op-ed

How To Recover From An Electoral Shellacking

A sympathetic Democrat’s advice.

They weren’t smiling for long. Justin Sullivan / Getty Images

A despised president, reelected. A small but significant number of Senate and House seats swept in on his coattails. Uncertainty and intramural finger-pointing run amok. It’s a description that fits the Republicans today, and I can identify with them. Eight years ago, when I was working for Senator Chuck Schumer, we Democrats were in the exact same position.

George W. Bush had just won a second term, bringing a net four Senate seats and three House seats along with him. Democrats grasped for a new identity and an electoral strategy that could adapt to a changing country. Of course, they ultimately succeeded. Republicans can take heart: It doesn’t take altogether that long for a party to find its internal gyroscope, adapt to new demographics, and rise again.

After processing that November’s results, a small group of Democrats embarked on a project to try to understand where the party had gone wrong and how to correct itself moving forward. Schumer had just been tapped to lead the Democratic Senate Campaign Committee. His aides and other progressives invested in the project took turns drafting and revising a document aimed at figuring out how to move Democrats toward a more sustainable path.

The consensus: Democrats didn’t have a clear, pithy way to describe what they stood for to average Americans. Republicans, the group agreed, could describe their values in seven words: “tax cuts, Iraq war, no gay marriage.”

What were our seven words?

Back then, the party’s values were more or less the same ones it holds today — economic fairness, smart foreign policy, protection of core American programs like Social Security. But rather than distinguish itself from Bush after his sky-high popularity post-9/11, the party had chosen to try to minimize differences with him in key areas. A majority of Democratic senators signed off on his war and almost all voted to pass the Patriot Act, and we weren’t stubborn enough to impede his 2003 tax cut package. The result: a party without an identity. Or, even worse, an identity as Bush Light.

One shortcut to finding a framework for winning national elections is identifying individual incidents in which the party’s principles still clearly resonate with the electorate. One such early turning point for the Democrats — one which would resonate loudly in the 2012 campaign eight years later — was the strenuous and successful effort to thwart Bush’s attempt to privatize Social Security after his ’04 reelection. This was a defense of a principle that had long been held by the Democratic party, it was in tune with the electorate, and Democrats went on to go to the mat for it. Being the party that protects its eldest citizens was not only good policy, Democrats realized, but good politics.

Along that eight-year journey, another cause Democrats would eventually take on with success was progressive tax policy. It would take a few years after that debilitating ’04 cycle to summon the will — and for national circumstances to dictate the necessity — but by 2012, the issue was one of the few quasi-policy discussions of the entire campaign. Where the party once went along with Bush on tax cuts for the rich for fear of being branded as wanting to raise taxes on everyone, the party now trusted voters to understand that asking the wealthy to do their fair share does not mean everyone else’s will rise. When billionaire Warren Buffett told Americans he found it unconscionable that he paid lower tax rates than his executive assistants, Democrats seized the moment and hyped up the so-called Buffett Rule effort to raise taxes on millionaires and billionaires.

Of course, the Democratic resurgence wasn’t just picking the right fights; demographic and national value changes were also key. Which meant that what had once been a Republican edge — the use of wedge issues like banning gay marriage and tarring “illegal immigrants” to drive up their turnout — was slowly becoming unworkable.

Last night’s lessons on this front, of course, were clear and obvious. Four states signed off on marriage equality; the old strategy of dividing Americans along that issue is no longer nationally advantageous. On immigration, castigating large swaths of the nation once brought huge white majorities to the polls; now a loss among Hispanics by 50 percentage points is not politically affordable given that the group comprises 10% of the electorate. And on so-called women’s issues, a party that alienates voters of both genders by dismissing the problem of rape will find it hard to survive.

Democrats had been active on all those issues. The party was first to endorse civil unions, before ultimately progressing, of course, to support marriage equality. It had reversed its course from the 1990s by fighting Don’t Ask Don’t Tell and the Defense of Marriage Act. Democrats passed the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act and went out of their way to defend Planned Parenthood. On immigration, it’s true, the party has not yet passed a workable plan to deal with the issue, but it has distinguished itself from the GOP by refusing to dignify their fence-building, papers-checking obsessions with a compromise.

Taken together, while our little working group didn’t put it all together in those winter 2004 meetings, all of the above pieces — respect for all Americans, tax fairness, protecting the safety net — slowly began to piece together into a more coherent and compelling Democratic vision than the floundering 2004 version. And when Barack Obama soared into office last night and brought a two-seat House gain and a Senate candidates with him, he said:

What makes America exceptional are the bonds that hold together the most diverse nation on earth. The belief that our destiny is shared; that this country only works when we accept certain obligations to one another and to future generations.

America, I believe we can build on the progress we’ve made and continue to fight for new jobs and new opportunity and new security for the middle class. I believe we can keep the promise of our founders, the idea that if you’re willing to work hard, it doesn’t matter who you are or where you come from or what you look like or where you live. It doesn’t matter whether you’re black or white or Hispanic or Asian or Native American or young or old or rich or poor, able, disabled, gay or straight, you can make it here in America if you’re willing to try.

It didn’t seem too hard to find seven words to describe his party’s message: “all in this together; protect middle class.”

Obviously a party needs to stand for far more than just seven words. And details matter considerably more than pithy slogans. But chances are good that if it can’t describe itself to voters in a short, clear way, a party may have a problem connecting with the electorate.

And when it comes to Republicans’ seven words, “war, no gay marriage, and tax cuts” might have worked in 2004’s America, but they just won’t cut it in today’s, or tomorrow’s. The nation has many problems, certainly enough for the president’s opposition to have waged a successful fight. But the Republican Party failed to articulate an economic principle besides the need for further tax cuts. Surely there are other proposals that remain true to conservative ideology that might address the nation’s economic worries, struggling education system, and global competitiveness.

The good news for the Republican Party is that Democrats felt hopeless and aimless, too, just eight years ago. The bad news: They don’t anymore.

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