Kick Me, I'm a Democrat
The game politicians play.
It seems to be time once again to play Kick the Democrats. Everyone can play, including Democrats. The rules are simple. When Republicans lose elections, it is because they didn't get enough votes. When Democrats lose elections, it is because they have lost their principles and lost their way. Or they have kept their principles, which is an even worse mistake.
Democrats represent no one who is not actually waiting in line for a latte at a Starbucks within 150 yards of the east or west coastline. They are mired in trivial lifestyle issues like, oh, abortion and gay rights and Americans killing and dying in Iraq, while the Republicans serve up meat and potatoes for real Americans, like privatizing Social Security and making damned sure the government knows who is Googling whom in this great country. Just repeat these formulas until a Democrat has been sent into frenzies of self-flagellation, or reduced to tears.
There is always a pick-up game of Kick the Democrats going on somewhere. But something about the Alito confirmation—the pathetic and apparently surprising inability of 45 Democratic senators to stop 55 Republicans from approving anyone they want—seems to have made the game suddenly a lot more popular.
How dire is it for the Democrats? George Will noted on TV the other day that they have lost five of the past seven presidential elections. This baseball-like statistic—"Democrats have lost X of the past Y elections"—has been one of Will's favorite tropes over the generations. But why now five out of seven? Two out of the past four would be equally accurate, and not nearly as grim. If you take a longer view, things get grimmer again. In fact, you can measure back from the present to any of the past 20 elections (which takes you back to 1928) and only once (starting in 1932) do the Democrats come out ahead. But this hardly supports Will's contention—and everyone else's—that things went to hell in the 1960s. If this exercise has any meaning, they've been in hell continuously since 1936.
And then there is election of 2000. We can argue forever (and will) about who won that election, but if the question is whose views attracted more voters, there is no dispute that the answer is the Democrats. Attributing 2000 to the Democrats means they have won two of the past three elections, three of the past four, and a non-apocalyptic three of the magic seven.
The official illustration of the Kick the Democrats movement is a map of the United States, showing huge swaths of red with just a few tiny accents of blue. Of course this gives an unrealistic advantage to big states with few people. But then so does our electoral system. The deeper flaw is the assumption that everybody in red states is red and ditto the blues. A map showing red and blue people, not states, would look a homogenous purple. John Kerry got 43 percent of the vote in states that went for George Bush, and Bush got 45 percent in Kerry states. Liberals are not nearly so rare and so culturally isolated as the official map would suggest. This is little comfort to Democrats when it comes to the math of winning elections. But it does suggest that endless self-flagellation about their values and beliefs may not be the best strategy for turning things around.
This is not an argument for complacency. Obviously the party that has lost the White House, both houses of Congress, and now the courts needs some new ideas and new energy. But it seems undeniably true to me—though many deny it—that the Republicans simply play the game better. You're not supposed to say that. At Pundit School they teach you: Always go for the deeper explanation, not the shallower one. Never suggest that people (let alone "the" people) can be duped.
Nevertheless, I've been impressed all over again the past couple weeks with the Republicans' skill at political stone soup—making something out of nothing. In this case it's a remark by Hillary Clinton comparing Congress to a plantation. Near as I can tell, the alleged objection to "plantation" is—by analogy to the Holocaust—that any metaphorical use of the word is an insult to the real slaves and their descendants. This particular stone soup would be overheated even if the ingredients were fresh and sincere. But the fuss is obviously cynical, coming as it does from people (talk-radio jockeys, the editors of the Wall Street Journal—you know the type) who usually stalk the microphones in order to denounce excessive sensitivity and its smothering effect on political debate.
What's especially impressive is how the get-Hillary campaign was not even slowed by the discovery that Newt Gingrich had used the same metaphor back when he was somebody. A hilarious op-ed this week in the Wall Street Journal explained that while Hillary's remark was "pandering" and patronizing ("Must blacks have their slave past rubbed in their face … ?"), Gingrich "had the good taste to cast himself as a slave who would 'lead the slave rebellion.' " Well, each to his own good taste, I suppose.
But that metaphor of a corrupt plantation seemed more familiar than just one of Newt's old ravings. And indeed the Wall Street Journal editorial page has used it more than once. In 2001, for example, the man who now runs that page, Paul Gigot, wrote (in reference to Sen. Joe Lieberman) about "how…the black liberal establishment can punish a Democrat who strays from their plantation." The previous year, an editorial about the Massachusetts congressional delegation actually carried the headline "The Liberal Plantation."
Michael Kinsley is a columnist for the Washington Post and the founding editor of Slate.
Illustration by Robert Neubecker.