Were the Democrats repudiated as too left wing for the country, especially on cultural issues? Or were they mainly outplayed? Depending on what one concludes, dramatically different remedies follow. In fact, the country was split almost evenly, as in 2000. Democrats would make a grave mistake to take 2004 as a wholesale repudiation. Rather, John Kerry lost the election and Democrats lost ground for four distinct reasons.
First, the Republicans enjoy a structural advantage. As a party they are better financed, more disciplined and strategic, and willing to play far dirtier. They also benefit from captive broadcast media (FOX, Rush Limbaugh, et al.) and docile mainstream media. Once, the press gave itself permission to conclude in hard news stories that Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon, and Bill Clinton lied to the American people. George W. Bush also lied, but the major dailies and networks would not say so.
Second, the Republicans shamelessly used September 11. Despite the palpable lies and bungles in the Iraq War, Bush's people, abetted by a tame media, succeeded in conflating Saddam Hussein, 9-11, and general apprehension about terrorism.
Third, Kerry took too long to focus. He took far too long to make the election a referendum on Bush. Kerry won the Iowa precinct caucuses by not going negative against fellow Democrats. Weirdly, his strategists concluded that he should therefore resist being too critical of Bush. Kerry, whipsawed by advisers, sent disastrously mixed signals on the Iraq War. His campaign used the wrong war (Vietnam) to try to credential Kerry as a commander in chief, and then failed to respond immediately to the Swift-boat slanders. When Kerry did finally settle down and focus, in the final weeks, he became an emotionally engaged, tough, and warmly accessible candidate. But by then the Bush campaign had defined Kerry for voters.
If a single moment captured Kerry's failure to play to strength, it was in the second debate when Bush sneeringly declared, That's what liberals do. They create government-sponsored health care. Maybe you think that makes sense. I don't.
Instead of hitting that one out of the park (Mr. President, Medicare is a government program. Is that a problem for you? And yes, Democrats indeed created it, and most Republicans opposed it.), Kerry responded, The president is just trying to scare everybody here, with throwing labels around & .
If a Democratic presidential candidate cannot bring himself to say that government, in competent and compassionate hands, can help ordinary people realize their dreams (as Barack Obama was not afraid to say), what is left of the Democratic Party? No wonder swing voters concluded that Bush was clear about what he stood for and Kerry wasn't. Voters do not follow an uncertain trumpet.
Fourth and last, the army of fundamentalists indeed gave the Republicans a hardcore base. But Democrats didn't know how to address that challenge, either. They neither warned mainstream voters of the danger of a theocratic president whose base rejects modernity nor articulated a compelling moral language of their own.
What is the implication of all this? Democrats are being urged to embrace godliness and the traditional family. They surely need an idiom of values that plays in the heartland, but it needs to be their own, not just Republican-lite. Their problem is not that they failed to trim sufficiently on abortion, gay rights, or church-state separation. It is that they seem to be trimming on all fronts, while Republicans are seen as steadfast.
As Thomas Frank and Robert B. Reich have both demonstrated, when Democrats fail to articulate pocketbook issues as values, class resentments become cultural ones. I devoted much of a book (The Life of the Party) to this same subject in 1987. Five years later, Bill Clinton won election by declaring, as a matter of values, that people who work hard and play by the rules should not be poor. Middle America forgave him for treating gays as people. But his party failed to build on what Clinton began.
Yes, Democrats paid dearly in 2004 for the fact that the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court and the mayor of San Francisco got ahead of public opinion on gay marriage. But the Democrats' first task is to do a better job championing the struggles and aspirations of ordinary people -- as American values. If they fail to do that, abandoning gays and drawing nearer to God won't help them.
Robert Kuttner is co-editor of The American Prospect.