If I Were a Democrat

The 109th Congress has been sworn in and convened, and now the new post-election reality begins. If I were a Democrat right now I would think big and get serious. Second terms are tough for incumbents; history has not handed George W. Bush an easy ride, and there’s no reason to think that will change now; and Mr. Bush is a gambler who’s not afraid to throw the dice, which means he will likely have not only stunning gains but stunning losses ahead. The Democrats are still competitive. “In every defeat lies the seed of future victory, in every victory lies the seed of future defeat.” Every morning I’d put my game face on knowing my party will stand a good chance of making a big presidential comeback in four years. Look confident; this will encourage victory. Or at least leave people saying you look confident, which for you will be a victory.

No one wants to be head of the Democratic National Committee. This is bad but understandable. A fractious party has been further fractured by a hard year. What you need for DNC chairman is a man or woman of some stature who can make the case for your party day in and day out in big media. Fund-raising expertise is secondary—hire someone to do it. So is organizational skill—hire organizers. You need someone who makes the Democratic Party look nonsleazy, nonmanipulative and nonweak on TV. He doesn’t have to be nationally known, but he must be—how to put this?—good-natured, moderate in manner, and normal-seeming. That would mean not Howard Dean.

There is much to build on. You hold 44 Senate seats, 202 House seats and 22 governorships. You have been on a losing strain for a while, but you can turn that into opportunity. Now, in the depths—or what you frankly hope are the depths—you can move for change within the party. Nothing sobers like defeat. Use the new sobriety to shake off the mad left. This is the best chance you’ve had all century! Seriously, this is the best chance you’ve had in a long time. You couldn’t rethink the party when you had Bill Clinton, because he kept winning. But he was a special case, a once-every-quarter-century natural. He had the gift; he brought his own winnerness with him every bit as much as he brought his own mess.

The Groups—all the left-wing outfits from the abortion people to the enviros—didn’t deliver in the last election, and not because they didn’t try. They worked their hearts out. But they had no one to deliver. They had only money. The secret: Nobody likes them. Nobody! No matter how you feel about abortion, no one likes pro-abortion fanatics; no one likes mad scientists who cook environmental data. Or rather only rich and creepy people like them. Stand up to the Groups—make your policies more moderate, more nuanced, less knee-jerk.

Don’t reflexively oppose President Bush on Social Security reform. Talk and listen and consider; ask open-minded questions at hearings. If he’s wrong—if his prescriptions don’t promise to make the system stronger and more just down the road—then make a persuasive case, one a grown-up could listen to and understand. Don’t do “sound bites for blue heads in Dade County,” be serious. People can tell when you’re not. They just punished you at the polls again because you weren’t. You have nothing to gain but stature.

*   *   *

Hold a big public party meeting on taxes and spending. I am serious. Everyone knows where the Republican Party stands on both: they’re against the former, and—in theory if not practice—against the latter. Where are you? Thrash it out, and in public. The next big election is two years away. You have the time. The attitude here should be: When the people talk, we listen. They just spoke. We are listening to what was said, pondering it, and will respond earnestly and in good faith. You don’t have to be doctrinaire anymore, because your doctrines failed you. Reinvent.

A Sister Souljah moment? Why not? Keep your eyes sharp for a constituency that has proved itself spectacularly unhelpful in the past few decades, and go at it hammer and tong. I think not an individual, though Jesse Jackson and all he stands for is tempting. Go at a group. How about junk scientists? With Michael Crichton’s manifesto doing well and getting praise, and with the natural disaster of the tsunami having left everyone brushing up on their wave trains and tectonic-plate knowledge, the time is right.

Or—and this would be splendid—there’s this. In states like the Democratic bastion (though in some ways a vulnerable one) of New Jersey, people are starting to fear they’re going to be forced from their homes by rising property taxes. New Jersey used to be a safe haven. Now its citizens are clobbered with taxes and spending. This leaves those on fixed incomes in a precarious state. Who is more sympathetic, a widow in Lodi or a Democratic Party that stands for the status quo? Come to her aid. Say “Enough is enough.” Say “We can’t support endless spending. Stupid and corrupt spending is the enemy of wise spending, and wise spending is what the Democratic party is about.” Tax relief is an issue almost everywhere, and it is not going away any time soon.

John Kerry was almost shrewd to try to get to the right of Bush on issues like homeland security and immigration. I say almost because he didn’t do it long enough or deeply enough, and by the time he made his move no one believed much of what he said. That’s what the Swift Boat ads did to him; they didn’t make him look like a coward but a liar. That he could never speak of his 20 years in the Senate didn’t help. But he’s over, and you’re here. Homeland security can always be improved, and immigration will only grow as a fact and an issue. Get serious.

And don’t forget to confuse categories. Be counterintuitive. Republican Mike Bloomberg of New York won’t let workingmen and -women smoke at the local bar. Democrats always wind up in support of such measures. Don’t! Distance yourself from the smoke Nazis, from all Nazis. Be sane; take the side of normal humans with normal imperfections. Let the Republicans look stupid on these issues if they choose to. Don’t fall for it. The Sierra Club will love you anyway. (Politicians in New York tell me the tide has turned, that even people shuddering outside buildings grabbing a smoke say it’s only right. I’m not shuddering outside a building, but I talk to smokers all the time and let me tell you how they feel about the banners. They hate them.)

*   *   *

The Bush administration has stood for cutting taxes, allowing high spending, and being tough in the world. The Democrats stand for raising taxes, high spending, and being weak in the world. Should the Democrats become more like Republicans? Yes, they should. Then, in the next big contest, they can agree on the big points with the Republicans and win on three other things. First, on small points, as Mr. Clinton did with such key issues as The Campaign for the Right Child-Carrying Seatbelts. Second, on campaign expertise. Third, on the personality and character of the candidate.

On all of these points they can be truly competitive. If they choose to get serious.