- The Washington Times - Wednesday, November 10, 2004

Democrats are just beginning to face the harsh political reality that they are, in effect, a minority party — quite possibly for years to come.

In yet another postelection self-analysis of what went wrong — this time in the 2004 campaign — Democratic leaders now acknowledge that, if their party is to become competitive again, it must first rebuild its shrinking political base, abandon the left wing’s demands for “ideological purity” and begin reaching out to traditional mainstream voters.

“We cannot afford to make the perfect the enemy of the good and insist on absolute ideological purity,” said Steve Grossman, former Democratic National Committee chairman under President Clinton. “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 electorate.”

“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,” he said.

And it’s not just Clintonian Democrats who are unhappy with how John Kerry ran the campaign. Liberal supporters blame him for “missed opportunities” at the convention and a confusing, contradictory message on Iraq. Listen to Roger Hickey, codirector of Campaign for America’s Future, a liberal grass-roots advocacy organization that backed Mr. Kerry to the hilt:

“The Kerry campaign could have been much more aggressive early on,” he said. “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?” a dejected Mr. Hickey asked me.

“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,” he said.

Equally troubling for Mr. Hickey and his liberal soul mates, “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.”

Unlike House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi, who is in deep denial about her party’s problems, strategists like Donna Brazile want top-to-bottom changes in the Democratic structure and a re-examination of what the party stands for.

In a stinging postelection critique of her party’s performance, Miss Brazile says, “It’s time for Democrats to take a deep look inside themselves and search hard for answers” outside the party’s big-government orthodoxy.

“There’s no question that it’s time to rebuild America’s oldest political party brick by brick,” said Al Gore’s 2000 campaign chief. “The Democratic Party must lay a new foundation and stop spending its political capital defending old programs.”

The Democrats’ situation is all too familiar. Since 1968, they’ve lost seven in 10 presidential elections. But their steep decline into minority status has occurred more recently and more rapidly at every level of government.

In 1990, the Democrats had a 55-seat majority in the Senate, a 267-seat majority in the House and held 27 of the governorships, including most of the big states. All that vanished during the Clinton presidency and was further weakened in last week’s elections — with the loss of all five of their party’s open Senate seats in the South, dealing them an especially devastating blow.

The GOP next year will have a 231- to 201-seat majority in the House, with one Democratic-tilting independent (two races were still undecided); a 55-to-44-seat Senate majority, plus one Democratic-leaning independent; and at least 28 of 50 governorships.

Even in state legislatures, where Democrats had long been dominant, Republicans now have at least a 49-to-47-chamber majority at last count.

Meanwhile, exit polling shows President Bush drove deeply into Democratic territory. He took 40 percent of the union vote, 44 percent of the Hispanic vote, 11 percent of the black vote (up from 9 percent in 2000) and a near majority (49 percent) of middle-class earners of between $30,000 and $50,000 a year.

Can the Democrats come back from this year’s defeat? Not without repairing their structural weaknesses, especially among the governorships, which have left them without any heavyweights in an era when voters look to governors for their chief executives. Seventy percent of the last 10 presidential elections have been won by former governors.

“Our gubernatorial bench is not deep,” said Simon Rosenberg, head of the New Democrat Network, a leading party grass-roots group.

But other policy deficits of the Democrats are likely to keep them in the minority for years to come: their addiction to higher taxes and bigger government. When exit polls asked voters, “should government do more to solve problems,” an astounding 70 percent said no.

Donald Lambro, chief political correspondent of The Washington Times, is a nationally syndicated columnist.

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