Don’t Call it a Comeback:

How the Democrats can win in 2004 and beyond

 

 December 26, 2002

 

                In the aftermath of the Democrat’s pitiful showing in the 2002 midterm elections it seems like every Democrat has weighed in with his or her opinion about what went wrong.  The DLC thinks the party moved too far to the left, progressives say they didn’t move far enough.  Tactics and strategy were questioned, and rightly so.  A lot of things went wrong for Democrats in 2002, and most of the party’s Monday morning quarterbacks (with the exception of the DLC, who have totally missed the boat) have touched on the major problems.

                The party’s biggest failing was its inability to provide voters a reason to vote for them.  Democrats had no message.  On Iraq and homeland security the party abdicated to the Republicans, removing itself from the debate before it even started and leaving the roll of the loyal opposition to Colin Powell and Tony Blair.  Not only did this hurt the enthusiasm of the Democratic based, it failed miserably in appealing to swing voters.  Faced with a choice between Republicans and wannabe Republicans the voters went with the real thing, as Bill Clinton told his party, voters prefer someone who is “strong and wrong” to someone who is “weak and right.”  The economy should have been a big winner for Democrats, but post election polls showed the two parties running about even on that issue.  Democratic leaders thought that merely criticizing the Bush administration’s record, without offering an alternative, would suffice.  They were wrong.  At every turn Republicans countered Democratic attacks on the economy with the simple question “well, what would you do differently.”  With leading Democrats too timid to take on the Bush tax cut because they feared it would hurt their red state Senate candidates (almost all of whom lost anyway), all they would do was shrug.

                The Democrats were also clearing outmaneuvered by the GOP and the White House.  The Bush team engineered the Iraq crisis at the most politically opportune time (as even Andy Card admitted), catching Democrats flatfooted.  At first, Democrats insisted on a vigorous debate, but wen they got what they wanted they then tried to rush through a vote (in which they gamely went along with the White House) in the hopes that the issue would die down before the election.  Oops.  Homeland Security was an even bigger disaster.  The idea for a new cabinet level department was put forward by Joe Lieberman who, along with the party, though it might give the Democrats a winning issue.  After initially opposing it, Bush reversed course and then trapped the Democrats into opposing the entire department because of a disagreement over civil service protections for department workers.  Even though it was Democrats who proposed the department in the first place, they got hammered for being soft on terror.  This certainly cost Max Cleland his seat, and hurt several other Democrats as well.  This tactics was similar to one used earlier by Bush, and rehashed in several Senate campaigns, when he managed to steal credit for the $300 tax rebate checks sent to most Americans.  Again, this idea belonged to the Democrats and again they ended up getting hammered on it.  The Democrats also let Republicans effectively blur the parties’ differences on two important issues: prescription drugs and social security, negating what would have been two effective Democratic issues.

                Democrats also got out hustled on Election Day.  Traditionally, Democrats have done a much better job getting their voters to the polls; in 2000 Democrats outperformed pre-election polls all over the country up and down the ballot.  In 2002, for the first time, the GOP beat the Democrats at their own game, instituting a much more effective get out the vote (GOTV) plan while Terry McAuliffe and the Democrats seemed to take things for granted.  The exceptions were in South Dakota where the new American Indian voters that Tim Johnson’s campaign turned out were the margin for victory and in the runoff in Louisiana where black voters carried Mary Landrieu.

                It’s definitely true that Democrats can’t be blamed for everything that went wrong in 2002.  The way the White House crassly used the pending war in Iraq and the issue of Homeland Security to its own political advantage was shameful.  The drug industry, acting through front groups like the US Seniors Association and 60 Plus, unleashed a deluge of ads that were essential in taking the prescription drug issue off that table for Democrats.  Paul Wellstone’s death and the backlash from the memorial service turned political rally hurt Walter Mondale and other Democrats.  All of that hurt, but does not excuse the pitiful campaign the party ran.

               

                Just as in 2002, there will be many important factors in 2004 that will be out of the Democrats’ hands.  First and foremost, of course, is the economy.  If the economy suddenly takes off, the task of beating bush will become incredibly difficult.  If, however, the economy continues to stagnate, if unemployment continues to rise and if the stock market stays flat or even falls, the task will become much easier.  In my opinion, the economy is likely to remain near current levels until 2004.  Business investment remains almost non-existent and there is little more the Fed can do to boost it.  Consumer spending has kept the economy afloat but that might not last – this year’s dismal holiday retail season does not bode well.  A well thought out stimulus plan, as I’ll discuss later, could help things along, but there is little chance of one being in acted.  Instead, Bush will likely bush through a “stimulus” plan with no stimulus effects that will include reduced taxes on stock dividends, further tax cuts for the wealthy and, perhaps, more corporate tax cuts.  Such a “stimulus” plan, coupled with his already disastrous economic policy, will likely help to keep the economy where it is or worse.  Moreover, with the crisis in Venezuela continuing and war with Iraq looming, the price of oil is likely to spike.  That could send the economy plunging as well.

                The second major issue beyond the Democrats’ control (for the most part) is Iraq.  War in Iraq is inevitable.  No matter how well Saddam Hussien does or does not comply with UN inspectors, the Bush team has already decided on war.  It is coming.  This will likely boost Bush’s popularity again (which is all part of the plan).  How well that last depends on how smoothly the war and the following occupation goes.  A quick war followed by a smooth transition of governments in Iraq would be a huge boost for Bush and the GOP.  If, however, the US goes to war without significant international backing, if we suffer significant casualties or if the invasion in Iraq causes a wider Middle East conflict, support for the war will rapidly evaporate.   Moreover, if the transition to democracy goes poorly and we end up in a difficult occupation of a country that wants us out, the political costs might also be high.

                How the GOP handles its control of both Houses of Congress will also be important.  If the GOP overreach as they did after 1994, things will be much easier for the Democrats.  Trent Lott’s fiasco only makes the impact of the GOP’s behavior stronger.  They will be walking a fine line, and there is an enormous amount of pressure from the far right of the party to take strong conservative stances on both social and economic issues.  If the GOP pushes social security privatization they will pay a huge price at the polls.  Count on it.  If Bush insists on re-nominating Charles Pickering and judges like him, the Democrats will be in a position to make a lot of hay and to further capitalize on Lott’s transgressions.

                Finally, no one knows if the United States will be faced with further terrorist attacks.  It is difficult to gauge the impact such attacks might have.  On the one hand they could rally the country behind the president ad 9/11 did.  On the other, further attacks could leave Bush vulnerable to criticism that he has not done enough to protect the nation in the wake of the attacks on the Twin Towers.

 

                Still, there is plenty for the Democrats to do.  While the political climate two years from now is not easy to predict there is every reason to believe that Bush and Republicans will be vulnerable in 2004.  But if the Democrats are as squeamish and incoherent in 2004 as they were in 2002, Bush will be reelected and the Democrats will lose again.  The Democrats must present a message and a reason for the voters to chose them over Bush.

                First of all, the Democrats will never win if they can’t excite their own base.  The Green Party is not likely to be as damaging in 2004 as they were in 2000 – Green candidates won only .4% of the vote in 2002 Congressional races (4 times less than Libertarian candidates) and Ralph Nader has been exposed as the hypocritical spoiler he is.  Still, Democrats can’t win unless the base of the party, especially labor and blacks, turn out and work hard for Democratic candidates.  Just look at the difference both blacks and labor made in the Louisiana runoff.  Second, Democrats must give independents and moderate Republicans a reason to vote for them.  You can’t win independent voters by refusing to take a stand on issues important to them.

                Some contend that these two goals are mutually exclusive – you can’t excite the base and win swing voters at the same time, they say.  This is the kind of thinking that could turn the Democratic Party into a permanent minority party.  The fact is Democrats own most of the pressing issues facing America.  Most Americans favor the Democratic approach on the economy, education and health care.  Polls continue to show that, while he is personally popular, President Bush’s position on the issues are not.  In many cases, the things the base of the party and swing voters care the most about are the same thing.  Offering a coherent and effective economic plan that will create jobs and boost the economy plays well in the inner city and in the suburbs.  Good education and affordable health care are important to blacks and whites.  Democrats can activate their base and win swing votes if they focus on these issues and sell them better than the Republicans do.  So far they have let the GOP define the debate, and that is where they get hurt.

                Certainly there are exceptions to this thesis.  While the liberal wing of the party is stridently anti-war (there’s no doubt that the party’s abdication on war with Iraq depressed its base in 2002), swing voters are more ambivalent.  The key, though, is that swing voters are, indeed, ambivalent.  They aren’t hungry for war.  If Democrats are smart they can construct a foreign policy platform that not only plays to the anti-war base, but also makes sense to Americans who want a strong stance on the war on terror but are increasingly concerned with the reckless way the Bush team has rushed into war with Iraq.

                Here are the seven things the Democrats must do to win in 2004 and beyond.

 

1.       Win the economy debate

 

Democrats lost in 2002 because they boxed themselves in on the economy and tax cuts.  The debate about the economy in 2004, as it did in 2002, will revolve about only one thing – tax cuts.  Obviously, economic policy should be much more complicated than that, but Bush’s economic policy isn’t – his solution to everything is tax cuts, tax cuts and more tax cuts.  In the 2002 cycle, the Democrats lost this battle early.

When Bush offered his tax cut plan the Democrats response was shockingly meek.  Instead of offering a real counterproposal and attempting to bargain Bush down to a reasonable level, the Democrats offered their own too massive tax cut.  The resulting “compromise,” a $1.7 trillion behemoth, was a disaster that the Democrats were stuck with.  Instead of presenting a coherent argument against the cut, Democrats tried to portray themselves as tax-cutters lite – they were also for big tax cuts, just not quite as big.  A lot of this was driven by the desires of red state Democrats up for reelection in 2002, especially Max Baucus.  As a result, the Democrats boxed themselves in.  They allowed a bad bill to pass.  They wedded themselves to the idea of tax cuts, and allowed the game to played on Bush’s term.  Then, to make matters worse, for the rest of the term they were too cowered by the prospect of being label as pro-tax (something that happened anyway) to challenge the tax cut and the Bush economic policy as the election approached.  Never did Democrats offer a realistic alternative to this approach.   Guess what, most of those red state Democrats who sided with Bush on taxes lost anyway.

The party allow themselves to be boxed in again.  Even better, they need to turn the tables on the Republicans and box Bush in this time around.

If they are going to be successful, Democrats will have to pounce on this opportunity right now.  The first priority of the new Congress will be to pass an economic stimulus bill.  Bush is likely to push another big tax cut for the wealthy that calls for accelerating the tax cuts from his 2001 bill and also include a tax cut on dividends.  Neither of these approaches, of course, offer much stimulus.  Democrats should counter by offering a comprehensive alternative.

This alternative should include a cut in payroll taxes as well as a cut in income taxes for the bottom two tax brackets.  Whereas Bush’s tax cut is slanted disproportionately towards the wealthy, and payroll tax cut would help all working Americans, even those who don’t pay income taxes.  This is good politics and good policy: it gets money in the hands of people to would spend it, and it offers real relief to many more voters.  Including a small middle class income tax cut helps sell the program to the middle class.  Even better, a cut in payroll taxes helps business by reducing the amount they have to pay in matching the payroll tax – this tax cut really is a job creator, a feature Democrats should really sell to the public.

The alternative should also include an extension of unemployment benefits, block grants to the states, infrastructure spending on roads and schools and a pro-business component such as allowing quicker capital depreciation.  Including an extension of benefits is a political winner that helps emphasize the increasing number of jobs lost under the Bush White House.  States are facing increasingly dire straights and as more and more states raise taxes and cut services as we approach 2004, Democrats can win by pointing out they wanted to do something about the problem.  Increasing spending on education infrastructure is a double winner because it provides stimulus and a much need improvement in our schools. Democrats get killed when they are seen as overly anti-business, so a pro-business component is a must, and one that increases business investment like allowing quicker depreciation is also smart policy.

How will we pay for all this?  You guessed it, by rolling back Bush’s big tax cut.  Republicans will, of course, try to label such a move as an attempt to raise taxes.  Democrats must be forceful in selling their plan and convincing the public that the Republicans are full of it.  Above all else, Democrats must present their plan as a middle class tax cut.  Yes, it’s necessary to roll back the tax cuts for the wealthy, but what is needed now are tax cuts for all Americans, not just a privileged few.  Democrats must put Bush in his own box by painting him as an opponent of their middle class tax cut who’s budget busting tax cuts for the wealthy are keeping money out of the hands of middle class Americans. 

The point is not to see this policy enacted into law, though a strong stand in the Senate could win important concessions from the Republicans.  Rather, it is to present an alternative strategy which Democrats can point to in the run up to 2004.  If, as is likely, the economy is still in a stall and unemployment and deficits are still high in 2004, Democrats will be able to point to this debate and say that the Bush plan has failed where theirs would have succeeded.

 

 

2.       Get tough on security

 

By “get tough” I don’t mean get tough on Iraq, I mean get tough on Bush and the Republicans.  A post election poll conducted by Greenberg, Quinlan, Rosen showed that Americans preferred Republicans to Democrats 59% to 19% on the question of who is better at “keeping American strong.”  Democrats can’t win that way.

The solution is not the Gephardt approach of totally folding to Bush on Iraq.  Not only is it irresponsible, but it’s terrible politics.  Such an approach not only disenchants the Democratic base, but it is a tactic admission that Bush is right on foreign policy.  Democrats can’t win a foreign policy debate with Bush if they back his own approach.  And they can’t simply try to blur the differences on foreign policy and hope voters will focus on domestic issues.  After 9-11 security matters.  A lot.

Democrats need to go on the attack.  Bush’s foreign policy has been a disaster and he is vulnerable to the right criticism.  In recent weeks Al Gore, John Kerry and Bob Graham have finally hit on the right approach: pointing out that the biggest threat to the United States is al Qaeda and Bush has been neglecting that.  A recent AP poll found that 59% of Americans saw Al Qaeda and Osama bin Laden as the greater threat to US security while only 29% thought Iraq and Saddam Hussein were a bigger threat.  Democrats need to continue to point out that the push for war with Iraq is diverting much needed focus, resources and intelligence away from the war on terror (a critique that Bob Graham, the ranking member of the Senate Intelligence Committee could make especially well as a Vice Presidential nominee).  This line of attack can be enhanced by focusing on Bush and Cheney’s ties to Saudi Arabia and big oil.           

Democrats need to insist that Americans are less safe thanks to the actions of President Bush.  They need to explain that Bush, and his party, simply aren’t up to the task with their simplistic approach of zeroing in on Iraq only.  Not only are they ignoring the bigger problem of destroying bin Laden and al Qaeda, but they have looked the other way as problems grew into full blown crises in Korea and South America.  Democrats need to argue that Bush does not understand the complexities of these many issues well enough to lead the US through troubled international waters.  Moreover, Democrats should use increasing public disapproval of Saudi Arabia and argue that we can no longer count this country as an ally and that we must reduce our dependence on oil so that we can longer be held hostage.  The party needs to argue that Bush’s ties to Saudi Arabia and big oil make him incapable of acting in the interest of American security.

The goal of all this isn’t necessarily to win the debate on security, but to negate the issues as much as possible and to instill doubt about Bush’s capabilities in the area that his advisers are counting on being his biggest strength.  Security will be one of the biggest issues of the 2004 campaign, and Democrats can’t lose this issue by 40 points again.  As Bill Clinton said, voters prefer “strong and wrong” to “weak and right.”  By being “strong and right” Democrats can reverse their image as the party of wimps, and cut into the Republicans’ domination of this issue.

 

3.       Obstruct the Bush Agenda

 

The GOP scored some points in 2002 by painting Democrats as obstructionists.  That will be much more difficult this time around now that the GOP controls both Houses of Congress – one of the few benefits of having the Republicans in control.  While the GOP can still press their agenda through the House, disciplined action by the Democrats can still block significant parts of Bush’s agenda.  The public, however, doesn’t understand the Senate rules that allow such maneuvering and are much more likely to blame legislative inaction on the party in control: the Republicans.

Democrats need to use their ability to obstruct Bush with impunity.  This should make good policy sense to Democrats who will oppose almost all elements of the conservative agenda Bush and his allies will attempt to pass.  More important, this makes good short and long term political sense as well.  The goal should be to deny Bush accomplishments to run on.  Even though his legislative victories on taxes and education resulted in mediocre laws at best and terrible ones at worst, they still gave Bush and Republicans a platform of “success” to run on in 2002.  If Bush is denied any similar major successes over the next two years, he will be in a much tougher spot come 2004, especially if the economy is still a mess.  Moreover, Democrats can score points by taking on the most conservative Republican proposals in a very public fashion.  When it comes to proposals like drilling in Alaska or more limits on Abortion, the GOP agenda does not play well with the majority of the public.  Democrats need to highlight the conservativeness of these proposals and do their best to make sure they never get out of the Senate.

 

4.       Work the issues

 

One thing Democrats cannot allow to happen is for Republicans to continue to encroach on issues that that traditionally favor Democrats.  All in all, the issues still favor Democrats, but Republicans have done a very good job over the past few years of blurring the line between the parties on a number of issues.  President Bush’s efforts to pass his “Leave no Child Behind Act” helped blunt the Democrat’s traditional advantage on education, even though it left a lot to be desired from a policy stand point.  Republicans were very successful in muddying the waters about prescription drugs and social security this election.  They threw out a lot of innuendo and disinformation about their own position on the issues that confused the voters so much that they eventually threw up their hands and stopped trying to tell the parties apart.  On these three issues; education, social security and health care; Democrats need to strongly press their case over the next two years in order to make Republicans take public stands on positions they can be held to in 2004.

On health care, President Bush’s favorability rating is only 33%.  The White House has already indicated that a health care offensive will be one of their major policy initiatives over the next two years.  Democrats should focus on the issues just as strongly and offer bold and comprehensive programs to extend coverage to more Americans and to help lower prescription drug prices for everyone, not just seniors.  The identity of the party’s eventual nominee will have a lot to do with what kind of health care platform the Democratic Party runs on in the 2004 election (if Howard Dean wins the nomination, for instance, the goal of extending coverage to all Americans will likely be front and center).  Until the part has a nominee there is much it can do, however.  It should block any Republican attempts at a watered down prescription drug plan and demand that the president and his party meet Democrats more than half way on this issue.  When the two sides deadlock again, it will be much easier to blame the GOP this time around since they control both Houses.  The Democrats must focus on drug prices in general as well.  As prices continue to rise, this is liable to be one of the most powerful issues out there, and since Republicans are already viewed as beholden to the drug industry, this should be a powerful line of attack against the GOP.  The party should push plans to make it easier for generic drugs to come to market, to inhibit the ability of drug companies to endlessly extend patents and to increase the purchasing power of Medicare recipients.  As for coverage, the logical place to start would be to expand CHIPs, the Children’s Health Insurance Program, which sends matching funds to states in order to make sure more children are covered.  Especially with the states’ budget picture being so grim, an increase of federal money going to states to make sure children are covered in a political winner and makes sense.  If Democrats press for some of these actions, hopefully some significant health care advances can be achieved.  If not, Democrats will have a valuable club to use against Bush and the GOP.  One thing Democrats must be careful of, though, is the issue of reducing malpractice insurance costs.  Like drug prices, this issues is likely to become more important over the next two years.  And even though it goes against the interests of one of the party’s key backers (trial lawyers), Democrats should not be averse to efforts to keep malpractice insurance costs down by implementing some limited tort reform on malpractice suits.  Republicans should not be given carte blanche on the issue, but if Democrats fight tooth and nail on behalf of trial lawyers, the GOP will make them pay at the ballot box.

Social Security is likely to be one area where Republicans help the Democrats out by overreaching and attempting to push through a significant privatization of the system.  Democrats can only hope that the Bush administration yields to conservative demands and backs such an effort.  This is one area in which Democrats need only to continue to oppose the GOP, while not really forwarding a proposal of their own.  Special care should be made to hold up as examples those GOP Senators and Congressmen who pledged to protect social security from privatization in the 2002 elections and then went back on their word when push came to shove in Congress.

Though Bush helped neutralize the natural Democratic advantage on education, the party has an opening to reclaim it.  Bush has significantly under funded his own education plan, leaving himself and his party vulnerable to criticism that they care more about big tax cuts for the wealthy than they do about the children they pledged not to “leave behind.”  There’s no doubt the White House will roll out small, inexpensive initiatives aimed at increasing education funding at the margins, but Democrats make them take a position on a significant increase in education spending, perhaps to be offset by rolling back parts of the Bush tax cut.

 

While the party must continue to focus on these three major issues during the next Congress and in the next election, it must also continue to search for potent local or regional issues that it can use against Bush and the Republicans. The Landrieu campaign used supposed administration support for increasing Mexican sugar imports to help win her runoff against Suzie Terrell.  Issues like this will pop up, and Democrats must pounce on them.  One potential winner might be to exploit what is becoming an increasing rift within the GOP – the continuing trade and travel embargo on Cuba.

The Bush administration continues to be adamant in their support for strong sanctions against Cuba, going so far as to make the ridiculous assertion that Cuba was pursuing a program to develop weapons of mass destruction.  The reason for this is quite simple: to hold the support of Florida’s large Cuban community.  But the entire party does not share this sentiment.  Many farm-state Republicans would like to see sanctions lifted so that the US, and its farmers, could export more food to Cuba.  The travel industry would also receive a huge boost if travel to Cuba were again allowed.  In fact, there are a lot more people who would benefit from a more relaxed approach to Cuba than there would be who would suffer.  Democrats could score points in farm states like Iowa or Louisiana, and elsewhere, by promising to ease sanctions on Cuba.  And if the party can successfully demonstrate that this is yet another example of Bush opposing a policy that could help all sorts of Americans for crass political calculations all the better.  This could benefit Democrats even in Florida.  After all, those hard core anti-Castro Cubans aren’t going to vote Democratic anyway and there is an increasingly large population in Florida that resents the disproportionate power wielded by Cuban-Floridians.  Even many Cuban-Floridians, especially the younger generation, are open to a change – a recent poll by Miami pollster Sergio Bendixen found that a majority of Cubans in Florida favor easing the travel ban.  Democrats should leverage this and similar issues to their advantage in 2004.

 

5.       Keep on them on race

 

This one is dangerous, but necessary.  Democrats can’t let the Trent Lott fiasco and the resulting outrage to fade quietly into the background.  There is a great danger in overplaying their hand, but if they are careful, Democrats can keep the issue of the Republican Party’s racist southern heritage in the minds of both blacks and swing voters.  In the process they can help secure their own base and dissuade swing voters from choosing the Republican Party. 

Democrats would be foolish to have their party’s leaders to continue to harp on the subject.  They would be killed for trying to play the race card for political gain.  Interest groups like the NAACP, however, should be encouraged to keep on the GOP on race, pointing out the records of Republican leaders to the media and calling for action on affirmative action and other civil rights issues.

The Democratic Party, meanwhile, should pounce on any race sensitive GOP proposals, especially Bush judicial nominees with questionable civil rights records.  Should the White House be so foolish as to re-nominate Charles Pickering or other judges like him, Democrats must resist strongly and publicly.  Not only will the Lott fiasco make it easier to defeat judges like Pickering who should never be allowed to sit on the federal bench in the first place, it will help keep the low-level racial prejudice of the GOP on the public’s radar screen.  This could be further achieved by pushing legislation on less controversial racial issues like racial profiling.  Debates on the most controversial issues, slavery reparations for instance, should be avoided.

 

6.       Improve the structure and tactics of the party

 

First of all, Terry McAuliffe has to go.  He has been a disaster as the head of the DNC.  He has been great at raising soft money, but there is more to heading the party apparatus than that.  And now that McCain-Feingold is in effect the importance of raising soft money it gone.  Under the McAullife the party had no message and no viable spokesman.  When he went on TV on election night, after it was apparent that the party would suffer a serious defeat, and announced “I think it’s going to be a very good night for Democrats” it was embarrassing.  McAuliffe allowed the Democrats to get whipped by the GOP, and its “48 hour plan,” in the battle to get out the vote, something Democrats usually excel at.  In fact, all the Democrats have to show for McAuliffe’s time at the DNC is a shiny new headquarters.  And while that might pay some long-term benefits, I think most would have preferred a few more shiny new Congressmen and Senators.

The party needs someone at the DNC who can be an effective spokesperson until the eventual nominee is chosen.  It also needs someone who will be able to build the party’s hard-money donor base.  In fairness, McAuliffe did at least make a start at this, but more needs to be done.  More than anything, the party needs someone who can help draft effective strategy and tactics for the 2004 election.  Al Gore doesn’t seem to be doing much these days.  Could he be much worse?

One other area the Democrats must do much better at in 2004 is candidate recruiting.  Democrats failed to recruit top-tier Senate candidates in Oregon, North Carolina, South Carolina and Colorado – all seats that could have been Democratic pickups.  Meanwhile, President Bush managed to cajole top Republican candidates into almost every important race – Minnesota, North Carolina, South Dakota, Missouri, Tennessee.  There will be openings to pick up seats in 2004, and Democrats need to make sure they have their best players on the field.  Alaska is the perfect example.  Lisa Murkowski, appointed by her father to fill out his remaining term will be attempting to win the seat on her own, something most appointed candidates have failed to do (just ask Jean Carnahan).  Outgoing governor Tony Knowles would give Democrats a great chance at taking that seat, but if he is not convinced to run that chance will be lost.

 

7.       Work towards a better future for the party

 

While trying to position itself for he 2004 election, the Democratic Party can’t afford to lose sight of the long-term interests of the party.  One of the biggest challenges facing the party is the disproportionate weight that the conservative media has in influencing coverage by the media as a whole.  The right basically controls an entire cable network in Fox News and it has a well connected network of radio hosts, columnists and publications, right-wing internet sites and conservative think tanks to generate, propagate and stoke conservative propaganda.  Opposing this the left has Paul Krugman and a few webloggers.  Thankfully, the party has finally seemed to take notice.  Recently many in the party have started to complain about the situation.  They need to keep whining.  Sure it’s a little unbecoming, but the Republicans whined about the “liberal media” for years and look what it got them: journalists so afraid of being liberal patsies that they bend over backwards to flatter President Bush.  Democrats need to whine just as loudly.  Moreover, they need to develop their own apparatus to get their own message out.  John Podesta has undertaken to create a left-leaning think-tank that could counter the Heritage Foundation and several other Democratic big wigs have discussed the creation of a cable network to counter fox.  Both options should be explored and more efforts must be made to find left-leaning radio and TV hosts and commentators to counter the Limbaughs, O’Reillys and other blowhards of the world.  Meanwhile, left-leaning bloggers need to keep up the work they did in pushing Trent Lott’s praise of Strom Thurmond into the national media.

The party must continue to court Hispanic voters, who have been reliable Democrats for the most part but are becoming increasingly vulnerable to Republican efforts to recruit them.  If Democrats take this group for granted it will spell trouble.  The party must continue to pay attention to Hispanic concerns and would be advised to groom some prominent Hispanic leaders within the party.  If they hold onto Hispanics, Democrats could soon see a dramatic increase in support in the Southwest, including Texas.

Geographically, the party needs to shift its focus from the South to the West and Midwest.  Unfortunately, most of the south is a lost cause for Democrats.  This isn’t to say that the party should simply give up in Dixie.  On the contrary, it should look to field strong local conservative Democrats and continue to direct resources to certain more pro-Democratic states like North Carolina, Louisiana, Arkansas and especially Florida.  But, on a strategic level, the party would be better served by thinking more about the West and Midwest.  States like Michigan and Pennsylvania have been trending more Democratic recently; securing these two states in the blue column would strengthen the party significantly.  Breaking into the Republican domination in Ohio would be even better.  Instead of trying to win the unwinable in the South, Democrats should work on winning over the Midwestern swing voters. 

Where the party is poised to make real gains, though, are in the Mountain West states.  The party did surprisingly well in states like Arizona, New Mexico, Montana and even Wyoming.  Many western states are becoming more urbanized, which give the Democrats a better chance there.  But Democrats connected better with rural voters in 2002, and can do even better in the future, by emphasizing issues like education and health care and packaging traditional Democratic principles in new terms.  Development of federal land in the west had traditionally won Republican votes, but more and more the destruction of the West’s pristine landscapes by natural gas and oil prospectors is becoming unpopular.  The very successful efforts by Tim Johnson’s campaign to increase the participation of Native Americans in South Dakota should be emulated across the West.

Aided by an influx of Hispanics and with work and time, Democrats can make gains in states like Colorado, New Mexico, Arizona and Nevada and even chip in, ever so slightly, to Republican dominance in the Plain States.  Along with further efforts in the Midwest this will help Democrats to work to isolate, as much as possible, Republican strength to the Deep South.

 

There you have it, seven easy steps to get back to the Promised Land.  Now, let’s get to it.