Jewish World Review Nov. 29, 2004 / 16 Kislev 5765
Dems need to stand for more than befuddlement
In the wake of their fifth defeat out of the last seven presidential elections, Democratic Party leaders are once again arguing, pointing fingers and scratching their heads over how they can win back red-state heartland America.
It's a pretty sad sight. Having seen more wrestling matches for the soul of the party than I can count, this one reminds me more than ever of a flabby, middle-aged guy who is befuddled, after years of taking his wife for granted, that she is running away with a smooth-talking stud from down the street.
I like the Democrats and usually, although not always, support its candidates. I'm a blue-state kind of guy and proud of it. Nevertheless, it is easy to look around and see a lot of likely Democratic supporters who think their party has let them down.
For example, exit polls reported 38 percent of union members voted for President Bush, according to CNN. So did 40 percent of those who have union members in their households. Exit polls also showed Mr. Bush receiving 42 percent of workers who earn $15,000-$30,000 and 44 percent of those who earn less than $50,000.
And, among other groups in the party's base, Mr. Bush won 45 percent of the youth vote ages 18-29, 44 percent of the Hispanic vote and 11 percent of the black vote. That's up from 8 percent of the black vote in 2000, and even more in battleground states like Ohio (16 percent, up from 7 percent in 2000) and Florida (13 percent, up from 7 percent).
While unmarried women voted for Sen. John Kerry by a 2-to-1 ratio, married women tended to vote pretty much as their husbands did, overwhelmingly for Mr. Bush.
Adding insult to Mr. Kerry's injuries, Mr. Bush also won 13 percent of self-described liberals and 11 percent of self-described Democrats!
The party needs to take a look at itself, realize that its world has changed and that it is not the hot young stallion it used to be. Just as it responded to the crises of the Depression and World War II under President Roosevelt, building a political dominance that lasted a half-century, it must respond to current foreign and domestic crises with answers befitting this new century, not the last one.
First of all, the party must stand for something. It needs, like Samuel Johnson's famous pudding, a theme. Mr. Roosevelt had "the New Deal." Mr. Bush offers "the Ownership Society," which reminds me of President Nixon's offer of "a piece of the action" to black Americans in response to President Johnson's "Great Society."
Themes matter. They focus minds, big and small, on creating an agenda that offers hope to voters of a better world.
Mr. Bush has done some of that. His administration assists grass-roots faith-based leaders like the Rev. Eugene Rivers, co-founder of Boston's Ten Point Coalition. An effort by more than 50 local churches to join forces with Boston police, courts and City Hall to combat youth violence, the coalition reduced Boston's juvenile homicide rate to zero in the mid-1990s. It made a difference.
Vice President Gore favored faith-based programs in his 2000 presidential campaign, but Mr. Bush embraced them despite liberal critics who complained about possible breaches of church-state separation.
I happen to be a First Amendment absolutist, but when a program that works can be funded without discriminating against anyone's religious beliefs, that's good enough for me. It's also good enough for poor folks for whom Mr. Bush's faith-based initiatives have given Republicans a more compassionate image.
Unfortunately, the Democratic Party's response to innovative ideas like school vouchers, charter schools and income-based affirmative action, instead of race-based, has too often resembled that of classic conservatives, fiercely holding on to past political gains without offering any new alternatives.
No consensus candidate has emerged from liberal and centrist candidates currently jostling each other to replace the National Democratic Committee's chairmanship at its meeting in February. Fortunately, there are some rising Democratic stars who want to offer voters a pragmatic, what-works agenda suitable for a new century. I wish them well. Americans deserve to have Democrats who offer something more than befuddlement.
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