Democratic operatives are quick to dismiss John Kerry's defeat as the byproduct of political circumstance: a flawed, flip-flopping candidate and a misfiring campaign that couldn't persuade voters to replace the Commander-in-Chief in the middle of the war on terror. But such excuses, while partly valid, miss the bigger point: Democrats keep losing Presidential elections they could have won.
Yes, the aloof, aristocratic Kerry wasn't anyone's idea of a dream candidate. But there were also fatal weaknesses in Al Gore's 2000 bid. And what about Michael Dukakis? And Walter Mondale? They were all judged far too liberal to be entrusted with the White House.
George W. Bush's 2004 victory highlights problems with a Presidential nominating process that regularly leads Democrats to select out-of-the-cultural-mainstream candidates. For the better part of three decades, Dems have struggled to remain competitive in elections where most voters thought they were out of step on security and values. Without neutralizing those concerns, Democrats have little chance of once again becoming the majority party they were from the New Deal through the Great Society. "Something went wrong [in 2004] besides a lousy candidate," says John Kenneth White, a political scientist at Catholic University. "Democrats need to say: 'We ought to look to see if we have a party problem here."'
The narrowness of Kerry's Electoral College defeat may keep many of the party faithful from realizing how deep that problem really is. To lose an election when the party base was charged up -- and turned out in massive numbers -- means that there simply aren't enough loyal Democrats to carry a Presidential candidate to victory. Indeed, the last Democrat to reach 50% of the vote was Lyndon B. Johnson in 1964.
In the intervening decades, the party's socially liberal standard-bearers have watched a steady erosion of support from voters who once made up the heart of the New Deal coalition: blue-collar, less educated, and rural whites. What's left is a bicoastal party that has an ever-more-difficult time competing in the industrial heartland and has collapsed in the South -- once the twin peaks of its power. Continuing to wallow in nostalgia and trying to reassemble the New Deal coalition relegates Democrats to long-term minority status. "If there's a silver lining [in Kerry's defeat], it is that it's going to eliminate the ability [of Democrats] to argue that we have a natural majority on our side," says California venture capitalist Andrew S. Rappaport, a leading funder of Democratic causes. "We don't. It's over."
Changing the nomination process to reduce the power of interest groups might be a start. Although polls show that Democratic liberals are outnumbered by party moderates and conservatives, they dominate the primaries. In 2004 former Vermont Governor Howard Dean's unexpected surge as the candidate of the hard-core antiwar Left masked the fact that Dean's rivals were liberals, too -- just of a more pragmatic stripe. Even retired General Wesley K. Clark, medals and all, ran as a down-the-line liberal. The only moderate in the nine-candidate field, Senator Joe Lieberman, failed to win a single primary.
Then there's the party's inability to come up with a lasting post-New Deal ideology. Bill Clinton's New Democrat formulation succeeded for eight years, but the past two nominees have diluted upbeat Clintonism with downbeat rhetoric, harping on tax cuts for the rich and scaring the elderly with warnings about Social Security privatization.
Both Gore and Kerry allowed Bush strategist Karl Rove to frame the 2000 and 2004 elections as contests between a future-oriented Republican who backed reforms of pensions and health care and a retro-liberal who promised to restore the Rust Belt, slow outsourcing, and put the engine of Big Government to work for the working class. Republicans once were the moss-backed defenders of the way things used to be. Nowadays it's the Democrats who pine for yesteryear and their foes who style themselves as New Economy visionaries.
Until Dems come up with a compelling call to modernity, they'll have trouble snagging enough suburban swing voters and urban investors to build an Electoral College majority. "The way for us to put together a winning coalition is to talk about big ideas, like Clinton did," says Al From, CEO of the centrist Democratic Leadership Council. "When we break up into constituency groups and try to piece together a coalition, it never works."
The biggest reason that the coalition won't jell: Democrats must come to grips with the reality that they are increasingly on the losing side of America's cultural divide. In this election, millions of blue-collar economic populists rejected a Massachusetts liberal because they felt he did not share their values on issues ranging from abortion to affirmative action, from guns to gay rights. More than two-thirds of churchgoing Christians -- including millions who disapproved of the President's handling of the economy and the war in Iraq -- nevertheless voted for Bush. The cultural chasm cost Kerry dearly in states he badly needed to win, such as Missouri, Iowa, and West Virginia.
Complicating Democratic comeback efforts is the specter of terrorism. For two elections -- in 2002 and 2004 -- Republicans have successfully used security fears to beat the opposition. The Democratic weak-on-terrorism label is a throwback to the Vietnam era and its aftermath, when the party was tagged as soft on defense.
With the fall of the Berlin Wall and the Soviet empire, Democrats thought they had escaped the old stereotype. But Bush effectively painted Kerry as an antidefense, anti-intelligence liberal trapped in a September 10 mindset. The attacks on Kerry's Navy service and subsequent Vietnam protests by some Swift Boat veterans hurt him badly with blue-collar voters and military families. Despite Kerry's vow to fight "a smarter war on terror," Dems lost substantial ground among older men who remember the nuclear anxieties of the Cold War -- and also among anxious moms who fear attacks. "Voters have traditionally seen the Republican Party as strong on defense and strong on the projection of military force," says Republican pollster Tony Fabrizio. "It's going to take the Democrats time to neutralize that."
Whether the Democrats return to Clinton-style left-right fusion and embrace post-September 11 hawkishness in 2008 depends largely on the party's nominee. The two early favorites are Washington insiders with close ties to liberal constituency groups: New York Senator Hillary Clinton and defeated Vice-Presidential candidate John Edwards. But if history is any guide, the party's path to victory could run through statehouses, where innovative governors such as New Mexico's Bill Richardson, Virginia's Mark Warner, and Iowa's Tom Vilsack are known to nurture White House ambitions.
Indeed, the past two Democratic Presidents have been governors -- Southern governors, to be precise -- who bridged the nation's cultural divide. It'll take similar skills for another Democrat to win. But without serious soul-searching about the changing electorate and unchanging verities of the primary process, the Dems are likely to play this tune again and again.
By Richard S. Dunham