You may have read that renowned political observer Tina Brown has written a characteristically weighty analysis of the Democratic Party’s sad state. Having seen poor Al Gore forced to carry his own laptop computer off a yucky commercial airliner (are there no servants? Are there no personal assistants?), Ms. Brown has decided that Mr. Gore’s party needs an injection of charisma. Odd, isn’t it? One might have suggested that what the Democrats need more than anything else are stalwart supporters who don’t go running off with billionaire Republican Mayoral candidates out of petty personal spite. Oh, sorry-that’s exactly what Ms. Brown’s former patron, Harvey (“I’m the Boss”) Weinstein, did last year.
Ms. Brown’s musings naturally made their way into the New York press, where they were received with the deference so many small-R republicans reserve for those with Oxbridge accents. This may explain how Ms. Brown got away with saying that Ted Kennedy resembles a “classic, old-time Irish politician” because, after all, he has big jowls and a “cereal-box head.” They all look alike, don’t they-Al Smith, Gene McCarthy, Bobby Kennedy, Ronald Reagan. Who can tell these wogs apart?
Ms. Brown had nicer things to say about Mr. Kennedy’s counterpart in the Senate, John Kerry, whose long, lined, “Lincolnesque” face apparently does not resemble that of a classic Irish politician-even though he’s spent many years as a, er, classic Irish politician. Well, he married into money, so he must be one of us, darling.
While there’s no shortage of post-postmortems on the Democratic disaster earlier this month, I thought some words from Hank Sheinkopf could add a little light amid the heat. Mr. Sheinkopf does not possess the sort of accent that melts the brains (sic) of media elitists, but just for laughs, I thought maybe a real-life New York Democratic political consultant ought to be included in the debate about the party’s future.
“Let’s understand one thing,” Mr. Sheinkopf said: “Charismatic leadership is detrimental to democracy. We have too many examples of the dangers of charismatic leadership from the 20th century. What we need are not charismatic leaders, but people of real substance and ideas. Democrats don’t need style. They need to fight, and they need to have the stomach to fight. They need to become populists again.”
While most pundits are focusing on Democratic failures, Mr. Sheinkopf points out-correctly, I believe-that the party is actually a victim of its most astounding success: its active role in the creation of the American middle class. “It’s not that Democrats have failed,” he said. “It’s that they’ve done such a good job that people have walked away from economic populism because they don’t think we need it anymore.”
Talk like that is generally dismissed as so much class warfare-as opposed to, say, economic policies that benefit the wealthy. Doing away with the estate tax and lowering taxes on high incomes, of course, are not about class and power at all, but are simply designed to help all Americans keep more of what they earn.
Mr. Sheinkopf was part of Bill Clinton’s re-election team in 1996, and helped formulate some of the strategies and tactics that led to the first re-election of a Democratic President in a generation. What worked for Mr. Clinton, he said, can work again. “Bill Clinton may have had style or charisma, but what was more important is that he had ideas,” Mr. Sheinkopf said. “He said that ideas encapsulated in a value argument can work-so, for example, he would say that cutting back on environmental spending betrays our stewardship of the land, and cuts to Social Security betrays our compact with senior citizens.” The template, he added, was the Republican Party’s “Contract with America” in 1994, which led to the party’s historic takeover of Congress. “The ‘Contract with America’ had ideological components that showed an emotional core,” he said. In other words, it showed that the party stood for something.
Democrats today seem to believe that assembling threadbare coalitions can somehow take the place of new ideas, or new variations on classic themes. “They think that somehow you get all the groups together and then you create the issues,” Mr. Sheinkopf said of his fellow Democrats. “That approach has been rejected. Instead, Democrats have to define the issues and ideas and then build their coalitions.”
And that will require formulating issues that will inspire wayward Democrats to return to the party. “As the performance of Democrats declines, we have to figure out how to get Hispanics, Jews and white Catholics back. Traditional liberalism isn’t working. Instead, we have to find new ideas. What are they? I don’t know yet.”
But it’s safe to say that those ideas don’t include a search for a charismatic savior who can dazzle star-struck former magazine editors.