Wednesday, January 26, 2005

Winning and Losing

Paul Starr has a good op-ed in the New York Times about the choices Democrats have made in the past and how they can win in the future.

Democrats have paid a historic price for their role in the great moral revolutions that during the past half-century have transformed relations between whites and blacks, men and women, gays and straights. And liberal Democrats, in particular, have been inviting political oblivion – not by advocating the wrong causes, but by letting their political instincts atrophy and relying on the legal system.

To be sure, Democrats were right to challenge segregation and racism, support the revolution in women’s roles in society, to protect rights to abortion and to back the civil rights of gays. But a party can make only so many enemies before it loses the ability to do anything for the people who depend on it. For decades, many liberals thought they could ignore the elementary demand of politics – winning elections – because they could go to court to achieve these goals on constitutional grounds. The great thing about legal victories like Roe v. Wade is that you don’t have to compromise with your opponents, or even win over majority opinion. But that is also the trouble. An unreconciled losing side and unconvinced public may eventually change the judges.

And now we have reached that point. The Republicans, with their party in control of both elected branches – and looking to create a conservative majority on the Supreme Court that will stand for a generation – see the opportunity to overthrow policies and constitutional precedents reaching back to the New Deal.

That prospect ought to concentrate the liberal mind. Social Security, progressive taxation, affordable health care, the constitutional basis for environmental and labor regulation, separation of church and state – these issues and more hang in the balance.

Under these circumstances, liberal Democrats ought to ask themselves a big question: are they better off as the dominant force in an ideologically pure minority party, or as one of several influences in an ideologically varied party that can win at the polls? The latter, it seems clear, is the better choice.


And if a new Supreme Court overturns affirmative-action laws, Democrats will need to pursue equality in ways that avoid treating whites and blacks differently. Some liberals have long been calling for an emphasis on “race neutral” economic policies to recover support among working-class and middle-income white voters. Legal and political necessity may now drive all Democrats in that direction.

Republicans are leaving themselves open to this kind of strategy. Their party is far more ideologically driven and more beholden to the Christian right than it was even during the Ronald Reagan era. This is the source of the party’s energy, but also its vulnerability. The Democrats’ opportunity lies in becoming a broader, more open and flexible coalition that can occupy the center.

While the Democrats are certainly not in the best shape, they at least have the advantage of not being held hostage by a well-funded and big-mouthed extreme wing of their party. As crazy as this sounds, the Democrats could win back their majority by becoming the party of reason and sanity against the hubris and nutsery (vis. Dr. Dobson vs. SpongeBob SquarePants) from the other side…but only if they offer something more than “We’re Not Nuts” and not apologizing for promoting liberal ideas and solutions.