This evening, the Rockefeller Center was fortunate enough to host Howard Dean to share his reflections on the 2004 election and prospects for the future. In my introduction of him, I made three points:
1. There seems to be a perception among Democrats that the President won the election primarily because of divisive social issues that play well only in the so-called "red" states. That hypothesis cannot explain Republican gains in the popular vote share even in states where those social policy issues played little role in the campaign. See my earlier post on how Bush ran better against Kerry than he did against Gore in New York, New Jersey, and California, as well as several states he carried in both years. Something deeper is going on here, and the Democrats will have to figure it out if they want to improve their positions in future national elections.
2. I reported the rather astonishing fact, discussed in this post and comments on Coyote Blog, about what will happen in 2008. Assuming that President Bush and Vice-President Cheney finish their next term (and that Cheney decides not to run in 2008), this will be the first election since 1952 in which neither party will have an incumbent President or Vice-President at the top of their ticket. Ideally, the two parties will both have wide open primaries. All Americans have an interest in making that primary system work: encouraging an array of interesting people to run, allowing them the opportunity to connect with the voters, helping them to constructively distinguish themselves from each other, and sustaining them in the race long enough so that everyone--whether in New Hampshire or California--has the opportunity to vote in a contested primary. In my view, the Democratic primary ended too early this year, as did both primaries in 2000.
3. I am truly tired of seeing that red and blue electoral map and the politics of division that it conjures up. Our national motif is a melting pot, not three islands of blue floating in a sea of red. A Party's success in winning a Presidential election is based on how large a coalition it can assemble. Among all of the Democratic candidates vying for the nomination this year, only Governor Dean seemed to understand how the Democrats could win. In a statement he released about a year ago, he said: "The only way we're going to beat George Bush is if Southern white working families and African-American working families come together under the Democratic tent, as they did under FDR."* Governor Dean understood that the way back for the Democratic party is to form the "grand alliance" between poor whites and poor blacks that Martin Luther King, Jr. envisioned decades ago. If the Democrats want to win in 2008, this seems to me to be their biggest challenge.
I don't know if Governor Dean would have been a more successful challenger to President Bush than was Senator Kerry or that I would have voted for him in that contest. But that's the election that I would have liked to have seen.
*As an aside, you may recall that Governor Dean said this after being attacked by his rivals for saying, "I still want to be the candidate for guys with Confederate flags in their pickup trucks." This story provides a pretty good summary. If the Democrats want to understand why they are losing their grip on nationally elected office, they might consider that, instead of the candidate who understood the problem and tried to articulate it, they nominated the candidate who generated this press release:
"Howard Dean is justifying his pandering to the NRA by saying his opposition to an assault weapons ban allows him to pander to lovers of the Confederate flag. It is simply unconscionable for Howard Dean to embrace the most racially divisive symbol in America. I would rather be the candidate of the NAACP than the NRA."
I don't want to make a career out of dissecting Senator Kerry's press releases, but the similarities are just creepy:
1. Dean hasn't pandered to the NRA. He served as Governor of a state in which many people are responsible gun owners. This led him to believe that gun control could be dealt with at the state level.
2. Dean wasn't pandering to lovers of the Confederate flag. As William Saletan nicely put it in Slate, "He wants the votes of these people despite their fondness for the Confederate flag, not because of it."
3. Dean was not embracing the Confederate flag. That is clear in every context in which Dean made the statement. What is unconscionable is Senator Kerry's suggestion to the contrary.
4. Senator Kerry might rather be the candidate of the NAACP than the NRA, but if he wants to be elected President as a Democrat, he will need to provide both groups with a reason to vote for him.