25 August 2003
Democrats in disarray
George Packer, in the September/October Mother Jones, on the decaying of the Democrats:
Everybody knows that the Democratic Party has lost its way. The Clinton years once seemed to have ended a long-term decline but they only slowed it, and that only temporarily. Clinton's political genius was to convey an adherence to liberal values while abandoning liberal positions. This served him very well, but it didn't serve his party. It was an entirely personal achievement. Since then the party's decline has picked up speed, with the low, ominous rumble of a landslide. These days one has the sense of having leapfrogged the Clinton years backward and landed in some sunless late afternoon of the Mondale-Dukakis era.
The operative word here, I suspect, is "landslide."
What are the Democrats to do? Can they do anything at this point? Splintered as they are, reduced to a collection of, in Packer's phrase, "small-minded, turf-conscious groups," it's hard to imagine how they can even nominate a Presidential candidate next year, let alone beat the Bush machine. Part of this, I think, is Dubya's willingness to borrow occasionally from the Slick Willie playbook: espouse one set of platitudes for public consumption, embrace another when the votes come down. (What? You thought W's enthusiasm for cutting taxes made him some sort of fiscal conservative? Have you seen the budget lately? Bush suffers Deficit Attention Disorder as acutely as any Seventies Democrat.)
But even if Bush proves, as expected, to be unbeatable, the Democrats are not excused from the obligation to come up with a candidate who is actually credible, and if that means cheesing off substantial portions of the party's base, so be it. As Packer explains:
[T]here is something worse than losing, and that is losing pointlessly, which is how Al Gore lost (or, as you might have it, how he won). The way for the party not to lose pointlessly is to proceed incautiously. The most attractive candidate will be the one who airs ideas that risk alienating a constituent of the alliance not, in Clinton's manner, for tactical reasons, but because the ideas might be good ones and might catch the public pulse as [Adlai] Stevenson did half a century ago, making future victories possible.
Stevenson, I remind you, is to Democrats what Barry Goldwater is to Republicans; while he never won the Presidency, his particular set of ideas eventually did get to the White House. I'd like to think there's a JFK-like figure (well, in some respects, anyway) in the Democratic Party's future even if that future doesn't start until 2008.