- The Washington Times - Sunday, November 7, 2004

Democratic officials and advisers are warning that before their party can reclaim majority status again, it will first have to rebuild its political base, abandon “ideological purity” and reach out to traditional mainstream voters.

Beginning another painful postelection self-analysis of what went wrong in their 2004 campaign that failed to halt the party’s 15-year decline, Democrats interviewed by The Washington Times over the last several days called for new faces to lead their party over the next four years and blamed Sen. John Kerry for “missed opportunities” at their national convention and a confusing, contradictory message.

“We cannot afford to make the perfect the enemy of the good and insist on absolute ideological purity. Anybody who aspires to a leadership role in our party must understand that we cannot afford to continue to appeal to an ever-narrowing part of the American electorate,” former Democratic National Committee (DNC) Chairman Steve Grossman said.

“We have to broaden our base and not have everyone agree with every principle of the party platform. People have to see us as more inclusive and more thoughtful than we often appear to be,” said Mr. Grossman, who served as DNC chairman under President Clinton. “We have to broaden our appeal without violating our principles and the values we stand for.”

With their party’s rank and file dispirited and depressed from yet another presidential defeat and deeper losses in the House and Senate, even leaders of liberal organizations that strongly backed Mr. Kerry’s campaign said the Massachusetts senator bears part of the blame for what went wrong.

“The Kerry campaign could have been much more aggressive earlier on. Remember back to the convention, which was entirely devoted to Kerry’s commander-in-chief qualities and Vietnam record, when attacks on the Bush record were forbidden,” said Roger Hickey, co-director of Campaign for America’s Future, a liberal grass-roots advocacy organization.

“Kerry’s people thought they would not have to explain what was wrong with Bush’s record, and for several weeks after the convention they had no message whatsoever. They lost a lot of valuable time and by talking only about his Vietnam record, opened him up to the Swift Boat [Veterans For Truth] attacks,” Mr. Hickey said.

“The other big problem was that Kerry was never quite clear on where he stood on the war in Iraq, which was confusing to voters and easily parodied by the Bush team. We think Kerry could have done a better job as a candidate and could have been much more aggressive and critical of the Bush record than he was in the early part of the campaign,” he said.

Democratic strategist Donna Brazile, in a stinging postelection critique of her party, said that “it’s time for Democrats to take a deep look inside themselves and search hard for answers” outside the party’s old big-government orthodoxy.

“There’s no question that it’s time to rebuild America’s oldest political party brick by brick,” Miss Brazile said in a column in the Capitol Hill newspaper Roll Call. “The Democratic Party must lay a new foundation and stop spending its political capital defending old programs and initiatives.”

“How can we defend ordinary people when they do not know what we stand for? We must reclaim the mantle of the party of mainstream values,” said the manager for Al Gore’s 2000 campaign.

Miss Brazile is widely considered the party’s pre-eminent minority-voter turnout specialist and under her strategy, Mr. Gore drew more than 90 percent of the black vote, one of its most loyal constituencies.

But Mr. Kerry did not energize the black vote as much as Mr. Gore did, drawing 88 percent of its vote to Mr. Bush’s 11 percent, and now she says that the party “cannot overrely on blacks and other minorities to turn out in record numbers when these voters often are the last to get a piece of mail and the first to be blamed when things go wrong.”

Democrats’ decline

The situation the Democrats now find themselves in is all too familiar for them, triggering what many expect will be another bitter internal battle over what their party should stand for and who can lead it out of the wilderness.

After the 1960 election, Democrats held 64 seats in the Senate, and 262 seats in the House, as well as control of 34 governorships.

And since 1968, the Democrats have lost seven out of the last 10 presidential elections, but their steep decline from a majority to a minority party has occurred more recently and more rapidly. After the 1990 election, the Democrats had a 56-seat majority in the Senate, a 267-seat majority in the House and held 27 of the governorships. All of those majorities vanished during the Clinton presidency and were further weakened in Tuesday’s elections.

Republicans next year will have at least a 231-to-200 majority in the House, with one Democratic-leaning independent (two races are still undecided); a 55-to-44 Senate majority, plus one Democratic-leaning independent; and 28 out of 50 governorships (with Washington state still undecided), that includes most of the big electoral states such as California, Texas, New York and Florida.

The Republican Party also moved into the majority in the state legislatures in 2002. Democrats made some gains in the state chambers Tuesday, but Republicans rule in 49 of them and the Democrats control 47, with 1 chamber tied and one, the Montana House, still undecided. Nebraska has a unicameral, nonpartisan Legislature.

Particularly disturbing to many Democrats was their party’s inability to carry a single state in the South or the western Plains and Mountain States, which have long been bastions of the Republicans’ electoral strength. Many privately blamed the Kerry campaign for essentially writing off the South and failing to more aggressively compete for heavily Democratic states like West Virginia, which Mr. Bush easily won.

What’s next?

Many Democrats blame their present troubles on their losses in the 1990s, especially among the governorships, which have left them without any heavy-hitting presidential talent in an era when the voters look to governors for their presidents. Seven out of the last 10 presidential elections have been won by former governors.

“The ‘90s was a bad decade for the Democrats, and we are paying for that now,” said Simon Rosenberg, president of the New Democrat Network, a leading grass-roots fund-raising organization that has emerged as an influential force in the party. “The gubernatorial races for the long term are going to be very important. Our gubernatorial bench right now is not deep.”

More immediately, Democrats say the party’s needs a new aggressive spokesman to replace DNC Chairman Terry McAuliffe. One name that has been popping up in the past week, some Democrats say, has been that of former presidential candidate Howard Dean.

Mr. Dean’s candidacy imploded just before the first winter primaries began, but he was the first to challenge his party leadership on the war in Iraq and put together a grass-roots campaign that ignited the anti-war movement that eventually turned to Mr. Kerry when his own campaign failed.

“Howard Dean’s name has come up in several conversations. He would be terrific as the DNC chairman. He would be a passionate spokesman for the Democrats, but also would be able to continue to revitalize participatory politics that is needed to grow the party,” said Mr. Grossman, who was the national chairman of the Dean campaign.

Mr. Dean, the former governor of Vermont and the former chairman of the National Governors Association, is now running his own grass-roots organization, called Democracy for America, which helped more than 100 candidates this year and some think could become the vehicle for a second presidential bid in 2008.

Asked if Mr. Dean is interested in the DNC chairmanship or has plans to run for president again, his communications director Laura Gross, said, “Every option is on the table, but this is really too soon to be talking about anything.”

“We have over 700,000 people who are part of our Internet community. Our phones are ringing off the hook. We’ve raised about $5 million in the past six months. People want to stay involved,” she said.

But liberals warn that any attempt to water down the Democrats’ social-welfare agenda to appeal to a more centrist voter base would turn off the party’s hard-core supporters.

“The Democratic Party should not compromise and become Republican-lite,” Mr. Hickey said.

“The party just has to have a better message and a new set of messengers and strengthen the grass-roots operation that we built this year,” he said. “The next target, the next focus of politics has to be stopping the Bush agenda and making the Bush agenda an issue in the congressional elections.”

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