New York Times
November 6, 2004
If Democrats want to know how to win again, they have a model. It's the British Labor Party.
When I studied in England in the early 1980's, the British Labor Party seemed as quaint and eccentric as Oxford itself, where we wore gowns for exams and some dons addressed the rare female student as "sir." Labor was caught in its own echo chamber of militant unions and anti-American activists, and it so repulsed voters that it seemed it might wither away entirely.
Then Tony Blair and another M.P., Gordon Brown, dragged the party away from socialism, unions, nuclear disarmament and anti-Americanism. Together they created "New Labor," which aimed for the center and aggressively courted Middle Britain instead of trying to scare it. The result is that since 1997, Mr. Blair and Labor have utterly dominated Britain.
The Democrats need a similar rebranding. But the risk is that the party will blame others for its failures - or, worse, blame the American people for their stupidity (as London's Daily Mirror screamed in a Page 1 headline this week: "How can 59,054,087 people be so DUMB?").
As moderates from the heartland, like Tom Daschle, are picked off by the Republicans, the party's image risks being defined even more by bicoastal, tree-hugging, gun-banning, French-speaking, Bordeau-sipping, Times-toting liberals, whose solution is to veer left and galvanize the base. But firing up the base means turning off swing voters. Gov. Mike Johanns, a Nebraska Republican, told me that each time Michael Moore spoke up for
Mobilizing the base would mean nominating Hillary Rodham Clinton in 2008 and losing yet again. (Mrs. Clinton has actually undertaken just the kind of makeover that I'm talking about: in the Senate, she's been cooperative, mellow and moderate, winning over upstate New Yorkers. She could do the same in the heartland ... if she had 50 years.)
So Democrats need to give a more prominent voice to Middle American, wheat-hugging, gun-shooting, Spanish-speaking, beer-guzzling, Bible-toting centrists. (They can tote The Times, too, in a plain brown wrapper.) For a nominee who could lead the Democrats to victory, think of
I wish that winning were just a matter of presentation. But it's not. It involves compromising on principles. Bill Clinton won his credibility in the heartland partly by going home to Little Rock during the 1992 campaign to preside over the execution of a mentally disabled convict named Ricky Ray Rector.
There was a moral ambiguity about Mr. Clinton's clambering to power over Mr. Rector's corpse. But unless Democrats compromise, they'll be proud and true and losers.
So what do the Democrats need to do? Here are four suggestions:
• Don't be afraid of religion. Offer government support for faith-based programs to aid the homeless, prisoners and AIDS victims. And argue theology with Republicans: there's much more biblical ammunition to support liberals than conservatives.
• Pick battles of substance, not symbolism. The battle over Georgia's Confederate flag cost Roy Barnes his governorship and perhaps Max Cleland his Senate seat, but didn't help one working mother or jobless worker. It was a gift to Republicans.
• Accept that today, gun control is a nonstarter. Instead of trying to curb guns, try to reduce gun deaths through better rules on licensing and storage, and on safety devices like trigger locks.
• Hold your nose and work with
"The first thing we have to do is shake the image of us as the obstructionist party," notes Senator Ben Nelson of Nebraska, who manages to thrive as a Democrat in the red sea. He says Democrats must show a willingness to compromise, to get things done, to defer to local sensibilities. "We have to show the American people," he says, "that Democrats aren't going to take away your guns, aren't going to take away your flags."
Rethinking the Democratic Party will be wrenching. But just ask Tony Blair - it's not as wrenching as sliding into irrelevance.