It was Kerry's to lose in 2004, as it was Gore's to lose in 2000; and they both lost it, though they both had a lot going for them.
In 2000, the country was prosperous and at peace. The obviously intelligent, if wooden, Gore represented the incumbent party, and the challenger was widely viewed as a dull-witted, personally insignificant front man for powerful corporate interests. The dummy won, though narrowly.
In 2004, the obviously intelligent if over-rehearsed Kerry represented the opposition at a time when the country had been attacked, with staggering success, on the incumbent's watch. We were expensively mired in an unnecessary, unsuccessful and unpopular war. The economy was a mess; and the President had abundantly exhibited a degree of feeblemindedness, ignorance, and cue-card dependency that would disgrace a sock puppet. And once again, astonishingly, the dummy won, this time not at all narrowly by American presidential standards.
What makes the Republican victory in 2004 still more amazing is that the Democrat managed to lose an election that set a thirty-year record for voter turnout, although high turnout normally benefits the Democrats. Both parties made an unusual effort to get out the vote among their respective supporters that year; but the Republicans clearly did a much better job. Why?
One thing you have to say for the Republicans: they do promise, and often deliver, the goods for their constituencies. The Democrats don't.
Who are the Republican constituencies? It's no secret: the rich, the large corporations, the gun lobby, war and police enthusiasts, and the religious Right. The important Democratic constituencies are organized labor (or what's left of it), African-Americans, war opponents, gays, civil libertarians, environmentalists, and people of modest means generally.
In 2000 and 2004, the Republicans offered their base the usual savory menu: war and then more war, more executions and intrusive policing, more tax cuts for the wealthy, and a stern, Canute-like "Stop it!" to the swelling tide of unconventional sex.
And what did the Democrats offer their base? Well, they said...they said... We're not Republicans! Yeah, that's the ticket! Vote for the un-Republican!
You can't beat something with nothing. Yet for at least the last four electoral cycles, this has been the Democrats' strategy: echo the Republicans on the issues, trying to win back some of the angry white guys that Nixon seduced away in 1968; and keep the traditional constituencies in the corral just by being the un-Republican. It did the job for Clinton, for reasons that we will examine later, but in 2000 the magic trick stopped working, and in 2004 the girl in the box really got sawn in half.
Even with a record turnout, the Democrats in 2004 not only failed to recapture the White House, they lost Senate and House seats as well, shrinking still further their already feeble minority position in the Congress. The fact that the high turnout did them no good is a sure sign that the degeneration of the Party has passed a critical point, as we will see in Chapter _ below.
An organization of right-wing Democrats called the Democratic Leadership Council (DLC), founded in 1985, has dominated the party's leadership since the late 1980s and early 90s; Bill Clinton was its chair during part of that period, and Clinton's strategy of "triangulation" -- a euphemism for moving the party to the right -- was developed by the DLC and people close to it. The DLC is very much a one-trick pony, and in the aftermath of the Gore and Kerry debacles, the DLC and other promoters of the Democrats' un-Republican Republican strategy predictably concluded that Gore and Kerry lost because they weren't Republican enough. Clinton's victory validated their theory, and so did Gore and Kerry's defeat; full speed ahead, right over the cliff. The DLC's basis for this heads-I-win, tails-you-lose reasoning is its belief in a "rightward trend" among the electorate.
Of course a rightward trend is inevitable if both parties agree on its inevitability; but there have been immense changes in American life over the last fifty years. Queer Eye for the Straight Guy would have been inconceivable in 1954. People form their own ideas but they don't form them under circumstances of their own choosing; what they think and how they vote depends at least in part on what ideas are presented to them and what choices are available.
Republicans and Democrats alike have concentrated for three decades on mincing ever more finely an ever-shrinking repertoire of political ideas. No, "ideas" is too strong a word; "slogans" or "catchphrases" is more accurate. The result has been what I call the "ratchet effect"; in each election, both parties dance cheek-to-cheek a little farther to the right, but somehow, even when they get into office, the Democrats never manage, or even try, to move us back to the Left. The system operates in one direction only; and it is crucial for Democratic voters to understand that their "lesser evil" votes are actively promoting this process, not retarding it.
Considering the tectonic shifts in American life over the last few decades, there's plenty of reason to think that large numbers of Americans would be open to a politics that goes beyond the claustrophobically narrow, and constantly narrowing, limits imposed by the "mainstream" Republican and Democrat brands. Under the Democratic party's present management, however, its constituencies have nothing to look forward to, in the foreseeable future, but more of the same.
Even when the Democrats win, the constituencies get little out of it except lip service, as the Clinton administration showed (see chapter __). But meanwhile, the effort of getting a Democrat into the White House absorbs energies that could go into advancing the constituencies' agendas by other means.
Take the anti-war movement. After massive shows of opposition during the year before the last election -- opposition on a scale that in the Vietnam era took years to attain -- the anti-war movement dropped off the radar, kept mum in order not to embrarrass the Democrat, and wasted more than a year of effort and priceless time on the Presidential race, even though Kerry made it clear that he was as committed to the war as Bush.
American society offers many more ways to do politics than just the quadrennial Mutt and Jeff spectacle of a one-and-a-half-party Presidential election. The constituencies to which the Democratic Party undeservedly lays claim need to turn their energies to building and expanding the union movement and vigorous, aggressive issue-oriented activist and community organizations, and maybe even -- dare I say it? -- third parties. The Right can do it -- witness the gun lobby, the Israel lobby, and the fetus lobby. Why not the Left?
First of all, though, the constituencies need to emancipate themselves from the Democratic Party. Fool me once, as Bush famously tried to say, shame on you. Fool me twice: shame on me.