How to start winning the red states.

Politics and policy.
Nov. 3 2004 4:15 PM

Democratic Values

How to start winning the red states.

John Edwards
John Edwards

Hey, Democrats!

William Saletan William Saletan

Will Saletan writes about politics, science, technology, and other stuff for Slate. He’s the author of Bearing Right.

One silver lining in last night's debacle is that for another 24 hours or so, you might be open to rethinking what your party stands for. So, while I have your attention, here's an idea.

Go back to being the party of responsibility.

I'm not talking about scolding people. I'm talking about rewarding them. Be the party that rewards ordinary people who do what they're supposed to do—and protects them from those who don't.

If you think this kind of moral talk is anathema, you're the sort of person Karl Rove wants to be running the Democratic Party. Get out, or get a new attitude. Nearly 60 million people came out to vote for George W. Bush yesterday because they think that he represents their values and that you don't. Prove them wrong and you'll be the majority party again.

How? Start by changing the way you talk about pocketbook issues. Remember Bill Clinton's commitment to help people who "work hard and play by the rules"? Your positions on taxes and labor would be assets instead of liabilities if you explained them in moral terms. The minimum wage rewards work. Repealing the estate tax helps rich people get richer without risk or effort. Lax corporate oversight allows big businesses to evade taxes, deceive small investors, and raid pension funds.

Yes, Republicans will accuse you of waging a class war. I can see you cringing already. Get off your knees and fight. It is a war, but it isn't a class war. It's a culture war, and if you talk about it that way, you'll win it.

Some of you are dismayed by the emergence of a huge voting bloc of churchgoers. Stop viewing this as a threat, and start viewing it as an opportunity. Socially conservative blue-collar workers don't believe in the free market. They believe in the work ethic. Bush wins their votes by equating the free market with the work ethic. Show them where the free market betrays the work ethic, and they'll vote for the party of the work ethic—you—against the party of the free market.

What's your strongest issue among these voters? Outsourcing. Why? Because it's the issue on which you talk most naturally about right and wrong. It's also the issue on which you're most comfortable appealing to nationalism. That's another lesson you need to learn. People are voting Republican because they think you're weak. And, let's face it, you are weak. You say you'll defend this country, but then you go on about consulting other governments, cultivating goodwill, and playing well with others. You make a world full of terrorists sound like kindergarten.

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Democrats in the Roosevelt-Truman years didn't have this problem. They called tyrants by their name, and they didn't sound like they were faking it. A party that believes in right and wrong at home must be assertive about right and wrong abroad. You need a serious antiterrorist agenda. Otherwise, when you object to a war like Iraq, you sound like the peace party.

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.

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