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Our America

(A few) things I know for sure

By Brian M. Goldsmith

A warm and generous friend of mine, a Harvard alumna, worked 18-hour days on President Bush’s re-election campaign. She sacrificed sleep, family, friends and “a dress size or two.” She believes in this president—“the strongest possible person to keep the country safe”—even as she disagrees with him on gun control and abortion rights. And my friend, reached last Thursday on a chartered bus heading from campaign headquarters in Arlington, Va. to a victory celebration at the White House, obviously delighted in Bush’s win.

But her cheer cannot compete with the ache of despondency afflicting almost every Kerry supporter I know. Even many Republicans will privately admit that this presidency is a deep disappointment—teetering precariously atop the illusion that Iraq is not the catastrophe it has become, the illusion that our homeland is not as vulnerable as it was four years ago, the illusion that our exploding debt is not the result of a greedy and irresponsible economic policy that may well cripple America’s future.

For Democrats, one thing is certain: the next four years will be among the most challenging in the party’s history. The legion of campaign doctors prescribing various cure-all remedies for a once mighty party—Embrace religion! Nominate a Midwesterner! Attack gay marriage!—seem too quick to judge. Much of their advice feels cheap—aimless and tactical and self-serving—rather than the beginning of the great conversation that can define a better future.

And so the tonic I offer here does not pretend to solve every problem, or even identify every problem—and maybe more questions are raised than answered—but hopefully it clears some congestion, and keeps the patient on life support until all of us are really ready to operate.

First thing I know for sure: Democrats, most of whom know better, need to stop blaming America. No more talk about moving to Canada (and really: if you need to leave the country, Paris beats Vancouver any day). Shockingly, a bare majority of us voted for George W. Bush—a better candidate with a clearer message who led a stronger campaign, a wartime president re-elected four days after Osama bin Laden released a tape that frightened the hell out of millions of people. No good reason to hate this country. And there are few moments in history when rage actually accomplished anything productive.

Second thing I know for sure: If Democrats have a problem, it is too few principles, not too many. Having already abandoned gun safety for electoral gain, Washington thumbsuckers are already advising the party to shed civil liberties, the separation of church and state, and fiscal responsibility from its agenda, too. All in response to a campaign in which Kerry’s vacillation was the richest Republican target. I do not know of a single swing voter the Democrats lost because they opposed cop-killer bullets and government intrusion in churches and libraries, and fought for a balanced budget. But I do know that silence on those issues is just as damaging as an offensively leftist position. Americans for Gun Safety, for example, conducted a study showing that political independents—prodded by the Republicans—assume that when Democrats don’t talk about gun control it means they’re for it in the worst possible way. Same goes for silence on faith based initiatives, big government bureaucracy and gay marriage. On controversial issues, Democrats should enunciate rather than ignore their principles.

Third thing I know for sure: Democrats cannot cede values to the Republicans. The liberal conventional wisdom that Kerry lost because millions of homophobic, fundamentalist rednecks emerged from thousands of trailer parks to vote for the first time is nonsense. Bush won majorities not just of white men and evangelicals, but of white women, married people, high school and college graduates, couples with children, voters who make above $50,000, people over thirty and weekly churchgoers. The president increased his share of the Latino vote by seven points, the African-American vote by two points and the Jewish vote by five points. The way to reach the red states—and to prevent further erosion in blue states—is to lead, not follow, on a real family values agenda: policies that reward marriage and education, national service and personal responsibility, that help parents balance work and family—an agenda that will trump narrow appeals to intolerance.

Fourth thing I know for sure: National security will dominate America’s agenda for years to come. There is no way to cynically “match” the Republicans on defense and then pivot to more hospitable domestic issues. Bruce Reed of the Democratic Leadership Council wrote about a “trust gap”—a legacy of Vietnam and the Iranian hostage crisis—that pushes fearful voters into the arms of the tougher “daddy party” Republicans. “Me too” on defending America is an invitation to defeat, and Democrats need to show how their ideas would actually do a better job both of destroying current terrorists and preventing future terrorists. And we should spend the next four years holding George W. Bush accountable for his failures—not just on health care and the environment, but also his failure to kill al Qaeda and keep our people safe.

None of the above can improve the Democrats’ political standing unless Democrats are happy warriors every day. No more feints on government reform or defense. No more transparent additions of the word “values” to old-time orthodoxy. To win, disciplined Democrats must make their case consistently, starting right now.

Brian M. Goldsmith ’05 is a government concentrator in Lowell House. His column appears regularly.

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