Democrats face a delicate balancing act. On one hand, they must use every tool at their disposal, building coalitions where possible, filibustering when necessary, in order to slow or block the worst extremes of the Bush agenda. On the other hand, they must begin a long process of reconnecting with the voters. The two goals are potentially in conflict with each other; playing a blocking game in the capital will leave them vulnerable to charges of petty obstructionism, while reconnecting to the electorate implies a willingness to listen and an openness to change that aren’t usually associated with political trench-warfare. How they balance these two imperatives will determine the Democrats’ fate in the decades ahead.
It is the decades ahead, not the months, that matter now. Over the last half-century, Democrats have come increasingly to take their mission as a majority party for granted, preaching and whining where they should have been convincing and mobilizing. They have looked to the courts to win fights that should have been won at the ballot box, leaving scars and resentment rather than consensus.
To regain majority-party status, what Democrats need to do is not get out the vote, but get out the ideas. As the Republican right did after the Goldwater debacle of 1964, they must begin the hard work of remaking themselves as a genuine movement, not merely a coalition of interest groups. They must build an infrastructure of ideological debate and creativity, pouring money into think tanks, journals of ideas and endowed university chairs that can recapture the high ground in the national discourse.
Let’s be clear: Democrats have the ideas that answer America’s pressing problems. They need to begin saying them aloud, in language Americans can understand. Economic justice, fiscal sanity, human rights, corporate responsibility, respect for the environment, respect for difference — these are not radical notions in today’s America. They are at the heart of what America’s working majority believes.
In a way, this week’s election might turn out to be a blessing for Democrats. If they are wise, they will take it as a mandate to go back to the streets and begin recapturing the hearts and minds of Americans.