Thursday, November 18, 2004

In the wake of President Bush's re-election, American Democrats have been trying to understand where the Democratic party went wrong, and what it can do to set things right. (For example, Slate hosted a discussion among several writers, and The New Republic published a good, concise, summary of the popular theories.) Of course, some argue that given the fairly small margin of Bush's victory, the Democrats came close enough to winning that they could easily pull off a victory next time with only some minor tactical adjustments--perhaps a more charismatic candidate, a better-crafted message, or a more aggressive attack-ad campaign. Others point to issues, such as foreign policy or "moral values", on which the Democratic Party is allegedly too out-of-step with the electorate to win national elections, and therefore must change its positions to survive.

The problem with all these analyses is that they assume that both parties actually have clear, well-defined, opposing positions on each major issue, positions that in each case may or may not need adjusting to align them with the majority view. In fact, during this past campaign, the two major presidential candidates agreed--publicly, at least--on most everything. They both supported the ban on gay marriages. They each had a plan, of highly dubious plausibility, to cut the deficit in half. They both believed that the US should "finish the job" of stabilizing and reconstructing Iraq, and pursue a vigorous war on terrorism. Their main differences were over matters like the exact tax rate for high income-earners, the right way to discourage North Korea and Iran from continuing with their nuclear arms programs, how assiduously to court European countries diplomatically to get them involved in American foreign policy initiatives, and what position future Supreme Court justices should take on Roe v. Wade.

These are all important issues, to be sure, but they certainly weren't the foci of either campaign. No doubt that's because in all likelihood anybody who might have been swayed to one side or the other by a candidate's opinion on one of these issues already knew exactly which way they would vote. On issues that might shift moderate, independent voters, however, both sides had no choice but to choose the position that stood the best chance of attracting a majority of them. Hence they ended up agreeing on the majority of the most widely discussed issues.

The resulting consensus, in fact, provides a fairly accurate road map of the state of moderate, middle-of-the-road America--and a good snapshot of the prospects of both parties for making headway in the quest for a durable majority coalition. For example, on social issues, the country appears today to be against gay marriage (though generally tolerant of gays, as neither candidate dared express anything but respect for gays who choose to live openly as such); somewhere in between pro-life and pro-choice, though perhaps leaning mildly towards abortion rights; and very serious about religion and personal morality and integrity in general (though perhaps not so much in every specific). On economic policy, Americans are apparently relatively unconcerned about the deficit, and unwilling to consider large-scale tax increases to mitigate it. All of these positions are, I believe, embraceable by both parties, without severely alienating their respective bases. (A possible exception might be conservative Republicans' discomfort with the public's moderate stance on abortion and gay rights. But so far, it seems, they've been content to accept a party program based on combatting the most extreme opposing positions, rather than on resisting the pull of the middle.)

It's in the area of foreign policy, I think, where the most interesting conflict appears. For it's my impression that the Democratic base right now is not simply against aggressive unilateral military ventures, but is in fact to a large degree dovish to the point of being virtually pacifist or isolationist. The Howard Dean bubble during the Democratic primaries provides some evidence of this claim, as does the continuing strength within the party of such strongly antiwar groups as "".

What remains to be seen is whether the Democrats can reach the same kind of accommodation with the American mainstream's support for a military-backed activist foreign policy that core Republicans appear (so far, at least) to have reached with respect to the public's in-between stance on abortion, homosexuality, and other hot-button "moral issues". If so, then a future Kennedyesque candidate--hawkish internationally, dovish on the deficit, and moderate on social issues--stands a good chance of winning undecided voters, and thereby the presidency, in the not-too-distant future. (Kerry was a poor example of such a candidate, given his history as an antiwar activist and Cold War dove.)

On the other hand, if the base fails to reconcile itself conspicuously with American geopolitical aggressiveness, then the Democrats may be in for a period much like the seventies and eighties, when their near-pacifism in the face of the Cold War lost them the confidence of the American center, which responded by virtually shutting them out of the White House for nearly a quarter-century.

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