Tuesday, November 16, 2004

Why Kerry Lost: The Democratic Debate

Among Democrats there is an emerging and as-yet-unjoined debate over why Kerry lost the election. On one side, we see the Party establishment doing its favorite thing, namely excoriating the loser personally:

Too much credit is being given to President George W. Bush, and not enough blame is being placed at the foot of John Kerry. The time for biting our tongues is over, so let’s just say it: Kerry was a bad candidate. He was dealt an amazing hand -- a president who was elected without the popular vote, who oversaw the first net loss of jobs in 72 years, and who led the nation into a war under false pretenses -- and he blew it.

Part of the reason is that Kerry suffered from a horrendous case of senatoritis: pontificating instead of speaking, orating instead of communicating, and offering programs instead of a vision. His years in Washington also added to the sense that Kerry was part of a cultural elite that didn’t understand the concerns of middle America. (His snowboarding, windsurfing, and Hermes ties didn’t help, either.)

Come on: snowboarding? I don't ski myself, but snowboarding is definitely more populist than inline skiing, and it also has a younger and tougher image associated with it than George Bush's jogging and biking. And while Baer is on the right track when he refers to Kerry's tendency to have "plans" rather than "visions," that's a pretty rich charge coming from Al Gore's former speechwriter.

On the other side of the debate, we find a perspective on why the Democrats seemed incapable of articulating a coherent alternative to the Bush agenda:

If there is a real fault, and there is, it belongs primarily to the Democratic Party as whole. The mistakes of the Kerry campaign and his inability to bring over part of their America to our side had been well prepared by more than three years of Democratic retreat, led by Dick Gephardt and Tom Daschle, now both, thankfully, gone.

The Democrats' first enormous mistake was to collaborate in the Bush tax-cut legislation, despite opposition to some of its parts, and the refusal to use the Senate filibuster to stop this strategy of turning a huge surplus into an even greater deficit. The most ideological part of Bush's congressional supporters always understood what was at stake: if the money is "given back" it cannot be spent. This meant helping to further dismantle a welfare state already in sorry condition, but more important huge deficits block the opportunity for Democrats (which they had missed with Al Gore) to really offer to address the long unmet health, education, retirement and now even security needs of the population....

Unable to tax, Democratic efforts "to change the subject" back to the economy must fail. If you say how exactly you want to save social security, or improve health care, or even seriously improve public security against potential attacks, they will cynically ask where the money is going to come from. Of course they know the answer: the money was spent in advance on the tax cuts, quite deliberately, the political victims collaborated in their own victimization. The result is that Kerry could not offer concrete proposals that would simultaneously cut the deficit and provide much needed new programs.

This seems about right. The Democrats need to fight the battle of economic visions, and do it without shame. Most Americans know they're being screwed economically, that opportunities of "the ownership society" are for them more notional than real.

One piece of evidence that this is the correct strategy is to look at what Karl Rove considers the logical strategy for the Democratic Party, which is to wage what he calls "class warfare." That cynical phrase needs to be brought out in the open, to show how it comes from the party that seeks to destroy unions and impose more regressive tax policies, something along these lines:
"When they say we're 'waging class warfare,' what they mean is that we won't let the rich rip off the poor. When they say we're 'waging class warfare,' what they mean is that we're not going to let them cut taxes for millionaires while quote unquote expanding the tax base, which is just another word for taxing more of the middle class. When they say we're 'waging class warfare,' what they mean is that we're disgusted by corporate executives who get $100 million golden parachutes for screwing up their companies."

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