On NPR a few days ago, New York Times columnist Paul Krugman was quoted saying something that hit me with one of those “Aha!” moments. We all experience them from time to time—those slivers of insight that slip a whole gearbox of mental cogs into place and explain neatly and concisely something that may have been puzzling us for a long time.
Krugman said he could sum up and explain all the changes that have twisted the American political landscape over the past 50 years in a single, five-word phrase: “White Southerners now vote Republican.”
Aha! That explains a lot of hard-to-figure phenomena: Nixon, Reagan, the two Bushes (major and minor), Newt, Rush, Fox News’ lineup of angry white guys and Karl Rove.
It helped me understand how the idealism of the ’60s turned, in two quick generations, into the scaredy-catism of this decade. And it explains how the eight candidates on stage at the Republican presidential debates look for all the world like a single middle-aged Caucasian standing in front of eight mirrors in a men’s haberdashery.
What it doesn’t explain, however, is what exactly the Democrats are trying to accomplish in Washington today.
I don’t know if there really is an adequate explanation for the curious spectacle of one of our major political parties, having just wrested away control of Congress (admittedly by very slim margins, but still …), setting about to transform itself into a pallid copy of the defeated party.
Earth to national Democrats: We don’t need GOP-lite anymore. We need loyal opposition. We need Democrats to act like Democrats. That’s why we voted you in.
If you think I’m overstating what’s going on, that perhaps I'm being too harsh on Democrats, just look at the national polling data. As bad as President Bush’s approval ratings are, Congress manages to hit even lower. The voters are saying they wanted a lot more out of this change in leadership than just cosmetic stuff.
But if congressional Democrats seem clueless about how to exercise their new majority power, what can we say about the so-called “top tier” of the party’s presidential contenders: Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama and John Edwards? They have all, incredibly, adopted the administration’s view that U.S. troops will have to remain in Iraq for five more years—in other words, at least through the next president’s full first term. Really.
We are assured if we bring them back any sooner, we would engage in completely reckless, irresponsible policy and somehow endanger America’s interests and safety.
When the second-tier candidates (Kucinich, Gravelle or even our own newly-emerged dove, Bill Richardson) dare to suggest that since 62 percent or more of the voters indicate they want this berserk occupation over right now we should be doing exactly that, the smug top-tier candidates, as well as the collected mainstream sages and pundits, just shake their heads sadly at such naive notions.
“Tsk, tsk,” they seem to say. “You can’t listen to the voice of the people, of all things, when it comes to something as important as foreign policy. Oh no. You can’t take this democracy stuff that far. We have to be responsible, after all, not responsive. We should listen to our Pentagon and State Department bureaucrats, not the simpleton voters.”
The top Democrats seem unwilling to accept the corollary to Krugman’s analysis: The Democratic Party has always been (and is still) popular with American voters when it stays attuned to the wishes of those voters. We get into trouble when we misread the mood of the people. And we seriously misread the people if we think they have moved to the right.
Southern whites (who used to vote for conservative white Democrats because they had no choice) vote solidly for white Republican candidates—not for black or white Democratic candidates. But the rest of the American electorate is no less progressive in its leanings than it was in the ’60s .
What Krugman’s insight tells me is that what has hobbled the party of FDR, JFK and LBJ is not that the American people have stopped caring for the things they cared about in the ’60s, but that the Democrats have frequently stopped giving them much of a reason to get out and vote.
If the Democrats blow the 2008 Presidential election (and I can scarcely bring myself to even type out those words, but it could happen again) it will not be because they ran too far to the left of the electorate. Instead, they will have run so far to the right, millions of voters won't be able to figure out what difference it makes—so they'll elect to stay home or go hunting.
That’s the mistake Al Gore made in 2000 and John Kerry made in 2004.
The solution for the Democrats is to stop worrying they’ll be called traitorous for opposing the war or for criticizing the nuttiest regime since Teapot Dome. The voters can see the mess clearly. Start listening to them and you can’t lose.