The Magazine

You Gotta Be Purple to Win

How the Democrats did it.

Nov 20, 2006, Vol. 12, No. 10 • By JOHN J. DILULIO JR.
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WRITING IN THESE PAGES just after the 2004 presidential election, I advised my fellow Democrats to start winning and stop whining by wooing America's purple (red-blue) majority. How? By running faith-friendly, pro-life, pro-family, pro-poor candidates. In talks before my fellow political scientists, I predicted that, if Pennsylvania Democrats proved willing to nominate him, and if their liberal national party leadership did not subvert him, then Pennsylvania's state treasurer, Bob Casey Jr., would walk over two-term Republican senator Rick Santorum.

It happened in double-digits last Tuesday. Casey bested fellow pro-life ethnic Catholic Santorum 59 percent to 41 percent. The Democrat won every region of the state except the area known as the Central/Northern Tier. In addition to winning by landslides among urban residents, African Americans, union members, young people, unmarried women, and other typically Democratic voters, he also won self-described moderates (65 percent), white Catholics (58 percent), and weekly churchgoers (52 percent). The purple Democrat practically tied "Red Rick" among voters who ranked either "values issues" or "terrorism" as "extremely important," and even made headway among white evangelicals (29 percent).

Santorum's sometimes caustic conservative rhetoric loomed far larger in voters' minds than did his record of thoughtfully articulating and tirelessly promoting compassionate, cost- effective social policies and faith-based programs. Late in the campaign, the senator began to sound desperate and slightly disingenuous. Then came his remarkably gracious and public-spirited concession speech, provoking several Democrats with whom I watched it to remark that they might well have voted for "that guy." (Stay tuned: Santorum is not yet 50.)

As the Democratic party's national leaders now seem to understand, you can't effectively court a purple-voter majority with faux-purple candidates, or wait to show your purple colors till the election is all but over. Real purple Democrats won even in many states and districts where both the president and Republican incumbents were not as wildly unpopular as they were in Philadelphia and its suburbs. The only Republican House incumbent who survived in true-blue Philly's inner-ring districts, Jim Gerlach, ran ads credibly tagging his challenger, Lois Murphy, as "Liberal Lois," and showing her vamping with Nancy Pelosi, now the national Democrats' House speaker-in-waiting.

Through 2008, President Bush can govern the purple republic without cashier ing his deepest convictions about winning the war against terrorism, reforming entitlement programs, and helping people in need through faith-based and community initiatives. The new Congress that convenes in January will have more conservative members, and fewer liberal and far left members, in both chambers and on both sides of the aisle. Attentive purple voters will be listening and watching. If the Democrats' leaders in Congress slip into ultra-liberal attack mode, then they will be rebuked, and the whole party will suffer. But even if congressional Democrats start biting at it, the president should not pull back the bipartisan hand that he ceremoniously and sincerely extended after the election, first to Pelosi, and then to Senate majority leader-in-waiting Harry Reid. If, come what may, the president remains ever the bigger, bipartisan man, then he and the GOP will regain public acclaim, and his legacy will be better too.

President Bush has an opportunity now to govern from the center and center-right, just as he promised he would back in 1999 and 2000, and again after 9/11. To seize it, the president's closest advisers must tune out the partisan, inside-the-beltway blather posing as political analysis, and resist being pulled into back biting over "Who lost Congress?" Above all, the president himself must lead and not let the unmistakable public rebuke of Election 2006 justify lame-ducking it back to Texas.

It won't be easy. Some conservative commentators and ex-Bush insiders who once coronated Karl Rove as a political genius now say Rove was overrated or worse. With perfect hindsight, they intone that Republicans could and should have won more razor-close races.

Nonsense. Elections are often razor-close. In 1994, when Republicans won 54 House seats, if a grand total of just 19,500 votes had switched from Republican to Democrat across 13 districts, then Democrats would have retained control. Love or loathe him, Rove is a master campaign strategist and tactician. But it would have taken magical powers for Republicans to duck this defeat.