Democrats lost the battle, not the war

Only people suffering from historical amnesia could believe this election proves that liberalism is dead.

By Joe Conason
Published November 7, 2004 1:54AM (UTC)
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In the dark post-election mood that lingers, the defeated should find history both restorative and instructive. Restorative because the past reminds us that both victors and vanquished tend to mistake the dimensions of the immediate event, whose true significance cannot be known until years or even decades later. Instructive because the past tells us so much about how the conditions of our present distress came to exist -- and, most important, how we can change them.

So for the moment set aside the triumphal proclamations from the Republican leadership and their echoes in the media, along with the petty recriminations against John Kerry, who has devoted his life to public service and deserves admiration for the honorable campaign he waged against unscrupulous opponents. As a presidential candidate he had his virtues and flaws, which obviously differed from those of George W. Bush -- and will surely differ from those of the next Democratic nominee.

A longer perspective is more pertinent and more relevant to the future than listening to televised imbeciles maundering about the "death of liberalism." (Had the Democrat won by three points and a couple dozen electoral votes, nobody would be touting the "death of conservatism.") Progressives and reactionaries in America have both survived much sharper electoral rejections than this one. Both sides tend to overreact to such rejection in an election's emotional aftermath.

Exaggeration is the rule, not the exception, in the post-election autopsy. Sweeping pronouncements about this year's close, hotly contested campaign should be considered skeptically, especially when Republican propagandists start to talk about their "mandate" and their "permanent majority." Such claims are convincing only to citizens (and journalists) suffering from amnesia.

Only six years ago, the self-appointed guardians of "moral values" wailed their despair when midterm voters rejected the Republican impeachment jihad, and pundits pondered the political demise of the religious right. Paul Weyrich, architect of the modern religious right, described Bill Clinton's escape from judgment in near-apocalyptic terms, as a signal for the "godly" to withdraw from politics. The Republican House members defenestrated the outspoken proponent of "moral values" then serving as speaker, and his would-be successor, too. But in the next election two years later, the Republicans came back to win the White House (with the assistance of Florida state officials and the Supreme Court), and kept control of both houses of Congress.

Twelve years ago, Clinton won the presidency and ousted a Republican president whose humiliation included receiving only 37 percent of the popular vote. The Democrats began the Clinton administration with control of both House and Senate. Two years later, they lost both houses in the stunning "Contract With America" midterm, which brought Newt Gingrich to power as speaker. (We all know what soon happened to him -- see 1998 above.) The great minds of the nation declared Clinton "irrelevant," predicting in their wisdom that he could not possibly win reelection and must be replaced by the Democrats. They were wrong, of course.

Even true landslides -- which this election certainly was not -- have usually proved to be less ruinous for the losers than they seemed to be at the time. In 1988, George H.W. Bush beat Michael Dukakis by more than 300 electoral votes, 426 to 112. Four years later the voters dumped him despite a victorious war, an enormous financial advantage and all the power of incumbency. In 1984, Ronald Reagan carried 49 states with 525 electoral votes, and nearly 60 percent of the popular vote. Yet within the four years that followed, his party forfeited control of the Senate, again despite huge advantages in organization, funding and ideological infrastructure. In 1972, Richard Nixon inflicted similar devastation on the Democrats -- who bounced back in the 1974 midterm and went on to win back the White House in 1976.

Perhaps the most instructive landslide, however, was that suffered by conservatives in 1964, when Barry Goldwater won only six states against Lyndon Johnson. Conservatives rightly look back on that election as the beginning of their renewal, although few could have known then how and when they would eventually recover from Johnson's crushing 16 million-vote victory. Nor could they have known that the seemingly invincible president, one of the most brilliant politicians of the century, would find himself unable to run for a second term in 1968.

While the Goldwater campaign failed as an electoral machine, his movement laid the foundations for future success. As Richard Viguerie explains in "America's Right Turn," his recent memoir of four decades as a right-wing activist and entrepreneur, those bleak days marked the turning point for conservatives. At the grass roots, millions of Americans who had never been involved in politics joined the Goldwater movement and were transformed by their experience. Moreover, those activists pioneered new techniques in fundraising and mobilization. They felt their candidate had been maligned and cheated, but they didn't retreat from their principles and commitments.

Forty years later, after an election that saw the greatest mobilization of progressive activists and grass-roots funding in many decades, the analogy is plain. The biggest difference is that the Goldwaterites lost badly, while the Kerry supporters came very close to winning.

There are, of course, many differences between all those past elections and this one. None of this historical review is meant to suggest that Democrats shouldn't reassess their message, their vision, and their means of communicating with voters -- or that the nation and the world won't suffer the effects of another four years of misrule by the Republicans. Both tone and substance obviously require improvement. It is meant to suggest, however, that the Democratic Party and its progressive allies began this year to create the conditions for future advances -- and that with resources, determination and commitment, those advances may be much nearer than they seem. Building for the future is also the best and only way to resist the worst excesses of the next four years.

Joe Conason

Joe Conason is the editor in chief of To find out more about Joe Conason, visit the Creators Syndicate website at

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2004 Elections Bill Clinton George W. Bush John F. Kerry D-mass.