Why Americans Hate Democrats—A Dialogue

The fight for the middle.

The day after the election, Slate’s political writers tackled the question of why the Democratic Party—which has now lost five of the past seven presidential elections and solidified its minority status in Congress—keeps losing elections. Chris Suellentrop says that John Kerry was too nuanced and technocratic, while George W. Bush offered a vision of expanding freedom around the world. William Saletan argues that Democratic candidates won’t win until they again cast their policies the way Bill Clinton did, in terms of values and moral responsibility. Timothy Noah contends that none of the familiar advice to the party—move right, move left, or sit tight—seems likely to help. Slate asked a number of wise liberals to take up the question of why Americans won’t vote for the Democrats. Click here to read previous entries.

At my first job interview in Washington 20 years ago, I was asked to write a speech about how to revive the Democratic Party. The topic must have scared off all the other applicants, because I got the job—and the chance to spend most of the last two decades rewriting the same speech.

Back then, the challenge seemed truly hopeless. Midway through the Reagan era, Congresswoman Pat Schroeder said, “There are three things Democrats must do to take back the White House. Unfortunately, no one knows what they are.”

As Walter Dellinger points out, even after this latest heartbreaking defeat, Democrats are better off than we were 20 years ago. Of late, we’ve been losing presidential elections in overtime or by a late field goal, not at the opening whistle. But the core of our problem is the same today as it was then: From Franklin Roosevelt to Bill Clinton, the Democratic Party made its name by building the middle class. We can’t win elections when they don’t vote for us.

It’s no surprise for Democrats to lose white men and evangelicals. But last Tuesday, we also lost white women, married people, couples with children, high-school graduates, college graduates, people over 30, and by my estimate, voters in every income category above $40,000. Our coalition consisted of high-school dropouts and those with a postgraduate education. Of the 28 states with the lowest per capita income, Bush carried 26. That means an administration whose overriding motive has been to protect the rich was just given a second term by the very people who will suffer the most for it.

How could this happen? Bill Clinton told us the answer when he set out to end the Democrats’ losing streak 12 years ago: “Too many of the people that used to vote for us, the very burdened middle class we are talking about, have not trusted us in national elections to defend our national interests abroad, to put their values into our social policy at home, or to take their tax money and spend it with discipline.”

By reminding the American people of this fact, Clinton was able to carry a dozen red states in 1992 and 1996, even though he held the same positions on guns, gay rights, and abortion as Democrats today. The problem, therefore, does not lie within those issues. The challenge is simpler, and more profound: We have to earn back the middle class’s trust that we will stand up to evil in the world and stand up for their way of life here at home.

In this election, we tried to convince Americans that this administration’s failures were reason enough to trust us. They largely agreed with us about Bush, but we didn’t quite overcome their doubts about us.

In theory, those doubts should have vanished long ago. Democrats, after all, are the ones who balanced the federal budget, reduced crime and welfare rates, and built up the military force that Bush wields to his advantage. The narrowness of this defeat suggests that middle-class doubts about us are not as deep as they once were.

But let’s not kid ourselves: Sept. 11 forces Democrats to prove ourselves all over again.

That’s the bad news. The good news is, we have done this before. We don’t have to learn to speak in tongues, join the NRA, or start thinking like my evil twin Ralph Reed. We just need to convince a few more people that we’ll keep them safe; that we believe deeply in the basic values of work, responsibility, family, and country; and that unlike the Republicans we have a set of ideas to reward and strengthen those values. 

I like many of the suggestions offered up in this dialogue, especially Will Saletan’s plea that Democrats be the party of responsibility again. Will and I have been on the same crusade for the past year: If we’re looking for a values issue that speaks to the forgotten middle class across the cultural divide, we should go after President Bush’s other war—the war on work. Democrats should offer a tax reform plan as ambitious in rewarding work as Bush’s disastrous plan to protect wealth.

I’ve set forth a few other ideas in self-pitying detail here. We don’t have to become more liberal or more conservative. We never have to take another poll again. We just need to remember that the burden of proof is on us. A minority party can only become a majority party by surprising enough people that it’s better than they thought.