|November 9, 2004|
We Have to Evolve or Perish
A BUZZFLASH READER CONTRIBUTION
This one really smarts. At least in 2000 we understood what happened. Ultimately, that was an election decided by good old electoral fraud. We could get our head around that. Maybe Al Gore hadnít put together the best campaign, but millions more voted for Al and Ralph than "W." We may had lost courtesy of a crooked Supreme Court, but it was the type of loss that left you enraged and energized. Just like the Olde Towne Team, you thought "just wait Ďtil next time."
No such excuses this time. And assuming the whispers about Diebold rigging the election to not come to fruition, this one has left us demoralized and in despair.
Why is this one so hard? As leftists and specifically as Democrats, we believe the country shares our values. More people are registered as Democrats than Republicans. Poll after poll show that people share our values and issues far more than with the Republicans.
With the good candidate, the right message, and a good turn out, Democratic victories are supposed to be assured. And although no campaign is perfect, Kerry is a good candidate who ran a pretty good campaign. Although Kerry may have sometimes prevaricated when we wished he were clearer, the long campaign, the debates and the 527s left most Americans with two reasonably clear alternative visions of America. The left organized itself in support of Kerry in a way that may have even surpassed the efforts to end the Vietnam war. Volunteers combed neighborhoods nationally to get out the vote. We donated money and sponsored our own television ads.
And still we lost.
It is all the more shattering because it challenges the central premises that we hold dear as Democrats as flawed. Now that the initial shock has passed, we must look at our reality and see if we can determine where we went wrong. The tough part of this analysis is that we must analyze something that is inherently illogical to us. Accept it -- some part of how we believe Americans to be, or at least how Americans can be persuaded, is wrong. We have to think "outside the box" and understand that the answers we seek will seem "wrong" or alien. We must accept that we are fundamentally wrong about some part of how we run candidates for national office and change despite the fact that we strongly believe in our methods.
I suggest for the next thirty days we open our minds to the lessons of the election of 2004. Let us without criticism explore these lessons, however counter intuitive the lessons seems to be. Let us on Air America and the Internet analyze these painful lessons so that 2006 and 2008 belong to us.
Without pride of authorship, I suggest here are some of these lessons:
Most Americans Do Share Our Values but We Have Not Clearly Given them a Reason to Vote for Us.
If I have heard one thing from my colleagues over the past few days, it is some variation of this: "I canít believe I live in a country dominated by fundamentalist hillbillies! How has it come to this?"
I do not think it has come to this. I refuse to believe that the majority of my countrymen have become fundamentalist neo-fascists. My gut tells me it isnít so. When I walk down our streets of our towns and cities, I do not believe this. Yet, if the election is to be believed, the majority of voters did vote for a fundamentalist neo-fascist. Although it is tempting to throw in the towel in despair and believe things are beyond hope (as a life long Red Sox fan I can understand this temptation), we should not do this.
Liberal ideas triumphed in the minimum wage referendum in "red state" Florida. The majority of Americans still think the country is headed in the wrong direction (56%), think the war wasn't worth fighting (51%), and don't approve of the job George W. Bush is doing (52%).
Imagine that! The majority of Americans do not approve of the job W is doing yet they re-elected him. That is a clear message -- America did not like John Kerry.
The lesson of 2004 is that although America shares our values, America does not like our candidates.
We Must Start Running Spokesmen Not Statesmen.
What do Ronald Reagan, George W. Bush and Arnold Schwarzenegger all have in common? They are all successful Republican candidates who came to power despite having no discernable legislative or executive accomplishments. Each had a resume that was either thin (Reagan, Bush) or non-existent (Schwarzenegger). However, each one of them successfully portrayed an image of the values that he hoped to promote. Significantly, two of the three are professional actors. All were personally well received by your "average American" (the important which candidate would you like to have a beer with quotient). Each used this resonance with the voters to portray simplistic themes. Each dodged difficult answers to complex problems. Each became an executive controlled in large part by his handlers. But all achieved electoral success.
To call this a victory of style over substance is to under-estimate what the Republicans are doing. The foray into Iraq is part of a well thought out plan to annex the oil fields of the Middle East and to use the might of the US military to influence the world. Although all of this is explained in detail in the position papers of right wing think tanks, not a word of that analysis is expressed by their candidate to the press. Instead we got "this is the guy who tried to kill my dad" and "he has connections with terrorists." Again, vague statements by a popular spokesman that displayed the essence of the agenda without any of the details.
As Democrats, we adopt the polar opposite approach. We run candidates with long resumes. We explain our reasoning with detailed bullet points. We think facts demonstrate the policies we promote. John Kerry had a twenty year in the US Senate and a decorated combat career. These facts were supposed to project the image of well reasoned domestic and international policy tempered by the personal experience of combat.
It didnít. Instead, W pranced around in a military flight suit and projected the image of someone who supported the military during this time of war. The fact that W went AWOL and then deserted from his military unit during the Vietnam war went largely ignored. The fact of John Kerryís lifetime support of the military got lost in the shuffle of his statements on the Iraq war and the Swift Boat for Truth attacks. Arguably, Kerry blew the best visual of his campaign when he appeared with his Swift Boat comrades at the DNC convention looking out of place in his Senatorial blue suit. He should have donned combat fatigues and his old naval hat.
John Kerryís nuanced and thoughtful comments (which we Democrats loved so much) became so much background white noise to the important parts of the electorate that we needed to support us.
As Democrats we need to recognize the Presidency is a position that is more symbolic than substantive. The electorate does not want substantive candidates. They want candidates who demonstrate the imagery and symbolism that gives them comfort. In 2004, Kerry failed to demonstrate a strong image of being strong on defense. Bush, who factually does not support the troops, convinced most Americans that he symbolically embraced the troops. He therefore won this important part of the vote.
Republicans rely on the candidateís handlers to deliver on the substance of the image that candidate has promoted. In large part, even Reagan and Bush supporters admit to this. Did Reagan or does Bush understand the details of the policies he promotes? No, he doesnít. But he can recite the "talking points" and get the sound bite on the nightly news. Karl Rove then does the rest.
Does this mean we need to run Martin Sheen? Maybe it does. The fact that this seems crazy to you means that you, as a Democrat, have not absorbed what Reagan and Schwarzenegger have done. There are many image friendly Democrats who have the intelligence and fortitude to be good candidates. Many are already in politics but some will not be. I will leave that to the media savvy to tell me who projects the image we need. How about the Springsteen/Sheen ticket? Or the Obama/Oprah ticket? Let you imagination run wild here! To everyone who says I am crazy, I say one thing: AHN-ALD! AHN-ALD! A dopey Austrian born body builder turned action hero is governor of California. And you said it would never happen.
Democrats need to shed their fear of demonstrating Christianity/Spirituality.
Our deep respect for the separation of church and state has made us uneasy about wearing our faith on our sleeve. We need to get over that.
Church going Americans donít want moral presidents in fact. Reagan was a divorcee. Bush is an alcoholic coke head. Cheating on their wives and taxes are practically a Republican way of life. But the Republican candidates like Bush make a great show of demonstrating at least symbolic commitment to the tenets of organized religion. For the large part of America that attends church regularly, this gives great comfort that Bush is one of us.
Democrats need to reach out and build alliances with the moderate churches to counter the strong ties between the fundamentalists and the RNC. By failing to ally themselves with sympathetic churches in a public way, the Democrats unintentionally cede by default important parts of the church going demographic. By noting an absence of Democrats embracing the Church, fundamentalists argue convincingly to their flocks that God is a Republican. The religious voter, looking for a "Christian" candidate finds only one option -- the Republican.
Democrats need to find "wedge issues" and use them.
Republicans have excelled at finding ridiculous "wedge issues" and exploiting them. In the midst of the war on terrorism and this collapsing economy, the Republicans drove many to the polls gripped with absurd fear that gay men might marry.
Two can play at that game. Like the Republicans, liberals need to pick fake issues and use them as a drum to call people to the polls. Referendums against the renewal of the draft, resolutions against the drilling of the Grand Canyon -- the name of the game is not whether the fear is real, but what will help frame the debate and push people off the couch and to the polls.
We need one. The media is conservative and cowed. Air America is a start but for liberals to have the echo chamber like the conservatives have we need to start buying AM radio stations and end up with a broadcast news channel.
I do not have the answers. My ideas might all be wrong. But I do know that we must start asking ourselves how we fix this or the country will continue to slip into fundamentalist neo-fascism. And in order to change the direction of the country, we must change the essential nature of how we run candidates for national office. The lessons start now.
A BUZZFLASH READER CONTRIBUTION
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