Sunday, November 07, 2004

Column 9: Don't Mourn - Organize

Column 9: Don’t Mourn – Organize
by Ed Gurowitz

What stands out in this week after the election is that I think both candidates and parties are to be commended for a smooth and non-litigious transition. The President’s victory speech was gracious and conciliatory, and Senator Kerry’s concession was equally free of rancor. I do think that Vice President Cheney was overreaching to call a 3% edge a “mandate,” but chalk it up to post-election euphoria.

Given the inherent edge that a sitting, war-time president has, it may seem strange to ask where the Democrats went wrong in losing this election, but I believe that, with the sharp divisions in the country and the poor record of reelecting Republican incumbents in the past 50 or so years, the Democrats had a real shot and failed. The Democrats’ record of failures (Gore, Dukakis, Mondale) also makes it a legitimate question to ask. An easy answer would point to the Karl Rove strategy of going negative and attacking on issues of questionable merit (the Swift Boat ads, the flip-flopping canard), but given the GOP’s record of negative campaigning and dirty tricks going back to Watergate, the Democrats should have expected and been prepared for this and they clearly weren’t, and were playing catch-up (Heinz, of course) from the start.

More importantly, I believe that the Democratic Party has lost touch with the concerns of mainstream voters, particularly in the South and the Midwest. In exit polls, almost one voter in five put issues of “moral values” at the top of the list of what they based their vote on. Now there are problems with that – first of all, the validity of exit polls is open to question, and secondly what is meant by “moral values” is open to question, but is assumed to refer to issues such as abortion and gay marriage. Whatever its meaning, what is clear is that the Kerry campaign did not address these issues effectively.

Also, and this will not be a view that many who worked for the Democratic cause will like, Kerry was not a candidate with a broad appeal. His war service notwithstanding (and the Swift Boat Veterans attack, while specious, was more effective than Kerry supporters liked to admit), he was seen by many as rich, aristocratic, and aloof. Worse, he came from the Northeast, which is perceived by much of the country as elitist. The President, by contrast, is from Connecticut, was educated at Yale, and like Kerry was a member of the elite Skull and Bones secret society there, but has recast himself, down to his speech patterns, as a Texan, and a plain-spoken middle American.

Finally, I believe that the Democrats have for years fundamentally misread the psychology of the American electorate. A recent book traces people’s politics to their view of family, transposing a “strong father” model of family to the Right and a “nurturant family” model to the Left. Epitomized by former President Clinton, but including the Kerry campaign, the Democrats have been leading with a “nurturant family” approach, and downplaying the “strong father” aspects of government. Probably what the mainstream of American voters want is somewhere between the two, but, particularly in the face of terrorism (it’s only been three years since 9/11) and with troops in harm’s way, the electorate, I think, wanted a higher dose of “strong father” than the Kerry campaign gave them. The Republicans read this right, and conducted a fear-based campaign to maximize their advantage as the “strong father” party.

In post-election email traffic on the Kerry side, a recurrent theme has been “Don’t Mourn, Organize.” Hopefully the Democratic Party will use the four years between now and the 2008 election to reconnect with the half of America who feel the party has lost touch with their needs and concerns.

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