Democrats, who never lack for internecine squabbles, have lately been beating each other up with gusto over how steamed up they ought to be as they head into next year’s presidential race. Most of the party’s leadership has been sticking to the high road so far, fearful that a full-bore assault on the White House will seem to the public like disloyalty in wartime. And they’ve got a point.
Americans can be counted on to rally around the commander in chief when the nation is at war. America is at war today, as most Americans realize too well — not because we choose to be, nor because our leaders bamboozled us, but because a network of Islamic extremists has declared war on us.
With the growing strength of the Howard Dean campaign, however, party leaders have become increasingly aware that their base is angry and impatient. Democratic loyalists are still smarting over the 2000 presidential election, which they believe was stolen from them. They’re furious that their party, despite winning a majority of the presidential popular vote, has been cut off from every lever of power in Washington. Crippled and insulted, they are out for blood next year.
They, too, have a point. This president has not been gracious in victory. Despite the slimmest of mandates, he has pursued an intensely partisan agenda, pushing Democrats to the margins rather than reaching out for compromise. His Republican colleagues have added insult to injury through their behavior in places like Austin and Sacramento, where they have sought to build power through a variety of tricks that have left Democrats livid. Now Democrats want their leaders to go after President Bush and the Republicans hammer and tong.
Party centrists, led by Senator Joseph Lieberman, have struck back hard at the hammer-and-tong crowd in the last few days, warning that a frontal assault on a popular president would marginalize the party. Best to pitch toward the center and go after swing voters who like Bush, but could be convinced. And, of course, they’re right, too.
Now there’s a new school of revisionists coming forward to argue that moderation doesn’t win hearts and minds. They point to the 1964 Goldwater campaign, which celebrated its own extremism and lost by a landslide — only to set the stage for a nationwide conservative revolution that swept the country in 1980 and has set the agenda ever since. Democrats, they say, need to do the same thing: Shout their beliefs from the rooftops, give the Republicans hell and wait for the nation to come around.
The revisionists are onto something important, but they’re going about it the wrong way. The conservatives who rallied around Barry Goldwater in 1964 and then swept to victory under Ronald Reagan in 1980 were an angry, energized crowd, but they campaigned on ideas. They built their revolution around principles — family values, smaller government, lower taxes — that attracted a broad range of Americans, Democrats as well as Republicans. They didn’t ask voters to turn on their leaders, but to endorse new ideas.
Today’s hammer-and-tong Democrats should learn the right lesson from 1964. They should be shouting the values and principles that set Democrats apart and made them a majority party for much of the last century — economic fairness, activist government, concern for the poor and oppressed. Republicans have trampled those principles at every opportunity during the last two decades, leaving America the worse for it. If Democrats could learn to stand together and stand up for America, voters would take notice.