Democrats of Manhattan, rise and shine! It’s been over a week now. The American people have spoken, and what they said was: They don’t want you. The vote is in, the map is more red than blue, that smirking jerk you love to hate is back for four more years. So now what?
Clearly, your most frequently stated option is not a realistic possibility. If you were really going to kill yourself in the event that President George W. Bush got re-elected, you would have done so by now. This leaves you, like every other loser, with two things: a bitter taste in your mouth, and a choice. You can sit around and keep telling each other how stupid and scary the winners are. Or you can put down the hemlock and the Häagen-Dazs, splash some cold water on your face, look in the mirror and tell yourself some awful truths.
Read your lips:
Bush is not an idiot. Kofi Annan is not an oracle. Michael Moore is not Everyman. Women are not ovaries with feet. And to be an American is not an embarrassment.
Lest this sound like gloating, I confess to having a pronoun problem here, and will hereby switch from “you” to “we.” I voted for John Kerry. As a liberal separation-of-church-and-state type, I don’t like the idea of a President who owes his political life to a conservative religious base. I can’t fathom George Bush’s policies on the economy and the environment. As for Iraq, while I find nothing of genius in the Democrats’ prescriptions at this point, I find astonishing the idea that the administration’s performance there is, on balance, something to reward rather than something to punish.
Curiously, then, it is not the party I voted against that is driving me nuts right now. It is the party I voted for. It’s the same feeling that I got about the Democrats after 2000: I agree with them, but I can’t stand them, in the exact same way I can’t stand anyone who would rather whine than shine.
Now as then, Democratic partisans seem to be more interested in coming off as wronged rather than defeated. We have lost an election-and so far, we are acting as if we have lost a contact lens, crawling around the red parts of the map in search of the speck of strategy that would have turned it blue. We are all set to keep on ridiculing the President’s syntax, when it is our message that no one can make sense of. The party of F.D.R. and J.F.K. has turned itself into the political equivalent of the woman who responds to her husband’s leaving her by living in her bathrobe for years: It’s O.K. for her to be miserable, so long as enough people around her know that he’s the bad guy.
In short, the Democratic Party is losing the American people-and so far, we aren’t even looking for them.
To get started, we should go with the five rules of reality-checking:
Reality check No. 1: Bush is not an idiot-and even if he were, saying so, over and over again, would not be a strategy. It would be an insult to the 59 million Americans who voted for him; a gift to anyone and everyone who wants to paint the Democratic Party as a coven of elitists-and a slap in our own face. For a group of people who pride ourselves on intellectual superiority, we seem remarkably capable of ignoring the most basic questions. Here is one: If Bush is an idiot and he has beaten us twice, what does that make us?
To hear many of this week’s wound-lickers tell it, it makes us the poor, put-upon souls who are simply too intelligent to live in this country with the moron majority. And anyway, the beef goes on, George Bush didn’t win twice. O.K., he won this once, but barely; if a few precincts in a few states had gone the other way, Democrats would be reaching for the Champagne rather than the cyanide. And his first election, of course, he stole from Al Gore.
Such is the Democratic stuff of which Republican dreams are made. Once the drama of 2000 subsided, the question that would have obsessed a vital political party was not whether the Supreme Court ought to have decided on Florida as it did. The question would have been: In a time of peace and prosperity, why was it anywhere near that close? Similarly, the real question now is not what could have been done here or there at the margins to put John Kerry over the top. The question is: If the economy is a mess and the war is a disaster, why isn’t the President a lame duck? If, as the Democrats would have it, it is so obvious that Republican policies are harmful to so many Americans on so many fronts, foreign and domestic, how is it that more than half of the Americans who voted have been solidly convinced otherwise?
If one is serious about finding answers to such questions, one can look in two places. Either their side is at least partially right on some fairly major points, or our side cannot articulate its way out of a paper bag. In neither one of those areas is the stupidity of the opponent a fruitful field of analysis.
Reality check number No. 2: Kofi Annan is not an oracle. Whenever an incumbent has a mess on his hands, it is natural for the challenger to reach for the easiest possible alternative. In the case of Mr. Bush and Iraq, the alternative put forth by Mr. Kerry was the specter of some wider, broader, happier international coalition which would allegedly make a great deal of difference on the ground.
Far be it from me to suggest that international co-operation does not have its uses, or to argue that the Bush administration has done anything other than deprive itself unnecessarily of those uses. That said, the most perfect coalition is a thing of serious imperfection. To take a quick case in point: Of all the things that makes Iraqis distrust and despise Americans, none is more pressing than the fact that after the first Gulf War, the first President Bush urged the Shia majority to rise up, then failed to support them, thereby sending countless rebels-and non-rebels-to their slaughter. Right or wrong, his decision to hold back was a function of the constraints placed upon him by the broad international coalition that he had assembled. That doesn’t mean he shouldn’t have assembled the coalition and then kept his word to it. It simply serves to remind that just as a coalition can buoy an effort up, it can also bog it down.
Second, it is worth bearing in mind that one of the most salient and disturbing features of the situation in Iraq is that of paralysis, and therefore it is worth entertaining the possibility that a broader and more active coalition might make that problem worse. Exhibit A is Falluja. Sickening though it is to say in light of the many innocent people who live there, it is simply a fact that that city is a home base for terrorists who are, in effect, more anti-Shia than anti-American, and whom local sheiks have proven, over a very long period of time, unwilling or unable to expel by peaceful means. As Prime Minister Ayad Allawi has long grasped, unless and until these killers are killed, Iraq will remain a bloodbath. This week Mr. Annan, for his part, advocated against the taking of any action against Falluja, without offering any viable alternative-probably because there isn’t one. Now if Mr. Annan were an oracle, he would know that inaction would lead to greater peace and stability. But since he isn’t one, it is at least as possible that a U.N.-backed approach would cause the situation to deteriorate even further.
Finally, in order to assess an argument for a greater international coalition, one has to consider what that beefed-up coalition would be expected to accomplish. No question, the arrival of more countries on board would mean a welcome sharing of the burdens of occupation. Not so clear is the link between the presence of more countries and the mitigation of horror. After all, the violent chaos in which Iraq finds itself is, in large part, the work of foreign jihadis coming in from neighboring countries, both feeding and feeding on the forces within Iraq. Thus, in order for an international coalition to have an effect on that, it would have to include nations like Iran, Syria and Saudi Arabia. Good luck.
Reality check No. 3: Michael Moore is a filmmaker of talent and a self-marketer of genius. He should never have been appointed Democratic ambassador to the working man. I bring up Mr. Moore not because I think that he played some role in Mr. Bush’s re-election, or that he doesn’t have his base-stirring uses. It’s because he so strikes me as the personification of the Democratic Party, in that he so robustly refuses to hear or see so many of the people he purports to champion. What is missing from his films is precisely what is missing from the Democratic approach to the electorate: the quality of searching. Never, in the course of viewing a Moore film, does one get the feeling that he is putting his own worldview through the paces, finding out something that he didn’t already know. Like the Democrats, he also seems to have missed American political life since 1980. He doesn’t seem to entertain the possibility that an honest-to-God, respectable, working-class American might also be a true-blue conservative, and even have reasons for being such … not reasons that a liberal has to embrace, but reasons that a non-losing liberal would have to take seriously in some way. Just so, the Democrats are on God knows what cycle of fighting a class war that is of no interest to the class on whose behalf it is supposedly being fought. The tax cut benefits the rich, so we are going to spend yet another election blasting the tax cut for benefiting the rich, never to delve into the issue of why so many non-rich Americans so manifestly could care less.
That doesn’t mean that such Americans aren’t downright wrong; one can, of course, argue that those traditionally Democratic constituencies who have defected to the G.O.P. have done nothing but hurt themselves in the process. But the task is to get those people back. Ridiculing their recent taste in candidates is an interesting way to go about this. This isn’t rocket science: If you were a blue-collar Democrat who had voted Republican for the past several elections-whether out of national pride, or social values, or a belief that the tax cut was good for you-and then somebody came along to lampoon you and all your candidates, how would you react? Would you hit yourself on the head and say, “Hey, they’re right! What have I been thinking?” Or would you say, “These arrogant windbags have no idea who I am,” and go out and get a Bush-Cheney sign to stab smack in the middle of your front lawn?
Reality check No. 4: American women come in all shapes and colors. Three of those colors are conservative, very conservative and extremely conservative. Thus, it is time to shed the notion that politicians who are 100 percent for abortion rights are good for women, regardless of what else they favor. Long treated as the price of admission to viability as a big-time Democrat, this is, in fact, the flip side of the right-wing fanaticism which says that any politician who is against all forms of abortion is morally superior, regardless of what other positions he holds. Democrats would argue that Republicans are bad for women on a host of non-ovarian quality-of-life issues, too-but they sure don’t spend much time spelling that out in a way that could appeal to a woman who does not necessarily view Roe v. Wade as a gift from God.
And finally, reality check No. 5: Democrats cannot lay claim to leading a country when so many of them speak so frequently about leaving the country. The United States just had a hugely contentious, hyper-democratic election in which many people voted, nobody got killed, and the day happened to be carried by the other side. And what is the chic line for Democrats to take as a result?
“I’m moving to France.”
Now that’s the way to get America back!