Mindful of George Santayana's comment that those who forget the past are condemned to repeat it, consider the following scenario. As the election approaches, one of the major parties is in disarray. With voter support slipping and without clear positions, it uses the time-tested strategy of running an authentic war hero. By focusing on the man's wartime record, a clear contrast can be made with his opponent, whose military record is mediocre. In this way, the candidate's otherwise undistinguished public career can be glossed over.
While all goes well at first, the candidate is caught unprepared by the opposition's aggressive campaign, in which both his courage and honesty are attacked. When the votes are counted, the candidate loses decisively. The party soon falls apart, never winning another presidential election.
Is this a description of the aftermath of the 2004 election for the Democratic Party?
Perhaps, but it is still too early to tell. It is definitely an account of the 1852 election, where the Whig candidate, Gen. Winfield Scott, was defeated by the very ordinary Franklin Pierce, who went on to have a disastrous presidency. From the ruins of the Whigs came the Republican Party, which was to dominate American politics for 50 years. If the past repeats itself, it may now be the Democratic Party in its final stage of existence as an alternative to the Republicans.
For example, it is a fact that since the election of John F. Kennedy in 1960, all Democrats elected president have been southerners (LBJ, Carter, Clinton). While being a southerner has been no guarantee of victory (ask Al Gore), all nonsoutherners have gone down to defeat.
Assuming the trend holds, what is the party to do in the future? Its base in the South is eroding, with governors and senators from the region now almost all Republicans in a way not seen since Reconstruction. Like him or not, Zell Miller may be correct in calling the Democratic Party "a national party no more." Post-election maps bear this out, showing the blue Democratic states adrift in a sea of Republican red.
Going into the 2004 primaries, America was beset by enough foreign and domestic problems that winning the Democratic nomination should have been tantamount to winning the election, as in 1912, 1932 and 1976. So, one could have anticipated a lengthy primary in which candidates were tested by voters, with hidden weaknesses exposed and clearcut differences articulated from Republicans. Instead, the process was over almost before it began, and in the end produced John Kerry, an unspectacular senator with an unspectacular, but liberal, voting record. His choice of John Edwards as a running mate was likewise a safe one, but it failed to excite the country, with the ticket ultimately rejected by voters in 31 states.
And yet, all of this happened in an election that was seemingly there for the Democrats' taking. Coming out of the convention, they were united and energized, and for once had access to funding sources that made the playing field fairly even. If they cannot win an election like this one, against a president for whom stubbornness is the answer to any policy question, how can they ever hope to win again?
I believe the party's decline goes beyond running the wrong candidates, although that was certainly part of the problem in 2004. John Kerry, like Al Gore before him, let the Bush campaign define the issues, with a resulting loss of control of the agenda. Kerry was left in the role of the anti-candidate, an opponent of many things, but a proponent of none. While partially due to Kerry's personality, this also reflects a long-standing trend.
Not since LBJ's Great Society foundered in the swamps of Vietnam has the Democratic Party possessed a comprehensive policy agenda. While Bill Clinton was able to reverse the trend briefly, hindsight shows this was due to his gifts as a campaigner, and he has left no successor. Without a clear plan, the national Democratic Party continues to drift from election to election, declining from being the Loyal Opposition to merely a noisy nuisance.
Such a state of affairs cannot be good for the country. While voters certainly are free to choose the Republican Party if they wish, it should be because they believe in its policies, rather than doing so by default. American politics is premised on a two-party system, rather than one in which there is a party and a half. History shows that prolonged control by either party leads to rigidity and increased corruption, as evidenced by the Democratic scandals in the House of Representatives in the 1980s.
History also shows that third parties are not a long-term solution, either. While Ralph Nader may have been the only 2004 candidate to offer voters a clear alternative to Bush, we need a system with two healthy parties, not three. Although such movements have been useful to bring issues to the public's attention, only when a major party co-opts a particular issue is any action possible.
Instead, it seems to me the only viable answer is the creation of a new major party to act as a counterweight to the Republicans. More important than the name of this new party is that it comes together, rising like a phoenix from the ashes of the current Democratic Party, and that it happens soon.
So, if you are disconsolate about the election's results, consider this: should John Kerry's defeat hasten the emergence of a new political party, it may benefit America more than if he had won. Then, if history does repeat itself, it may be the Republicans who are left to wander in the political wilderness.
Jeff Southard is an attorney and a Lawrence resident.