Friday, November 05, 2004

Why We Lost

The New York Times
November 5, 2004

Why We Lost


On Wednesday morning, Democrats across the country awoke to a situation they have not experienced since before the New Deal: We are now, without a doubt, America's minority party. We do not have the presidency. We are outnumbered in the Senate, the House, governorships and legislatures. And the conservative majority on the Supreme Court seems likely to be locked in place for a generation. It is clearly a moment that calls for serious reflection.

I had the honor of working for both Al Gore and John Kerry. I believe America would have been fortunate to have had them in the Oval Office. That neither won is not primarily a commentary on them. Nor were their defeats really the result of the mistakes, attacks and tactics that pundits are so endlessly fascinated by: Al Gore's sighs in debates or John Kerry's slow response to the Swift boat veterans; Bill Clinton's campaigning (or lack thereof) in 2000 and 2004; the handling of the Elián González and Mary Cheney controversies. Any time Democrats spend in the coming weeks discussing the merits of our past candidates' personalities or their campaigns' personnel will be time wasted.

The overarching problem Democrats have today is the lack of a clear sense of what the party stands for. For years this has been a source of annoyance for bloggers and grass-roots activists. And in my time working for Al Gore and John Kerry, it certainly left me feeling hamstrung.

Democrats have a collection of policy positions that are sensible and right. John Kerry made this very clear. What we don't have, and what we sorely need, is what President George H. W. Bush so famously derided as "the vision thing" - a worldview that makes a thematic argument about where America is headed and where we want to take it.

For most of the 20th century, Democrats had a bold vision: we would use government programs to make Americans' lives more stable and secure. In 1996, President Clinton told us this age had passed, that "the era of big government is over." He was right - the world had changed. But the party has not answered the basic question: What comes next?

It's not the sort of question that gets answered in the heat of a national election. A presidential campaign feels like running full speed across a tightrope. If you're working on its message, you spend your days sitting around conference tables in poorly lighted rooms, surrounded by spent pizza boxes and buzzing Blackberries, with the clock ticking down on another day and another speech. This is not the place to devise a new thematic direction for the party. What you wind up offering are quips and quibbles, slogans and sound bites, and heaping portions of poll-tested pabulum.

The press also seems to overstate what staff changes can do within a campaign. Much was made of the "who's in, who's out" reports about the Kerry team, with reporters devising narratives about a supposed "shift to the middle" or a "lurch to the left." While new advisers can alter tactics and form new messages, efforts on their part to create a larger vision will fail. That has to happen long before the primaries - and it requires that the party knows where it is going.

Throughout the campaign, voters told reporters and pollsters that they wanted a change, but didn't "know what John Kerry stands for." Our response was to churn out more speeches outlining the details of policies that Senator Kerry would then deliver in front of a backdrop that said something like "Rx to Stronger Health Care." Of course, it turned out that Americans weren't very interested in Mr. Kerry's campaign promises - perhaps because they no longer believe politicians will follow through on their commitments. They wanted to know instead how he saw the world. And we never told them.

Misguided as they may be, the Republicans have a clear vision of America's future. Confronted with their ambitious agenda we have not chosen to match it. Instead, we have adopted Nancy Reagan's old antidrug motto, "Just Say No." As in "Stop George Bush's Assault on the Environment," "Repeal George Bush's Tax Cuts for the Wealthy" and "End George Bush's Policy of Unilateralism." These are good stands. But they are not enough. And the Republicans ended up defining John Kerry because we did not.

I don't pretend to know exactly what the party should do now. But I do know that we better start answering some important questions. What is our economic vision in a globalized world? How do we respond to the desire of many Americans to have choices and decision-making power of their own? How can we speak to Americans' moral and spiritual yearnings? How can our national security vision be broader than just a critique of the Republican's foreign policy? If we sweep this debate under the rug, four years from now another set of people around another conference table will be struggling with the same issues we did. And America cannot afford the same result.

Long after midnight in November 2000, I stood in the rain in Nashville and listened to the Gore campaign chairman, William Daley, tell us there would be no victory speech. On Wednesday, long after midnight, I stood in the rain in Boston listening to John Edwards tell us the same thing. I'm sick of standing in the rain.

Andrei Cherny, the author of "The Next Deal," was director of speechwriting and a special policy adviser to John Kerry from February 2003 to last April.