The Lost Campaign

For those Democrats unable to escape to Barbados or Tuscany, the past week has been one of intermittent moping punctuated with long bouts of commiserating and a general inability to get out of bed.

In between the finger-pointing and self-flagellation, most Democrats in Washington have been maniacally surfing the web, scouring the papers, and watching cable chat shows to figure out what went wrong. Unfortunately, most of the current analysis misses the mark.

There are two distinct misconceptions -- one micro and one macro -- that pundits are making when looking at this election. And when set right, the outlook is not as bleak as Democrats think, and it points to the work that needs to be done over the next four years.

First, too much credit is being given to President George W. Bush, and not enough blame is being placed at the foot of John Kerry. The time for biting our tongues is over, so let's just say it: Kerry was a bad candidate. He was dealt an amazing hand -- a president who was elected without the popular vote, who oversaw the first net loss of jobs in 72 years, and who led the nation into a war under false pretenses -- and he blew it.

Part of the reason is that Kerry suffered from a horrendous case of senatoritis: pontificating instead of speaking, orating instead of communicating, and offering programs instead of a vision. His years in Washington also added to the sense that Kerry was part of a cultural elite that didn't understand the concerns of middle America. (His snowboarding, windsurfing, and Hermes ties didn't help, either.)

To that, Kerry apparently was unable to run his own campaign. As Newsweek details in its behind-the-scenes look at of the presidential race, Kerry wanted to hit back quickly against the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth ads, but was overruled by his staff. He wanted to fire one of his top aides; again, he was overruled. Kerry went through three senior management teams, and effectively replaced one of them eight weeks before Election Day. There is always chaos in political campaigns -- believe me, I worked on the Gore campaign -- and many rightly want to blame the pollsters and consultants brought in to guide the Democratic effort. But ultimately, everything in politics reflects the principal, and the buck stops with the candidate.

But that does not mean that Democrats are off the hook and can chalk up this loss to the inadequacies of one candidate. Politics does matter in elections, especially close ones. But to say that the entire loss is Kerry's fault is to ignore the Democratic downturn that began in the 1990s with the loss of the House of Representatives and quickened over the past four years. The GOP now controls the presidency, the House, the Senate, and 28 governorships, as well as runs just as many state legislatures as do Democrats. At the grassroots, according to the exit polls conducted by the National Election Pool, Republicans have now pulled even with Democrats in party identification too (37 percent to 37 percent).

The Democratic Party clearly has a problem, and the popular diagnosis is that the party has alienated religious voters. It is true that those who attend church at least once a week (41 percent of the electorate) did support Bush by a margin of 61 percent to 39 percent. But those running to find a church-going candidate are falling into the second-biggest misconception of this post-Election Day 2004 analysis: confusing religious beliefs with principles.

The problem with Kerry was not that he isn't religious; it was that he didn't appear to have any guiding principles. As E.J. Dionne Jr. recently argued in The Washington Post, Kerry wasn't defeated because evangelical fervor gripped the electorate; he lost because he failed to win easily winnable votes among the vast majority who aren't evangelical. Consider that Bush increased his share of the women's vote by five percentage points, Latinos by nine, those older than 60 by seven, the middle class by five, and city dwellers by 13.

Bush was able to win these voters not because of his personal relationship with Jesus but because he was able to make the case that he has firm principles and Kerry does not. To be sure, Kerry had better policies on jobs, health care, energy independence, and a whole host of issues, but voters never got a sense of the principles that led Kerry to offer these solutions or that would guide him as president. They heard notes but no music. They were given answers but no vision. The seeming lack of guiding beliefs made Kerry look like a weak leader, and, in an election in which security concerns were paramount, this was fatal.

The good news from all of this is that the Democratic Party is not stuck on secular shores while an increasingly religious nation turns a deeper shed of red. Democrats do not have to embrace a social conservatism and abandon our adherence to liberal reasoning, the separation of church and state, to the equality of the sexes, and to tolerance. Instead, we need to rediscover the principles that animate our own politics, use them to devise an agenda that is relevant in a post-September 11 world and in the global economy, and find a standard-bearer who can make this case to the American electorate.

So, stop moping. Get out of bed. There's work to be done.

Kenneth S. Baer, former senior speechwriter for Vice President Al Gore, runs Baer Communications, a Democratic consulting firm.

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