Be Bold, or Be Bowled Over

What should the Democrats do in the next four years? If I were a

little voice that could whisper in the sleeping ear of the party functionary

with his or her finger on the funds, this is what I’d say:

Make a lot of noise. Use advertisements, pictorials and press

briefings to show the American public exactly what lies behind the Republican rhetoric.

Every time Gale Norton gives another chunk of America to the oil barons and

chews up a few thousand more acres of the tundra, circulate a photograph of the

uprooted trees lying like wounded soldiers across the trampled ground. (I’d

like to see a few Naderites chained to a rock, defying an approaching bulldozer

on the evening news.) In Milton’s Paradise

Lost , there is a description of the war that led to the defeat of Satan and

his troops. Satan’s angels used cannons while God’s forces threw mountains

around. The result was a terrible mess on the heavenly turf, but up there, the

clean-up was a snap. Down here, when Ms. Norton starts tossing mountains, it

will take generations to repair. When and if our cabinet member enters the

pearly gates, she can re-arrange the landscape to her liking-but here on earth,

we must bear witness to each calamity, making sure that every voter in America

has seen the results of her acts, what has happened and who has benefited.

How did this come to pass? We were beat (not really, but truly)

because we ran scared of the moral minority. Al Gore was too afraid of the

American people’s piety to ever stop playing “amen, amen” in the God game. All

the sanctimony about character-the general sense that Republicans were good,

religious people and Democrats were lewd atheists-was allowed to stand. Mr.

Gore should have made it clear that separation of church and state is a noble

and necessary fact of Constitutional life and a God-respecting position to

take. He should not have let Mr. Bush imply that the Democrats want to deny

people their individuality, their entrepreneurship. We have to disentangle,

deconstruct their language and use our own. For example, the government is not

on the backs of people; it is there to aid, to support, to create a better

country for as many as possible. Al Gore and Joe Lieberman kept trying to

out-goody-goody the original Puritans, but it can’t be done. To claim to be as

churchgoing as the other side, whether true or not, is hardly an argument to

stir the voter’s heart.

The vote should have been daringly solicited on the grounds that a

Democratic party in leadership will decide in the favor of the majority of

Americans against H.M.O.’s, against discrimination, against tax breaks for the

wealthy, for campaign reform. So defensive were our candidates that they

couldn’t make it clear that they represented the party that had created a

wonderful economy and had fought tooth and nail, over the nastiest of

Republican opposition, for civil rights, a minimum wage, health care for the

poor, the well-being of national parks and middle-class folk.

The Republicans won the language game. They usually do. They muffled

the abortion issue and we let them get away with it. We should not let them

speak of “the unborn” without making it clear that they want to force women to

carry every fetus to term. We can’t hide the issue without losing the game. Now

we have to make it clear that the odious phrase “special interests” is a smear

tactic. There is nothing “special” about wanting the environment to trump the

profit motive. There is nothing “special” about demanding equality of

opportunity for all Americans. There is apparently something special about the

H.M.O.’s and the oil companies and those opposed to campaign-finance reform. The

unions are not special interests and the teachers do not represent a special,

self-interested faction of the American public. If our schools are good, our

environment healthy, our freedoms protected-including the freedom of choice-the

public interest is served, not the special interests of some but the good of

all. Somehow the Republicans have made the “special” label stick to the

Democratic agenda and distracted the public’s attention from the real interest

groups that back the present administration.

Democrats did not make clear their reasons for wanting America to

stay involved in the world. They were too timid to say anything that wasn’t a

cliché or a dumb sound bite. They were afraid to talk about human rights and

poverty around the globe, and how human misery affects our trade and

well-being. Americans would understand this. The American public, if properly

informed, is not prepared to let the global economy go south while they

barbecue on their patios. They would not have voted for the isolationists if

the issues had been clearly (mind-numbingly dully) presented to them. 

Don’t be cowed by the bipartisan siren call. Don’t be afraid to

oppose those things that deserve opposition. The American people will not hate

us for sticking to our views. Don’t roll over out of fear of being labeled

“partisan.” That’s just another language scam, an attempt to impose a view by

making it seem that objection is impolite, that those who disagree will be

considered unfit to sit at the table. Please don’t let the American public buy

it.

Somewhere within Democratic headquarters, I hope that a committee is

already seeking a new candidate for President, looking for new, young voices

within the party. Somewhere there is a good speaker, a visionary with the

capacity to communicate intelligence, ideas and connection to our lives. He (or

she) doesn’t have to hold a high position today, but he may. Democratic Party

officials should be out walking the streets of America the way Tibetan monks

seek the next Dalai Lama, knocking on every door. He should not be the son of a

well-known politician or the wife of an old one. He should have a fresh energy,

a willingness to endure the slings of the opposition, a toughness that is not

meanness. He should be a young Franklin Roosevelt, a Kennedy cat without

tin-can scandals tied to his tail. He should not have to tell us he is a good

man. That should be instantly, breathtakingly apparent.

Dear public-relations operatives, kingmakers and power brokers in

the party ranks: Do your job this time around. Be Bold, or Be Bowled Over