How to start winning the red states.
I'm not asking you to act like you care about this stuff. I'm asking you to care about it for real, and not just at election time. When a Republican president runs a TV ad accusing you of failing to protect us from wolves, you should be able to point out that he's the one who emptied our shotgun into a fox, leaving us helpless against the wolves. And you should sound credible saying it.
Once you eliminate the sincerity gap between you and the Republicans on national security, you can exploit the reverse sincerity gap between you and them on responsibility. Think about the values of our armed forces: shared risk, shared sacrifice, and reciprocal duty between officers and soldiers, regardless of race or class. Those are your values.
When leaders betray troops through bad planning and false pretenses for war, that should be your issue. When Republicans cut taxes for the rich while the nation is at war and the Treasury is empty, that should be your issue. When soldiers from poor families die while corporations skim from the war budget, that should be your issue. I've heard John Kerry talk about each of these issues separately, but each time, he sounded opportunistic. To be powerful, they must flow from a common message. That message is responsibility.
All the issues Democrats like to run on—education, the environment, the deficit, energy independence—would be vastly more powerful if united under a single theme. Clean up your mess. Take care of your children. Pay your debts. Stand on your own two feet. It all comes down to responsibility.
The Democrat who talks this way most naturally is John Edwards. (I know, I've got to stop advertising for him.) He's the one who frames every issue in terms of values. He's the one who argued during the presidential primaries that Republicans were favoring unearned wealth over work. He's the one who connected Republican tax policies to make the point. You don't have to teach him the language, because he learned it growing up in one of those red states.
So, there's your candidate, and there's your message. Now go and live it, so you won't have to fake it.
Will Saletan covers science, technology, and politics for Slate and says a lot of things that get him in trouble.
Photographs of: John Edwards by Mike Blake/Reuters; John Kerry on the Slate home page by Brian Snyder/Reuters.