Under Currents: Note to Democrats: Principles Must Precede Popularity: J. DOUGLAS ALLEN-TAYLOR

Friday November 26, 2004

Poor Democrats. They stand like Jack Nicholson as the Joker in the Batman movie, deserted and alone on an inner city street, watching the Republican juggernaut disappearing in the distance overhead, wondering why their toys don’t work like that. 

These days, the Democrats always seem to be functioning one election behind. John Kerry and the national party did all the right things to win the 2000 presidency, plugging all the holes left open by Al Gore’s candidacy. Unfortunately, our Republican friends were running a campaign built for 2004. 

And so, now, the anguish. The soul searching. The pulling of hair and covering of bodies with dust and ashes as Democrats wonder, “What can we do to make the people like us again?” 

The word of the day, today, is “morals,” with polls saying that the national election was largely decided on that issue, our Republican friends squatting contentedly on theirs, and Democrats scramble to try to find some place to make an inroad. The first such “opening” came when Republican members of Congress, worried that House Majority Leader is in some danger of being indicted by a Texas Grand Jury for possible election law violations, rescinded their own rule that an indicted Congressional leader must be automatically removed from his post. 

Hypocrites!, the Democrats shouted. Why, you’re not moral at all! 

The problem is, as my country friends used to say, that when you point a finger at somebody else, three of your own fingers point back at you. 

And so Democrats, if they want to show the public that they are less corrupt than the other guys, might simply want to clean out their own stalls first, before going after the opposition. 

In the largest state of the union—California—a good starting point would be declaring that any state Democratic legislative leader indicted by a grand jury should immediately be removed from her-or his-leadership post. That would send the nation a clear message that the Democrats were serious on this issue. 

It would also mean that our own Democratic State Senator Don Perata—who is reportedly under federal investigation for alleged misuse of his office—would have to remove himself from his newly-achieved post of president pro tem of the California State Senate if that investigation happens to end up in an indictment against Mr. Perata. 

Will California Democratic legislative leaders take that position? In a story this week, the Oakland Tribune’s Sacramento bureau correspondent, Steve Geissinger, gave some interesting—and probably predictable—insight: “[State] senators, however, withheld predictions of what Democrats, who hold 25 of the [California] Senate’s 40 seats, would do if Perata is indicted. On the other hand, if Perata survives the episode, no senators want to have appeared as if they were scheming on his job, lest they be punished.” 

Yes, I see. Let us be known as the party of morality, but only if it means we don’t have to take any risks. But morality is not a soundbite or a political position. Most often it involves the courage to stick to a principled belief, even at personal or political cost. The public recognizes and respects that, even when they don’t hold the same belief. 

Another running theme in the panic following Nov. 2 is that, since Americans are showing that they like Republicans more than they like Democrats, then Democrats should become more like Republicans in order to get Americans to like them again. And so, the talk that Democrats should move more toward the “center,” which is code for “let’s be less like us, and more like them.” 

This defies both logic and history. 

In the election of 1964, Republican conservativism had its clock cleaned by President Lyndon Johnson, who beat Arizona Senator Barry Goldwater 486 to 52 in the electoral vote, 61 percent to 39 percent in the popular vote. In the wake of that debacle, Republicans could have modified their conservatism, and moved their positions closer to the “center” and the mood of the country. Instead, led by people like Ronald Reagan, they set about systematically to move the mood of the country closer to them. Within 20 years they had accomplished a complete reversal, with President Ronald Reagan beating Walter Mondale 525 to 13 in the electoral vote in 1984, 59 percent to 41 percent in the popular vote. 

If Democrats want to take a lesson from Republicans, that would be a good one to start with. 

For progressive Democrats, that would mean not worrying so much about who the party nominates for the presidency in 2008, but instead working to transform the party from the bottom up, concentrating on local office, and setting sites on statewide and national power for 2012 and beyond. We saw a model for that this year in Richmond, where progressive Democrats aligned themselves with Greens and Peace and Freedom Party members and “even” Libertarians (the “even” is their term) to form the Richmond Progressive Alliance and elect Gayle McLaughlin to the Richmond City Council. That’s a model to be studied: perhaps the formation of a Progressive-Populist Democratic coalition as part of the state and national Democratic Party, that would support Democratic nominees in statewide and national elections in the near term, but would run their own slates for local offices, biding their time while they change peoples’ minds and build their strength. 

That might even mean an electoral challenge from the left for politicians like Senator Perata, who ran uncontested for his seat this time by skillfully maneuvering his most serious opposition out of the way before it was time for the votes to be cast. Winning political power by hoping your opposition gets put in jail is not a good political strategy. It’s not a strategy at all. 

The “populist” part is critical to the progressive-populist equation. A lot of my good friends are Green Party members, but once you get outside of the city limits of Berkeley—which is as naturally “green” as you’ll get in the state of California—the Greens tend to be more a debating society than a serious player in community politics. The same—unfortunately—is true for the progressive Democratic clubs, whose platforms and agendas rarely reflect the problems and concerns of a good portion of the population. While the media proclaims that the “exurbs” are the new political battleground, millions of potential progressive voters in the traditional inner cities go abandoned, waiting for their concerns to be heard. You cannot lead people if you’re afraid to walk down their streets. Or worse yet, don’t even know where they live. 

Anyways, forgive me for preaching. I’ll try not to get carried away next time. Thus endeth the lesson.