Let the Lamentations and Recriminations Begin

The political press will, for the next few days or so, churn out speculative tomes along two lines: 1 — What went wrong for Democrats on Election Day, and who’s to blame; and 2 — Now that his office is secure, will President Bush, generous in victory, attempt a conciliatory bipartisan approach to governing, or will he harden his convictions and swerve farther to the right?

We’ll leave #2 for a later day, but feverish comment on #1 is already using up hours of airtime, tons of newsprint and barrels of ink, not to mention flying back and forth across cyberspace like confetti in a windstorm.

For two days now, Slate has belabored the topic. And today, The New York Times’ op-ed page is entirely devoted to what went wrong for the Dems. Witness the headlines on the page: “Why They Won,” by Thomas Frank; “Why We Lost” by Andrei Cherny, a former Kerry speechwriter; “O.K., Folks: Back To Work,” by Times columnist Bob Herbert; and “No Surrender,” by Times columnist Paul Krugman.

We’ll concentrate on the Times to give you a taste of what you’re likely to see more of in days to come:

Frank essentially makes the case that the election results confirm the thesis of his book, What’s the Matter With Kansas: How Conservatives Won the Heart of America, and its hard to argue with his “I-told-you-so” thesis that the vote totals and breakdowns last Tuesday reflect a country cleaved along cultural and social lines, which are now a greater predictor of voter behavior than either economic or foreign policy divisions. He writes:

The first thing Democrats must try to grasp as they cast their eyes over the smoking ruins of the election is the continuing power of the culture wars. Thirty-six years ago, President Richard Nixon championed a noble “silent majority,” while his vice president, Spiro Agnew, accused liberals of twisting the news. In nearly every election since, liberalism has been vilified as a flag-burning, treason-coddling, upper-class affectation. This year voters claimed to rank “values” as a more important issue than the economy and even the war in Iraq.

And yet, Democrats still have no coherent framework for confronting this chronic complaint, much less understanding it.”

Cherny writes, “The over-arching 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 writing for Al Gore and John Kerry, it certainly left me feeling hamstrung.” Cherny feels that Democrats have a collecion of “sensible and right” policy positions, but lack what George H.W. Bush once called “the vision thing” — a world view that produces a thematic statement about “where America is headed and where we want to take it.”

Herbert and Krugman, by contrast, spend little time autopsying the corpse of the 2004 election effort, and instead attempt to rally the discouraged troops to fight again tomorrow. “[T]hose who abhor the direction Mr. Bush is taking the country must maintain their intensity; they must not succumb to defeatism,” Krugman writes.

He even warns against trying to close the cultural gap as “a losing proposition” (though he does acknowledge that Democrats “need to make it clear that they support personal virtue, that they value fidelity, responsibility, honesty and faith.”) But his primary advice is that “Democrats shouldn’t cave in to Mr. Bush,” but rather fight back harder than ever.

For his part, Herbert makes the same argument, “I have been struck by the extraordinary demoralization, even dark despair, among a lot of voters who desperately wanted John Kerry to defeat Mr. Bush…Here’s my advice: You had a couple of days to indulge your depression — now, get over it. The election’s been lost, but there’s still a country to save, and with the current leadership it won’t be easy. Crucial matters that have been taken for granted too long — like the Supreme Court and Social Security — are at risk. Caving in to depression and a sense of helplessness should not be an option when the country is speeding toward an abyss.”

He concludes, “Democracy is a breeze during good times. It’s when the storms are raging that citizenship is put to the test. And there’s a hell of a wind blowing right now.”

Steve Lovelady

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Steve Lovelady was editor of CJR Daily.