The greatest political scientist to have written about American politics during the last century, V.O. Key Jr., would have understood it all. In a book entitled Southern Politics in State and Nation , completed in the late 1940’s, Key explained why minority parties remain that way. Key was writing about Southern Republicans, who had been in the minority since the Civil War because the “Radical Republicans” in Washington had put the former Confederate states into near servitude.
Key noted that minority party bosses liked being second, sort of. They could keep power in more meaningful and less obvious ways, develop relationships with those in power that were certainly beneficial-meaning they could grab the dough whenever possible-and had no responsibility.
Fast forward to 2004. The Democrats, since 1994, have become an almost permanent minority party. They’ve raised and spent hundreds of millions of dollars, but can’t take back control of either the Senate or the House of Representatives. They have been bested in state reapportionments by Republican pencils drawing the lines, thus losing control of statehouses and state legislatures. And throughout the decade, the power to control decisions about campaign tactics, fund-raising and decision-making have become, for Democrats, centralized in the salons of Washington.
Democratic operatives within the Beltway are constantly complaining about those nasty Republicans, and they’re always quick to offer their opinions about the nation’s pressing issues. But what really motivates these never-out-of-work, never-in-pain and never-needy operatives is their next high-paying gig. Winning matters not; nor does losing. Chance the gardener would have loved it. Speak in platitudes but, unlike Chance, take the dough-and take it quickly, even if it means breaking the fingers, the hearts and the reputations of those who might show sufficient idealism to want to do otherwise.
These prosperous Beltway operatives say that Democrats are thinking about the unemployed in the heartland. They don’t understand that being unemployed isn’t an intellectual issue. It hurts. There are Democrats out there who really believe that union officials in the AFL-CIO building in Washington really represent the working people of America. These Democrats really believe winning is all about coalitions. These Democrats really believe they are better and smarter than George Bush, better people than Donald Rumsfeld or Dick Cheney. And that if only voters would be educated, they would understand.
The party that once represented working people-the Democrats-is now the party of the elites. As a result, absent some great event, the party is on its way to an almost permanent minority status, because they don’t believe that winning matters. They don’t realize that the AFL-CIO represents only about 13 percent of America’s labor force. They don’t know that there are no coalitions any more: There is region, and there is religion.
And so, as V.O. Key indicated, where there is no power, there is no responsibility-but gee, you sure can make a lot of dough.
The salons know all this. They now know that George W. Bush is bad because George W. Bush says bad things. He berates John Kerry. He accuses John Kerry and the Democrats of weakness, of duplicity, of standing in the way in the battle against evil.
And what do the Democrats do? Nothing. They are waiting for the right moment. They will educate the people, they think. Their coalition members will help. That is what goes through the Washington brain. And judging by where the Democrats stand, it is a brain that needs rehabilitative training.
Here are some facts that the Democratic elites and the people who keep saying Mr. Bush will lose because he is dumb-which he obviously is not-need to learn, fast. When you get called out in a barroom brawl you put up or you run. No one is going to give the Democrats and John Kerry access to the red phone without a fight. And they sure as hell aren’t going to give it to a fellow who won’t fight.
V.O. Key’s last book was called The Responsible Electorate. Let’s paraphrase a line or two from that final work. Key said there’s a secret out there. What is it? The voters aren’t fools; they respond to the information they’re given. That’s something the geniuses in Washington can’t fit into their lexicons. They’re too busy in the capital of permanent political employment, figuring out their next moves and counting brokerage account balances.
But the people they’re supposed to be fighting for-those who trace their sense of democracy back to Andrew Jackson-don’t have it so easy. They’re fighting to hold onto their jobs. Their brokerage accounts are empty.
The Democrats have to stop merely thinking about these things. They have to do something-if they can.