Can the Democrats find the lyrics to regain the White House?
How bad off is the Democratic Party? Well, the Democrats don't have the presidency, they don't have the Senate, and they don't have the House. And while a few men have been elbowing one another to get elected Democratic chairman on Saturday, that is largely a fundraising job. Just what the heart, soul--and future--of the party is seems very much an open question.
"I think we are in for a difficult period," says Bill Daley, Al Gore's campaign chairman in 2000. "Can we win in '08? Tell me what the economy will be like or what the war in Iraq will be like. I don't know. Do I see that the Democrats are on some grand march with programs and ideas that will motivate people? No."
"It is depressing losing elections, especially one in which so many things went well," says Anita Dunn, a Democratic strategist. "We didn't get outspent; we did an extraordinary job organizing voters and increasing turnout. Fundamentally, the question Democrats face is: 'OK, if so many things were in place, why did we lose?' That is a tough question for a political party."
Says David Axelrod, a Democratic strategist who worked for John Edwards in the last presidential primary campaign, "The impression is that [the Republicans] have ideas and energy and we are trying to maintain the status quo. It was not clear in the last election what our vision was."
Even outgoing Democratic Party Chairman Terry McAuliffe says, "There is no question that we've got to do a better job on messaging."
Not much of which John Kerry believes. "The naysayers are completely out to lunch; they don't know what they are talking about," a vehement Kerry told U.S. News . "On every issue that speaks to the qualities of people's lives, we won and will continue to win."
But don't the Democrats have to change their message to win in 2008? "What is the Democratic Party going to do?" Kerry asked. "The Democratic Party stands for a proud set of principles and values. Service to country; service to community. Do we not want to stand for that?"
The debate over just what Democrats should stand for is reflected in the battle for Democratic National Committee chair. Former Vermont governor and presidential candidate Howard Dean has emerged as the odds-on favorite, but some wonder whether Dean's liberal reputation and fiery antiwar rhetoric might send just the wrong message.
Others say message isn't really the chief problem. Over and over again, critics say that Democrats have become tainted by a "cultural elitism," the sneering belief that "blue staters" are better educated, more sophisticated, and morally superior, compared with "red staters." "We do sneer at red staters," said Daley. "We convey that we are out of touch with the average person. We are truly a Washington, D.C.-focused party, and that includes unions, feminists, et cetera." Many also say that while Hollywood has been good for the Democratic Party in terms of contributing money, the Hollywood connection reinforces the notion that the Democrats are a condescending, leftist elite. So even though Axelrod believes that the party is fundamentally sound, he does say, "I don't discount that we should not be exclusionary and we should not project the cultural elitism that was radiated from Kerry. Would the right kind of candidate and right kind of candidacy have produced a different outcome? I supported Edwards. I think his message would have reached people in small towns and rural areas."