Sen. John Kerry is getting beat up because he is obsessing over swing voters. Indeed, it is the abandonment of ideals in search of a wholly unobtrusive middle ground that has constricted the candidate into such dire straits. As individuals and as a party, the Democrats need to re-evaluate who they are and why they have strayed so far from the liberal ideals that once were the basis for their populist message.
After losing majority in the Senate in the 1994 Congessional election, the Democratic Party made a collective mad dash for the center. The logic was that swing voters were no longer responding to the Democrats’ rhetoric, so the candidates needed to be less liberal. Since there wasn’t a precipitous drop in Democratic party affiliation or the percentage of Americans identifying themselves as liberal, the key had to lie in the swing voters.
The country saw this new doctrine applied in both 2000 and 2002, with equally horrific results for the Democrats. In each case, Democratic candidates did their very best to not stand for anything and tried to cater to the desires of swing voters, who are almost by definition moderate. As it happened, the Democrats were ridiculed for their absurdly centrist stance.
Kerry’s campaign, though recently improved with the addition of several Clinton campaign masterminds, has muddled through the election season without distinguishing itself in any way, shape or form. Kerry refuses to stand up and shout from every podium that gay rights is an issue of civil and human rights and that the Democratic Party will not stand idly by while discrimination is codified in the law books. Instead of slamming President Bush over and over on his mishandling of the lead-up to the war in Iraq, Kerry announced that if he had to do it again, he would vote to authorize the action. In fact, Kerry has been so inept at attacking Bush’s record on Iraq — possibly the incumbent’s most vulnerable area — that the Republicans felt safe invoking the now infamous acronym “WMD” at their convention, secure in the knowledge that the Democrats would never call them on it.
Even Kerry’s primary campaign was built around how bland and unremarkable he is. Remember “electability?”
Being a diehard centrist is an incompetent electoral strategy. It hasn’t worked in a decade of trying, and on the other side of the aisle the president is charging ahead, riding the wave of his diehard conservatism.
The inherent problem with this forced centrism is that it treats swing voters as if they live in a vacuum. But by abandoning his liberal ideals, Kerry comes across as having no ideals whatsoever, except perhaps not wanting to lose. While it is true that the gay community isn’t likely to vote Republican, that cannot be an excuse to abandon their cause. It is a difficult concept to digest, but the appeal to swing voters must be made through the prism of your base. By relaying a message of strong principle, you not only remind everyone why that base is following you in the first place, but you also make the case for why they should vote for you based on what you believe.
There are many areas on which to attack President Bush’s record, but it is going to require the Democrats digging their feet into liberal ground. Fight him on education by detailing every deficiency and unfunded mandate in the No Child Left Behind policy; fight him on health care by coming out for a national health care system; fight him on foreign policy by offering a true alternative, not four simplistic principles without substance. Fight him on civil rights, on gay rights, on women’s rights. Every time they call you a flip-flopper, show the clip of Bush in the 2000 debates declaring, “I don’t think our troops ought to be used for what’s called nation-building.” Drive home the economy by reminding voters at every single stop that we’ve lost one million jobs under Bush’s watch, and say, “Here’s exactly what I’m going to do different, and this is why it will help you.” That’s how Clinton beat Bush Sr. in 1992; that’s the only way the Democrats are going to regain the luster they once had.
It will be a long, hard road before the Democrats regain their dominance, but they need to start by figuring out just how the Republicans have usurped the terms of the debate and tricked the American people into thinking rich conservatives are populist, not elitist. Then the Democrats can start plotting a new electoral paradigm, one that can be evaluated in another 10 years.
In the final electoral equation swing voters do make the difference. Yet, ironically, it is that very pursuit of the undecided that has led to the Democrats’ decade-long downfall. The current strategy of cowering around the center simply does not work. Better to stand up for what you believe in and lose than stand for nothing at all — and lose.
Elliot Haspel, Cavalier Daily, University of Virginia