How the Democrats can change

A longtime Republican who switched parties because of George W. Bush offers the DNC some practical advice from the grass roots.

Published December 21, 2004 10:05PM (EST)

When Democratic National Committee chairman Terry McAuliffe e-mailed me and 3 million other worker bees for feedback on what went wrong for the Democrats in the 2004 presidential election, I was grateful because I thought they'd never ask. Although their request was long overdue, it's better to be late than never to open channels for input from the bottom up.

As someone who spent 64 years as a committed Republican before I became an independent under Ronald Reagan and then was driven by George W. Bush into the Democratic Party (to which, working in a presidential campaign for the first time, I donated time, effort and loads of money), perhaps I have a different perspective to offer about 1) why the Republicans won, 2) why the Democrats lost and 3) what we can do about this situation. I do understand that as the new girl on the block and an ex-Republican, I was not in a position to criticize or have much credibility with the old-line pros during the campaign, but I hope Democrats will listen now.

The Republicans won, first, because they were absolutely better organized, meaning that their organization was better administrated, especially from the grass roots up. I got tired of hearing "I belong to no organized political party -- I'm a Democrat" when that was an excuse for unfocused, sloppy work. For example, both parties made fantastic, successful efforts at registering new voters. But Republicans then followed up on that success and closed the sale; they used their database to recontact voters and took their selected voters by the hand to the polls.

Second, the Republicans presented a coherent philosophy. This gave them a protocol for comment on every issue, instead of relying on a hodgepodge of separate, ad hoc responses. Thus even when it seemed as if they had internal contradictions or apparently hypocritical approaches, their message could still be presented as consistent and values based -- and the voters bought in to their vision. For example, in overtly asserting that an untrammeled American free-enterprise system in a market-based economy produces a good society for all, they were able to excuse the party's excessive deregulation, pandering to robber barons, tax cuts for the "investor class," outsourcing, etc.

Third, the GOP pretty much controlled the fourth estate by using patriotism and security (in other words, flag and fear) to frame every issue and every policy and to divert attention from or investigation of any seeming mistake. It brooked no criticism and instantly punished the slightest opposition, which resulted in self-censorship among the very institutions and people who should have been keeping the Republicans honest. (This includes the Democrats as well as the media.) For example, anyone who questioned the con game of the Iraq invasion was shamed and defamed to the point where even John Kerry accepted the Republican framing of the war and felt he had to salute and "report for duty" at his own party convention. How pathetic.

Fourth, whether out of a Machiavellian power grab or out of personal conviction, the Republicans accepted and promoted a specific religious dogma, which enabled them to partition off certain sections of voters and then bamboozle them into voting against their own economic best interests. This also gave the GOP a solid base of voters fanatically committed to promoting Republican candidates -- and incidentally excused any ethical lapses in a sort of "ends justifies the means" rationale. For example: Gay marriage and abortion amendments are desirable; gun control is not. And torture at places like Abu Ghraib is OK if it's part of the fight against the so-called Islamic religious terrorists. Thus Republicans were able to impose a bizarre double standard.

Fifth, the Republicans were extremely successful in refining negative attack campaigns (not just ads but whole campaigns), right down to the local precinct level. And their 527 "independent" groups (I consider these to be the guerrillas or irregular units of the political armies) accomplished wonders in diluting the Democrats' strong points and thus diverting their resources. The Democrats' attack programs never managed the same traction, possibly because they were truly more independent and thus less purposefully focused. Indeed, over time Republicans have successfully branded Democrats as "elitist," bleeding-heart, big-government socialists from big cities -- not part of the mainstream American way of life -- while branding themselves as good ol' boy, rural "just folks." How ironic.

The Democrats lost, first, because they accepted the Republican game plan and generally fought on terrain chosen by the GOP -- which included the "war on terrorism" (why not a war on terrorists, which would be more winnable in a timely way than Bush's more or less endless religious crusade?), "homeland security" (where did this "homeland" concept come from anyway, and just what does it mean?), and "moral values" as defined by its politicized religious dogma.

Second, the Democrats did not promote their basic political philosophy or value system, which truly has roots deep in Anglo-Saxon history and our own Constitution. Instead, they came up only with special-interest, ad hoc issue statements, whose details were easily and handily criticized. Although much of what the Democrats said inferred elements of their honorable philosophy, no coherent presentation of it has been made in recent memory. The result: Over and over Kerry replied to Bush, or attacked Bush, by saying, "When I am president, I will (or will not) do such and such." No, no, no. Frame the answer first based on a Democratic principle like individual responsibility and personal privacy, then say, "Abortion is a personal medical question, and the state should get its head out from between our legs. Do not say that "choice" is the principle.

Other themes come to mind: responsible stewardship of our resources for the sake of our children's future; espousing a level playing field rather than catering to special privilege (an answer to the selfish Republicans who confuse affluence with righteousness: "We who have plenty of money are beloved of God and should get more"); separation of church and state is good for religion as well as necessary for effective government (and an established church is so 17th century); many of life's situations should not subject to politicization, and the state should not be corrupted for use by any one class, business or religion; a "decent respect to the opinions of mankind" recognizes the historical comity of nations, and it was good enough for our Founding Fathers to say. And so forth.

Third, the Democrats squandered the incredible outpouring of disgust with Bush that brought so many conservative and middle-of-the-road independents to their campaign. It was a splendid opportunity to lock in new members forever, but Democrats seemed stunned and made no serious effort to create permanent converts. In fact, the old-line pros saw the new guys only as cannon fodder, and made no creative use of their talents or ideas, as I found out myself when I suggested several times that Democrats should mine the anti-Bush lode, developing special appeals to integrate outraged centrists. Yes, we were glad to do phone banks and literature drops, but we could have done so much more. The Democrats remind me of the generals who, when the United States entered the World War I, wanted to take direct command of our fresh troops and use them in the same old way in trench warfare; Gen. John Pershing refused and went on to break open the battles and win the war.

Fourth, Democrats did not engage in effective damage control -- where were the "truth squads" to answer the lies and attacks, the crazy "statistics" and distortions of Republicans? I had hoped John Edwards, as a trial lawyer, would cross-examine them and develop stinging rebuttals (and still be his positive and sunny self each time he finished deconstructing them). If he could not or would not do that, then someone else should have been holding the Republicans' feet to the fire. Indeed, all those professionals who turned on Bush at some point in their careers and wrote books should have added their nasty bit. How naive everyone was -- we needed shock troops, instant-messaging Marines, a SWAT team.

Fifth, Democrats seemed to write off whole swatches of the country and whole groups of prospective voters and did not really follow through on the fantastic effort made to bring out new voters. I understand that limited resources meant limited results, but how much coddling, recontacting and repetition occurred once likely new Democratic voters were identified? While there was a lot of buzz about the use of the Internet (given Howard Dean's remarkable efforts), I did not really see any effective use of it. And the "meetups" were mostly a joke. What were they supposed to accomplish besides being a gripe session? Splendid new avenues were available to create a dynamic campaign leading to a permanently energized, forward-looking political party, and the Democrats blew it. The informal guerrilla groups (for example, Emily's List and did a better job.

So what can we do now? First and foremost, express in simple, spare terms the Democratic philosophy. Forget the New Deal interest groups. Go for general, historical principles that offer a viable, striking contrast to the Republican philosophy -- perhaps even sometimes agreeing with it here and there, but offering a short, compelling alternative vision. The vision can be elaborated as necessary, but, like our Constitution, it should embrace general principles rather than minute, soon-to-be-outdated detail. No convention party platform, please. The vision should be heavy on traditional ethics but not confuse ethics and morality with any particular religion.

Second, the Democrats need to build an organization that has a modern "TO&E" (table of organization and equipment), with paid professional staff and help at every level, just as trade associations do, and with channels for direct communication and input from the average party member. I admit I don't know exactly how the DNC is set up now, and it may be necessary to get rid of the current leadership, but something has got to change the management of the party's business. (See, for example, the first reason the Republicans won, above.)

Third, the Democrats must get unhappy traditional Republicans and centrist independents to join the party permanently, as well as grab the new young voters. (See the third reason the Democrats lost, above.) I subscribe to the Nation, American Prospect and American Conservative, and there are surprisingly many points of convergence, thanks to Bush's moving Republicans so far into reactionary zealotry -- for example, in their common reactions to the Iraq war and to the PATRIOT Act. So many Americans have been thoroughly vaccinated against "Democrat" that the party may even have to come up with a new name, something that avoids "liberal" or "progressive" or "Democrat," even if the new Democratic Party is in fact all three of these things. Put the old wine in a new bottle. After all, Bush has put his new wine in the old bottle of Republicanism, and what we now face is another one of those tectonic shifts in party alignment that we go through every so often. But hurry up -- the train is leaving the station.

Fourth, Democrats should not fall into the trap of trying to "heal the country" by going along with Bush in his second term. That will finish the party for good, and anyway, it's not statesmanlike. Be firm with wavering Democrats whom Bush might bribe, subvert or suborn on this or that issue. It may take a while, but Democrats have to be the loyal opposition, and that does mean opposition (principled, of course).

I was so disgusted with the Democrats in the 2002 election that I could not bring myself to become a Democrat until after that, and I am sure I was not the only disappointed one. We can't be a bunch of patsies again. Part of this means developing, based on the first step mentioned above, what I call Democratic "pundidiots " -- that is, talking heads who are talking from the Democratic philosophy -- and insisting they be part of the endless chattering. This is necessary even if it means immediately finding a major independent donor to buy a regular TV program to provide news, commentary and investigative reporting. And I do not mean Air America, but someplace on national television to expose Republican misdeeds and express Democrats' alternative view of the world, inasmuch as neither the House nor the Senate is going to hold hearings to expose Republican malfeasance and stupidity and the media is already too cowed to do much. The party could use this exposure to showcase rising young Democrats and give them credibility in the public eye for future campaigns.

Fifth, the Democrats must address and fix every one of the issues presented in the 10 reasons I cite for the Republicans' win and the Democrats' loss. They also need to develop some programs that will help change the ground rules. For example, let's get rid of gerrymandering by taking redistricting out of the hands of state legislatures and putting it into the hands of professional demographers. (The legislatures would still have to approve the results, of course.) This would result in more competitive races and perhaps bring voters back into the process. And they should heed other ideas that come bubbling up from the huddled masses of angry, disappointed Democrats and angry, disappointed anti-Bush and anti-zealot Republicans and independents who are depending on the Democrats to save America. The nation is fast becoming a totalitarian, one-party state (American style), and we worker bees do have lots more to say on the subject.

By Theodora D. Goodson

Theodora D. Goodson worked briefly as a political analyst with the CIA and then, as an Army wife, ran a small business. For the past 37 years, she has been a Realtor in Northern Virginia.

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