The Magazine

Greed, Oppression, Patriarchy

What unites the Democrats? A cartoonish view of Republicans.

Jan 20, 2003, Vol. 8, No. 18 • By NOEMIE EMERY
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And this was in peacetime. The attacks on New York and Washington a month later only made matters worse. "Many members who oppose the president's strategyto confront Iraq are going to nonetheless support it because they fear a backlash from voters," reported the Washington Post last fall. And so they did, but none too convincingly. "Voters might not know this explicitly, but if there were a secret ballot . . . Democrats in the House and Senate would vote overwhelmingly to repeal the Bush-Baucus tax cuts and to stop the president from going to war with Iraq," reported ABC News's weblog The Note six days before the election. The "gap between what many of them really think and what many of them claim to support in public has clearly divided the party." This bow to the center, however reluctant, meant all hell to pay on the left: "Direct mail donations to the DNC took a nosedive in August and September," Thomas B. Edsall reported. "A major cause is discontent over the acquiescence of many Democratic leaders to Bush's preparation for war with Iraq." On the two biggest issues--the war and the economy--the party's base found itself on the wrong side of a 2- or 3-to-1 split in the country. It is the same problem that has plagued the party since McGovern's convention, and one that Bill Clinton did nothing to rectify.

Still, the Democratic party has enormous residual strength, and has been able to capture the White House, when the stars are properly aligned. Jimmy Carter won in 1976 in reaction to Watergate; in 1992 and 1996 Bill Clinton was able to beat poor campaigners. But the winning Democratic presidential coalitions have been vulnerable ones. (Which is why the party suffered wipeouts in 1972, 1980, 1984, and 1988.) When the party plays to its interest groups, it puts itself at odds with the rest of the country, but without them, it cannot survive. One way to gauge this is to realize that in the 2002 elections, the Democrats had no figures of national stature who could campaign everywhere in the country: The people the left loves are seen elsewhere as demagogues, and when used, they did more harm than good. Shortly after the election, Michael Barone and former Democratic strategist Ted Van Dyke both wrote pieces comparing the policies that earned John Kennedy a 64 percent approval rating in 1962 with those that earned similar ratings for George W. Bush 40 years later. They found a remarkable resemblance: a tough, nuanced response to foreign aggression, a wish to cut taxes to help the economy, and a colorblind civil rights policy. The basic elements of a winning national strategy have remained consistent and--for the Democrats--usually out of reach, thanks to the base of their party.

The Democrats' failure to develop any other unifying message leads to their reliance on gender and race. In their lean years, of which they have many, they tend to rely almost exclusively on two groups of voters--unmarried women and blacks. Democrats will tell you that these groups are reacting sensibly to the sexist and racist ideas of Republicans. But a different way of putting this is that Democrats have a hard time selling themselves to people who don't feel victimized and afraid: afraid of rejection or bias by others; afraid of having to raise their children single-handed; afraid of material need. Without their lopsided leads among these two groups--a 2-to-1 lead among single women; an astonishing 9-to-1 lead among blacks--Democrats might cease to function at all in some parts of the country. For the past twenty years, from Reagan's first win in 1980, when the Republicans seemed to be building a new coalition, Democrats have consistently fielded just one major message: Non-whites and women should fear the Republicans. A Republican party that doesn't seem threatening is the great primal fear of the Democrats. Thus the need to portray them as sons of Bull Connor (a Democrat) with the old hoods and the hoses conveniently stored out of sight.