Party Like It’s 1984

I was watching old Walter Mondale wave good-bye last Wednesday, and it occurred to me: Fortune, for whatever capricious reason, has spun her wheel and singled out Mondale as the man who would be at the center of a Democratic Waterloo not once but twice, the first time as tragedy and the second time as … well, bigger tragedy. But nothing happens without a reason, as they say, and if the Democrats are to learn from last Tuesday’s debacle, they need to understand that, odd as it may seem, there’s a connection between Mondale’s 1984 defeat and the GOP triumph of last week.

What could 1984 possibly have to do with today? Plenty. Mondale’s loss to Ronald Reagan set two things in motion. First, it ignited a round of recriminations similar to – exactly like, actually – those we’re hearing right now. In the wake of that election, the Democratic Leadership Council was formed to move the party away from “dinosaur” liberalism and toward the center, while Jesse Jackson’s presidential candidacy had shown that plenty of rank-and-file Democrats still liked the old-time religion. Thus was launched the debate about whether the party should move left or right. Some of the issues have changed over the years, but that debate has never been settled, and in fact it sounded exactly the same last week – as partisans of the liberal Nancy Pelosi sparred with backers of the centrist Martin Frost over which one of them should succeed Dick Gephardt – as it did eighteen years ago.

Around the same time, and largely as a consequence of that dispute, Democrats – now at sea, uncertain of their vision and the principles that had animated them for 50 years – started to rely excessively, even feverishly, on their pollsters to tell them what to do. The polling business, at the time, was discovering new and wondrous ways of slicing the electorate into ever more discrete clusters. These groups were given cutesy monikers – the disaffecteds, the new-prosperity independents – and Democrats became convinced by their pollsters that elections were won by blurring the differences between the parties on the large things and emphasizing the differences on the small things: Get 6 percent more of this group by talking up family leave, or 4 percent more of that group by playing down your opposition to gun control. That’s the way to win.

For a time, at least in the hands of a master pol like Bill Clinton, it was. But Clinton’s personal talents merely allowed the Democrats to ignore the red flags that their post-1984 politics raised. It was an incrementalist politics that never quite sorted out what it stood for, and that not only lacked vision but was in fact against it. Too much vision was risky, a loser. Keep it small, and keep it safe.

What the Democrats learned last Tuesday, or what they should have learned, at any rate, is that this microscopic approach is now the way to lose elections. Actually, they should have learned it after 2000. Al Gore should have defeated George W. Bush, but he strolled into the quicksand of exactly the two trends I’ve described: He got trapped in the liberal-vs.-centrist argument, trying to be both and ending up as neither; and he allowed himself to be overhandled by a hive of micromanaging advisers, as he himself has lately come to realize (what a knack Democrats have for figuring these things out after an election!). At the time, the Gore experience looked like a nadir. How could things possibly get worse than that?

Well, Tom Daschle and Dick Gephardt showed us how. Be cautious, don’t stand for anything bold, don’t offend a soul, don’t answer attacks in kind, and for God’s sake don’t use your imagination to perpetrate any actual ideas. This passivity is a direct result of the dynamics that took hold after 1984: Don’t be too liberal, but don’t be too centrist either; nibble at little pieces of the electorate and check everything with the pollsters first.

These are the Democrats’ problems, and they need to transcend both to get back in the game. First, leaders of the two wings of the party need to find a way to agree that the party can accommodate both liberal and centrist views. There are some questions on which the party should move left. Democrats should be for universal health care. It is the great uncompleted task of liberalism, and they should just be unambiguously for it. And there are other questions on which the party should be centrist. Welfare reform seems mostly to have worked, despite the left’s apocalyptic sermonizing. National-security concerns, post-9/11, require that Democratic skepticism about the use of American power that dates from Vietnam needs some fairly drastic rethinking.

Second, and this is the main thing, they need to think big now. This election should be the death of small-think, and of waiting for the pollsters to give a thumbs-up before they open their mouths. I’ve been aghast since 9/11 that the Democratic Party has not come up with an idea about American foreign policy that makes a bold and optimistic statement about America’s role in the world. That statement should be an alternative to the Bush strategy, which posits the United States as a latter-day empire on which the sun never sets. But more than that, it should offer a positive vision. Liberalism surely must have an idea about how to combat fundamentalism in the world. Is coming up with a ten- or fourteen-point program to foster democracy in the Arab world such a hard thing to do?

Democrats used to do these things: Think of the genius of the Marshall Plan (and consider how ridiculous it is that I have to go back 54 years to come up with an example!). Unfortunately, yes, it is a hard thing to do when every notion has to be tested in polls. Abstract visionary proposals by definition can’t poll well. If Franklin Roosevelt had had polls, we probably wouldn’t have had Social Security (“Would you be willing to support a retirement program that guarantees you an old-age income but takes money out of your pocket every week for 40 years?”) and we might have limited our fighting in World War II to Japan, not Germany – and after the war, there sure wouldn’t have been a Marshall Plan. Overreliance on polling and creative imagination are incompatible.

Will the Democrats understand this? I doubt they can rise to the occasion. Their vision muscle has atrophied. And in George W. Bush, they’re going to be facing an incumbent with a formidable political operation in 2004. As Carl McCall showed us here in New York, you can’t take on machinery like that by flashing your CV and saying what a nice guy you are. Things will stay competitive, because half the country, more or less, is on the Democrats’ side by default, and maybe the GOP will overreach. But counting on the other guys to screw up isn’t a strategy. So, Dems: What’s the big idea?

Party Like It’s 1984