For some four months now the debate has raged – in classrooms, coffeehouses and wherever else us liberal-intellectual types supposedly congregate – over how and why John Kerry did not take the oath of office on January 20. The past election not only touched off concern about the Democrats inability to beat Bush, but the lack of success in Congressional elections as well.
I’ve often heard it repeated that John Kerry got the second most votes of any candidate in history. No doubt this is reflective of improved grassroots organization by Democrats, but the high turnout can also be attributed to the contention of the 2000 and 2004 elections. People on both sides see that their vote can make a difference. Sure, a shift of just 75,000 swing voters would have made “43” a one-term wonder. The fact is, Kerry didn’t get these voters. Why?
Looking for answers, I went to hear Georgia Congressman John Barrow at an event sponsored by the GW College Democrats. The purpose of the evening was to discuss ways Democrats could once again become the majority party in America. Barrow was one of two Democrats in the past election to knock off an incumbent Republican.
One of the recurring issues discussed was redistricting. Various Republican state legislatures, most notably in Texas, have used this as a tool for gaining more congressional seats. This lays another stone on the pile for Democrats trying to reverse the Republican’s 15-seat majority in the House. Incumbency rates above 90 percent already make a fifteen seat swing difficult.
One of the ways Barrow framed the party’s current downturn is that Republicans are good at finding which issues bother people and then talking about them. Democrats, on the other hand, take issues that bother themselves and run on those issues. Not explicitly stated – but what was most certainly meant by this – was that Republicans have used social issues like gay marriage to their electoral advantage.
An issue like this is powerful because it is relatively easy to understand. Plans regarding health care or taxes are harder for voters to decipher. One reason for this is the media’s desire to appear unbiased to either side. The proposals of both sides will be portrayed as on the whole, equal, whether they are or not. This makes it hard for a swing voter to decide which candidate he or she should vote for based on pocketbook issues. But on a social issue, where the candidate’s position is going to be for or against, it’s much easier for a voter to decide. This increases the importance of social issues in an election, because voters know what a candidate would do about them were he elected. Demographics dictate that Democrats are going to be unsuccessful if the defining issues of a campaign are social ones.
Against this gray backdrop, what are Democrats supposed to do? A logical answer may be to just become moderate on social issues. While this may seem attractive at first, there are two problems with this idea. First, for all the talk about the devotion of the religious right, us folks on the left are pretty obstinate when it comes to social issues as well. Shifting rightward is not going to sit well with the millions of new voters Democrats recruited in the last election. Not to mention the old-line liberal base, which is the source of campaign funds. Personally, I would rather work toward making these new voters permanent Democrats, rather than attempting to woo a new set of voters.
A shift to the center is no guarantee of success. Bush’s charges of “flip-flop”, regardless of their veracity, worked against John Kerry. It is only going to make the Democrats look worse if we are perceived as changing our platform for political purposes. This is the same country that holds favorable opinions of both Bill Clinton and George Bush’s terms in office. Americans have shown a willingness to support a candidate with whose politics they disagree. They won’t however, vote for one whose politics seem to change.
The second plan has a long-term focus. I mentioned earlier the problem of redistricting. Because Republicans control many state legislatures, they decide how congressional seats are divided up. As a party, Democrats should focus on winning at the local and state level. Regaining control of state houses will help us to make sure Democratic Congressmen can’t be drawn out of office. More importantly, this builds a sufficient base of qualified candidates who can go on to eventually run for national office. Running quality candidates will help to close the gap with voters who feel unsure about voting for Democrats because of social issue politics.
Depending on your outlook it may be reassuring, or frightening, to remember that for 40 years Republicans were the minority party in the House. By perhaps moderating somewhat on social issues, but more importantly, by building the party at the local level, Democrats can make their length of time out of power shorter.
-The writer, a sophomore majoring in political science, is a Hatchet columnist.