To win back congress and the presidency, the Democrats must lead rather than follow.
The party must take a principled, consistent, thorough, unambiguous stand against the war in Iraq. The party also needs to fight for and win support for a bold, broadly developed plan to gradually hand responsibility for security and oil extraction in Iraq to an international coalition that can win the active support of Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Iran, Egypt, Jordan and Pakistan.
It will take courage, intelligence and endurance -- leadership -- to see such a policy through. The U.S. news media has a vehement bias against fundamental criticism of the military's activities abroad. Any critical analysis of U.S. policy in Iraq that is systematic will routinely be framed as ``unpatriotic,'' ``irresponsible'' and even ``traitorous.''
The Republican party has benefited from this brand of media bias since the Nixon era. The 9/11 attacks made criticism of U.S. foreign policy even riskier for opposition politicians. Media bias, however, is not what has hurt and will continue to harm the Democrats most.
The dagger to the heart of Democrats has been the party's Promethean unwillingness to make clear its opposition to the war out of fear of being labeled unpatriotic. In the 2004 election, no single comment about John Kerry was repeated more often and with more alacrity than the one noting the candidate's own declaration that he voted both for and against the war.
Democrats' appeal to independent voters is decimated by this kind of equivocation. As a party, it must first admit that it was mistake not to have vigorously opposed the invasion of Iraq.
Why did John Kerry equivocate on the war? Because he listened to the people who, for decades, have insisted that Democrats can only win by being more like Republicans. That critique is true, in an obvious way, since Republicans are winning elections more often than Democrats. But that's meaningless unless you understand exactly what accounts for the Republican victories and what parts of that can be used by Democrats.
Today's GOP is more ideological, even more strident, and less committed than ever to subjugating political ends to policy development and implementation means.
The GOP keeps winning because it projects the appearance of confident, principled commitment. The Bush team branded this idea ``moral clarity,'' and sold it like Viagra.
It is crucial to understand that we live in the age of moral narcissism. One of the most common complaints among ``conservatives'' about ``liberals'' is that right-wing Christians and/or rural traditionalists are not portrayed reverently enough in news and entertainment media. Apparently, these constituencies consider it their right to have their values held up as superior and a failure to do that shows contempt for them personally.
Apparently, the main problem for this constituency is not that it's worldview is unpopular among educated Americans, but that its ways are derided or belittled on television and in movies. This is how white, middle class men bestow upon themselves the mantle of victimhood.
The point for Democrats is that no amount of pandering or redneck-friendly gestures or even policies are going to erode the self-declared victim status of this constituency.
The white trash jokes and derision did not, of course, originate in the Democratic party or even among liberal political activists; rather they are borne of a rural-urban divide that stretches across all societies everywhere. There is no point for Democrats to try to placate these feelings of righteous aggrievement, as they exist primarily for their own sake.
To the extent that Democrats cater to the narrow moral narcissism of rural and religious conservatives, they only deepen the perceptions that the party is unprincipled. Instead, Democrats should be vehement about how and why they support the separation of church and state, oppose teaching creationism in schools and support limits on weapons ownership.
Independent voters will appreciate the principled consistencies, even when they do not hold similar positions themselves.
The confidence and ``moral clarity'' of Republicans is what Kerry should have been seeking to emulate, rather than the Orwellian militarism and doubletalk that frames so much of mainstream media discussion of the war in Iraq.
Opposing the war is not a tactic for victory in 2006 congressional elections nor even to win back the presidency in 2008. Rather, it is necessary for the party to survive the century as one of the countries two dominant political parties.
Some Democratic leaders and pundits are calling on the party to reposition its policy mix to draw the segment of independent-minded voters that happened to vote Republican in the past two presidential elections. Their argument is wrong, though not easily dismissed.
John Kerry's razor-thin loss in 2004 and Al Gore's disputed defeat four years earlier make it easy to believe victory lies only a handful of swing voters away.
That analysis crumbles when you consider why Bush lured voters at all and what that means for candidates in 2006 and 2008.
Bush lured voters by projecting the persona of a stubborn, unbending, determined warrior. This explains why polls show a majority of Americans oppose the Bush administration's specific policies, yet supports him as best qualified to protect U.S. security.
Democrats faced similar challenges with Ronald Reagan, who somehow transformed a broadly unpopular set of foreign and domestic policy positions into formidable backing at the polls. The former actor's charisma and winning personality have been credited with that achievement, but that's only part of the picture. Reagan, like Bush, projected the kind of constancy and courage of conviction that Americans demand of a president.
Reagan and Bush were and are neither consistent nor constant in the views or policies they advocated. Indeed, liberal pundits in the 2004 campaign could point to undeniable examples of the Bush administration flip-flopping on major issues. Reagan managed to craft the image of a happy, indomitable cold warrior while responding to a terrorist attack in Lebanon by retreating.
The man who called the Soviet Union ``The Evil Empire'' and joked about bombing Russia, responded to Iran's hostage taking and support for terrorism with arms-for-hostages negotiations that amounted to the most unprincipled example of appeasement in American history.
How do Reagan and Bush ``get away with it?''
Reagan's vaunted ``teflon'' was built up because he stuck to unpopular positions and even, cannily in most cases, wore them on his sleeve. The Bush team has refined this to an art, pitching the idea that their man's widening unpopularity outside the U.S. comes not because his policies and churlish gaffes have made the world more dangerous for everyone, but because he refuses to compromise U.S. interests to win favor abroad.
Their marketing proposition is: He may be dead wrong, but he's not going to change his mind just to add to his popularity.
Even if most Americans would prefer their president to win the hearts and minds of leaders abroad, a big enough swath of the nation hasn't held Bush's global unpopularity against him.
Again, this is because the defiance of global opinion fits with Bush's broader image of the unflappable sheriff, determined to defend the town against the bad guys, even if it makes him look like ``the bad guy.''
American popular culture, with its iconography and celebration of rugged, ostentatiously armed and individualistic justice-seekers, is hospitable to this aspect of the Bush/Reagan self-image.
But the Democrats biggest mistake is to think that they can compete with this image by weakly imitating it, while attacking only its particulars and, belatedly in most cases, its consequences. Republicans own the tough-guy image, lock, stock and barrel. On a national basis and as a party, Democrats have no chance of wresting it away from them. To the extent that they try to present a ``tough-guy lite'' image, they come across instead as disingenuous.
Repeatedly, Kerry claimed to have supported the decision to go to war in Iraq, but opposed the way it was carried out--a reasonable formulation and one that opinion polls seem to suggest most Americans share. But here's where the Kerry campaign missed it: Americans, especially swing voters, don't necessarily vote for the guy that most closely tracks their views. They vote on image.
On election day, opinion polling suggests, tens of thousands of Americans who agreed with most of Kerry's position on the war and disagreed with Bush's, stepped into the booth and voted for Bush.
Kerry's mistake was first to have voted to authorize the president to start the war in the first place and then say, disastrously, that he would have made the same vote again.
Likewise Jimmy Carter and Walter Mondale lost to Ronald Reagan, even though the Republicans most popular president failed throughout his term to persuade a majority of Americans to agree with the specifics of his militaristic foreign policy.
The Democrats' prospects for 2006 and 2008 look daunting. Between then and now, we can expect activist right wing billionaires like Rupert Murdoch to only extend their control of news media and to even more brazenly bend coverage to suit their political tastes.
Even media outlets not directly owned by Republican supporters seem to be increasingly favoring right-wing talking heads while steering away from investigative reporting and systematic criticism of the widening failures in Iraq.
Meanwhile, Republican fund raising is almost certain to expand at the expense of Democrats as the party in power consolidates control over all branches of government and increases its margin in most state legislative bodies and governors' posts.
In 2008, the Republicans are likely to field a candidate who is a capable public speaker and has a record of success in private or public life and a less controversial adulthood than George W. Bush. W's fecklessness as a speaker and his long record of mediocrity in academia, the military and business did not help him beat Kerry. Alas, the Democrats can't dream of facing another Republican presidential candidate with Bush's level of vulnerability.
The Democrats, for their part, have some reasons to be hopeful for their election prospects, if not for their country. Iraq is still headed toward a widening, deepening conflict that will only cost the U.S. more lives and more money as time goes on. Nor is the economy likely to rebound in any thoroughgoing way by 2006 -- and may even worsen by 2008 -- as oil prices rise, the deficits deepen and interest rates are forced higher.
Popular support for the war itself is likely to wane, as its economic, geopolitical and human costs increase. Still, the Democrats cannot be assured of winning the allegiance of voters who turn against the war, since the party has yet to clearly establish itself as an opponent of the war with an alternative foreign policy prescription.
Recall that Richard Nixon was reelected in 1972, even as support for the Vietnam War seemed to be in a free fall as its costs escalated. In that war too, the Democrats never mounted a clear, principled, systematic opposition, and thusly ceded leadership on the issue to Republicans, despite that party's clear policy failures.
Then, as now, the Democrats needed leadership that understands the necessity of maintaining the courage of its convictions.