Republicans have added 8 House and 4 Senate seats to establish bare working majorities in both chambers; true realignments require something far more substantive.

Having said this, it's nevertheless obvious that the Democrats need to get their act together. Although the country remains about equally split in its politics population-wise, the supremacy of the Electoral College, with its rural-state bias -- voters in sparsely populated red states have greater proportional representation -- dictates that under the present political configuration, Democrats will consistently have trouble winning the presidency -- unless, that is, they can break out of their Northeast-Pacific Coast-Upper Midwest box. How to do this is the question.

The best bet appears to be combining a bicoastal-Great Lakes strategy with a strong push in the soft red states of the trans-Mississippi West. The states of the old Confederacy are gone for now, but parts of the Mountain West (New Mexico, Nevada, Colorado) and Midwest (Iowa) are there for the taking; they barely stayed in the Republican column in 2004 and together they electorally equal Florida or Ohio, where so much unrewarded effort was expended last year.

That's the presidential contest. The House and Senate are another matter. To recapture Congress, Democrats will frankly have to be patient and wait for the political wheel to turn. Once Iraq is resolved, one way or another, the Democratic strong suit of domestic issues will return to the fore.

The economy, beset by structural weaknesses, is hanging by a thread; Republicans can't stay lucky forever. The official opposition needs to establish a firm center-left program based on economic populism, stick with it and wait for estranged voters to return, as they assuredly will at some point; it must be willing to accept short-term defeats in exchange for long-term success.

What Democrats should not do is try to copy the Republicans. Me-too parties never win strong allegiances because voters sense they stand for nothing. The current conventional wisdom advises Democrats to move to the center, poach Republican issues and ingratiate themselves with red-state majorities. This reactive approach may win the occasional political skirmish, but it will lose the war. If voters want conservative policies, they will generally elect the real conservative party and not an ideological imposter.

To win the hearts and minds of the American people, progressive Democrats have to become a movement again, one based on a definable, coherent philosophy of government; this is the path GOP conservatives have followed successfully for a generation. A triumphant return to office will require the out party to have a program, believe in it and sell it -- something that was woefully absent throughout the Clinton years of compromise and triangulation. The novelty might actually shock the old donkey back to life and get it kicking again.

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

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