November 15, 2004

What Should Democrats Do?

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Fueled by intense animosity toward President George W. Bush, a united Democratic Party mounted an all-out campaign to defeat him this fall. Yet even though Democrats raised unprecedented amounts of money and turned out millions more voters than in 2000, it wasn’t enough to put John Kerry in the White House. As the ramifications of the Democratic defeat continue to sink in, many of those on the left side of the political spectrum have begun asking what the Democratic Party should do to regain power in Washington.

What will it take to win? Do the Democrats need to rethink their platform and their principles, or just learn how to communicate their ideas more effectively? Maybe they just need to pick better candidates? Last week The Sun spoke with politically-active students and professors of government and history to find out their opinions on the future of the Democratic Party.

Stronger Principles?

Among the students and professors interviewed by The Sun, there was substantial agreement that the Democratic Party needed to do a better job of defining and standing by a set of core principles.

“The main thing for the Democrats to do is to stay true to what they are and articulate things more clearly,” said Prof. Stuart Blumin, history.

“The Democratic Party ought not to be afraid of itself,” he added.

Prof. Theodore J. Lowi, the John L. Senior Professor of American Institutions, agreed that Democrats had been too timid in standing by their principles.

“Most Democrats know damn well what their core principles are — they’re just ashamed of them, or feel like it’s a formula for defeat to talk about them,” Lowi said. “The Republicans have been much more honest than the Democrats about what their principles are.”

However, Prof. Richard Polenberg, the Goldwin Smith Professor of American History, wondered whether the issue was one of uncertainty over principles rather than honesty.

“One reason that Democrats have not enunciated their principles more clearly is that they don’t have a clear sense of what those principles ought to be, and whether they are principles that they ought to stand by whether or not they ensure victory,” he said.

Prof. Walter Mebane, government, questioned what he perceived to be a mentality among the leadership of the Democratic Party that put a premium on winning while downgrading the importance of core principles.

“I would not say that the most important thing is to win the next election,” he said. “It’s more important to have a party that stands for something.”

“Of course,” he added, “you have to win sometime!”

Several students faulted Kerry for leaving the impression that he based his positions on political considerations rather than arriving at them independently, and suggested that Democrats could use his campaign as a model to avoid in future elections.

“Kerry’s key problem was the fact that … he refused to take a strong stand on anything of substance,” Patrick Young ’06, president of the Cornell Organization for Labor Activism, and a member of Cornell Democrats, stated in an e-mail.

“For Kerry and the Democrats it’s all about theory and tactics. Bush does a great job of framing right and wrong. If the Democrats were willing to play that game they would win,” Young stated.

Mitch Fagen ’07, vice president of the Cornell Democrats, agreed that Kerry was harmed by his apparent reluctance to take clear stands on important issues.

“What we learned from this election is that people will vote for the candidate that stands for what they believe in. And I don’t know if that’s true for George Bush, but people definitely didn’t think that [it was true] about Kerry,” he said. “We have to be very firm, we have to have very clear positions so that people know where we stand. The biggest single problem that the party has is framing our message so that people will know that we’re really on their side.”

Move to the left?

For some observers, one lesson of the 2000 and 2004 elections is that attempting to appeal to centrist voters by toning down liberal rhetoric has failed to bring victory. Therefore, some argue that a leftward turn in the Democratic Party may be the key to Democratic success in the long term.

“You don’t beat a Republican by trying to out-Republican him,” Polenberg said.

“The Democrats are giving themselves the wrong counsel by saying ‘Let’s imitate the Republicans,'” Lowi said. “Democrats have to take the risk now of being accused of turning left.”

“The Democrats have to return to the well of their former victories, which is to represent the working classes — if they don’t do that they’ll be a minority party on into the future,” he added.

Fagen, however, worried that because of the makeup of the electorate, becoming more liberal was not the answer to the Democrats’ problems.

“I would love it if the party could be a little more liberal than it is now, but that would make it harder to win elections,” he said.

Getting Religion?

In light of exit polls in which voters placed a high emphasis on the importance of moral values, many pundits have been urging the Democrats to be more open in talking about religion.

“The Democratic Party and the left in general has distanced themselves too much from religion,” Young wrote. He noted that historically, many social movements such as the civil rights movement led by Martin Luther King, Jr. had embraced faith or morals as backing for their agenda.

Some professors, however, disagreed that Democrats should move toward a closer relationship between religion and politics.

“Some Democrats are already saying that we need to take some lessons from the Republicans [and] be less secular,” Lowi said. “That would really be a betrayal of the traditional ideals of the Democratic Party.”

Blumin agreed, advising that Democrats, “don’t necessarily [need to] cultivate religious and spiritual re-phrasings of the party’s core.”

Better candidate?

Prof. Walter LaFeber, the Andrew H. and James S. Tisch Distinguished University Professor, said that picking the right presidential candidate might be the simplest answer to the Democrats’ woes.

“I think it’s a lot easier to pick the right candidate than to change the message or change the platform,” he said.

LaFeber and Polenberg shared the opinion that if the Democrats want to win they must avoid nominating presidential candidates from the Northeast.

“What this election shows is that the Democrats cannot win the presidency unless they nominate a Southerner,” Polenberg said. “This is something that they ought to have known inasmuch as Jimmy Carter [from Georgia] and Bill Clinton [from Arkansas] are the only two Democrats that have been elected president in the last 40 years.”

Barring a major political realignment, the Democrats should realize that “quite clearly it’s going to take someone who can deliver some states outside the Northeast and the West Coast [to win the presidency],” LaFeber said.

“The Democrats generally do much better if they run somebody who has a drawl,” he added.

Archived article by Elijah Reichlin-Melnick
Sun Staff Writer