An article from a Democratic-endorsing newspaper in a city that went overwhelmingly Democratic in the 2004 presidential election...
Anger fails to attract converts
[By Robin Shepherd. Robin Shepherd, an adjunct fellow of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, is a columnist based in Central Europe. He is writing a book on the future of the West.
Published in the Chicago Tribune, Sunday, November 7, 2004]
"Those whom the gods wish to destroy, they first make mad."
Hindsight is a wonderful thing, of course, but even in February when I was watching the primaries, I had the feeling that those prophetic words might well be heading up my obituary notice for the Democratic Party's presidential campaign.
The Democrats' campaign was mad in two senses of the word: mad in the sense that anger, scorn and contempt defined the style in which they made their case, and mad in the sense that a central component of that case was just plain crazy.
Let me make something clear at this stage. In referring to the "Democrats' campaign," I have in mind something much broader than the words and actions of Sens. John Kerry and John Edwards--honorable candidates both--during the past six months. Any serious strategist will tell you that a campaign to take the White House begins the moment the last election is over. And its character is defined not only by the official candidates but also by the party machine understood in its widest sense--the activists, the celebrity supporters, the sympathetic pundits and the loyal voters.
Back in 2000
Consider, with this in mind, how it all began in November 2000 and in the aftermath of events in Florida.
Nothing has so defined Democratic politics over the past four years as the allegation that President Bush "stole" that election. If you had a dollar for every reference to hanging or pregnant chads or to Al Gore's victory in the popular vote you could probably pay off the national debt. But will someone tell me what exactly that was all about? Later surveys, by independent analysts, showed that, chads or no chads, Bush won Florida fair and square.
The popular vote? Well, unless I'm mistaken, America does have a federal system. If Democrats wanted to change or abolish the Electoral College, they should have campaigned to do so, while acknowledging with humility that their candidate had lost on a playing field that was level for both candidates. What emerged instead was a four-year self-indulgent whine that filled the Democrats' establishment with misplaced contempt toward the rightful victor, sapping in the process energy and credibility from their entire campaign. Just who was this supposed to impress?
Co-starring with Bush the electoral grave robber, of course, was Bush the inveterate moron. No one ever quite managed to explain how one could be reconciled with the other. If Bush really was so stupid, how did he manage to get away with the greatest crime of the century in the full glare of television cameras and right under the nose of the most litigious society in the world?
Blinded by such contemptuous characterizations, Democrats appeared to forget one of the most basic rules of democratic politics: In U.S. presidential elections, people identify with their candidate, often on a personal level. Democrats lambasting Bush as a dumb, redneck fraudster were not merely slandering the president, they were slandering his voters too. Were wavering Republicans really expected to cross the political divide to be rewarded with the dunce's cap by their self-proclaimed betters?
The tragic irony of the "all-about-Bush" Democrats over the past four years is that they became the party of personality politics. And just as surely as personality politics failed the Republicans with President Bill Clinton, it failed the Democrats with Bush.
In Britain, something similar happened during the 1980s. Americans may not be aware of just how much vitriol was directed against Margaret Thatcher in those years. She, too, was cast by her detractors as a simple-minded, divisive upstart hell-bent on reckless and dangerous foreign policy adventures. That never stopped her from winning elections. The genius of Tony Blair's new Labor Party lay as much in its skill in inaugurating a change in the party's political personality--making it more appealing to mainstream voters and distancing itself from the activist core--as in its willingness to change tack on policy. A moderate and accommodating policy platform was matched by a moderate and accommodating demeanor. And it worked.
To be sure, one could find plenty of instances when Republicans engaged in personality politics as well. But apart from the weirder sections of the Christian right, whose literal demonology mirrored the more figurative kind offered up by the Democrats, there was nothing to compare with the scale of abuse directed against the incumbent.
I did a database search of newspaper articles and readers' letters a few days ago for the phrase "I hate Bush," contrasting it with usage of "I hate Kerry" in the past three months. The Bush haters won 67-7. I am not implying that Kerry and Edwards directly participated in this campaign of vilification. They did not write "The Bush-Hater's Handbook" or "The I Hate George W. Bush Reader." Nor did they put out Michael Moore's appalling "Fahrenheit 9/11," the starkest illustration of anti-Bush bigotry of the past four years. But there were plenty of people around them who reveled in this stuff.
The key problem is that this overpersonalization of the political process deprived the Democrats of a vocabulary that could be understood sympathetically by the people they needed to win over. Not that I'm underestimating the difficulty of bridging the "values gap" so evident in modern America. Nor do I dismiss the importance of the issues. But I don't think those considerations really take us to the heart of the matter.
Democrats need to relearn the art of debating with people without vilifying them as extremists or fools. They need a new political lexicon to address the people with whom they disagree that treats them with respect and not contempt. Above all, they need to come out of denial. The Democrats spent years accusing Bush of dividing the nation when it was they who generated most of the heat. The message is simple: By all means be passionate, but don't be mad. If the gods don't get you, the voters will.