The New Yorker: Letter From Washington - Central Casting
May 29, 2006
The Democrats think about who can win in the midterms-and in 2008.
by Jeffrey Goldberg
The New Yorker
An enduring predicament of the Democratic Party was revealed one day in August, 2004, when John Kerry, the Democratic nominee for President, and John Edwards, the nominee for Vice-President, visited a soybean and cattle farm outside Smithville, Missouri. The announced purpose was to speak about alternative energy sources (soybeans are an important source of biodiesel), but the goal was to express solidarity with rural white voters, who have been abandoning the Democratic Party in disquieting numbers. About a hundred and twenty-five people, mostly farmers, sat on hay bales in an orchard near the farmhouse. Claire McCaskill, the Missouri state auditor, was there, too; she was running for governor and was eager to appraise the two Senators, whose names would be on the ballot with hers. Kerry reminisced about clearing fields on a Massachusetts farm and promised to side with small farmers in their struggles against agribusiness. Teresa Heinz Kerry handed her husband a note, and then stood up to speak, recalling a visit to an organic hog farm in Iowa. "It's really inspiring to see the work that they did," she said, and encouraged her audience to consider organic farming. "It can be done. It's economical, and there is a huge market in America."
At that point, Winston Simpson, a hog farmer from Clarence, Missouri, stood up and interrupted. "I said, 'Mrs. Kerry, you've got to understand that hog farmers just freak out when they hear people telling them to go organic,' " Simpson recalled recently. "She looked kind of surprised. I was just there helping out, making a crowd, but I've got an adrenaline problem, and when someone pisses me off I jump up and tell them." Simpson is a grower-finisher; four thousand or so hogs come to him at forty pounds and leave their pens for slaughter two hundred and fifty pounds later. "I'd go broke if we switched to organic farming," he said. His public advice was informed by tactical, rather than ideological, concerns. "I don't have a problem with people raising food organically. If people want to eat that way, fine, but she shouldn't have been pushing that as a solution to the farm problem. A lot of farmers think of those organics as some kind of elitist lunatic-fringe thing." For some, Mrs. Kerry's performance recalled other moments of Democratic campaign obliviousness, like Michael Dukakis's endorsement of Belgian endive as an alternative crop for Iowa farmers.
Simpson described himself as a loyal Democrat who would have preferred to attend a better-orchestrated Kerry rally. "I'm even pro-choice-that's how much of a Democrat I am," he said. He came to that position, he explained, through his knowledge of animal husbandry. "If you've ever seen a young heifer get bred too soon, you know what a fiasco that is, which is why I think teen-agers should have access to abortion. But I'm out of the mainstream on this." He continued, "I always tell people who are running for office that if they want to get elected in Missouri, when someone asks them for their feelings about Roe v. Wade don't give some long scientific talk. Just say, 'I'm against abortion,' and move on quick." Simpson, whose son, a former marine, served in Iraq, wishes that Kerry had won in 2004. "Kerry couldn't connect with people," he said. "It's too bad, because just think if they got elected- maybe they could have turned this whole thing around in Iraq. Maybe we would be better off today. But they never took the lesson that you shouldn't give the Republicans things that they could use against you."
Claire McCaskill lost her 2004 race for governor, but the contest was close- fifty-one per cent to forty-eight. Kerry lost Missouri to George W. Bush by a slightly wider margin, fifty-three per cent to forty-six. This year, McCaskill is running for the U.S. Senate. Polls show that the race is a statistical tie, and analysts from both parties consider McCaskill to be one of the two or three strongest Democratic challengers in the country. Mc- Caskill says she is a centrist. She is one of many Democrats-Hillary Clinton being the most visible, and the most diligent- who are trying to establish themselves with middle-class moderates. These candidates see an uncommon opportunity this November-and in November of 2008-to win back many "Reagan Democrats," the voters whom the Party lost to Ronald Reagan a quarter century ago: the white working class, suburbanites, and Catholics. The collapse of President Bush's popularity-brought on most directly by his detached performance during Hurricane Katrina, the Jack Abramoff lobbying scandals, and public displeasure with the mismanaged war in Iraq-is working to the Democrats' Advantage. Polls show that even on national security- the issue that has favored Republicans since George McGovern's candidacy, in 1972-Republicans are now no more credible than Democrats. "We could be seeing in George W. Bush a Hooverian Presidency," the Princeton historian Sean Wilentz told me. "This would go a long way to helping the Democrats rebuild a new version of the grand Roosevelt coalition"-one that included a great measure of the country's working class. Wilentz added, though, that "what you need for a Roosevelt coalition, of course, is a Roosevelt." For the midterm elections in November, the Democratic Party does not need a Roosevelt. Some agree with Newt Gingrich, who recently told Time that if he were a Democratic strategist he would run a campaign that simply asked voters, "Had enough?" Many liberal Democrats would like to make Bush's record the focus of the upcoming campaign. Centrist Democrats, though-particularly those running in states that have cooled to their party- think that something more is needed this year, and certainly for 2008, when Bush will be retiring. They argue that their party must speak in language familiar to, among others, the disaffected hog farmers of Missouri.
To take control of the Senate - no longer a fantastical notion - the Democrats need to win six seats; for a majority in the House of Representatives, which has been in Republican hands since 1994, they must take back fifteen. The Senate races are populated with centrists like McCaskill. Among those running for the Senate are Jim Pederson, a shopping-center developer in Arizona; Harold Ford, Jr., a thirty-sixyear- old African-American congressman from Memphis, who is running a campaign meant to appeal to conservative white Tennesseeans; and Bob Casey, the anti-abortion state treasurer in Pennsylvania, who hopes to defeat the incumbent Rick Santorum.
McCaskill's Republican opponent, the incumbent Jim Talent, has been hurt in the polls by aligning himself against a Missouri ballot initiative to protect stemcell research. His stand has been inconsistent, which has alienated some of the evangelical Christians who are part of his core constituency. McCaskill, an ex-county prosecutor who believes in the death penalty and says that she worships, in the Missouri manner, "God and common sense," has made her name as the state auditor by running uncompromising investigations of state government performance. Winston Simpson, the hog farmer, said of her, "She's the kind of woman who could really jerk Donald Rumsfeld through a knothole." McCaskill is disarmingly loquacious. She is fifty-two and speaks with a flat Missouri accent; the day we met, she was wearing a red suit of a style that, in Washington, one associates with Republican women. "I'm having a good day," she said, almost as soon as we'd said hello. "You want to know why? I'll tell you why. Laura Bush is coming to the state to campaign for Talent, and Vice-President Cheney and the President of the United States are coming, too. They must be scared of someone." The candidate was on a domestic errand. Her sixteen-year-old daughter was applying for a learner's permit, and had forgotten her I.D., so her mother was making a detour home. "Oh, damn," McCaskill said, with a laugh. "I didn't want you to see that I was a rich lady." She is indeed rich, and lives in an oversized modern swooped-roof house beside a creek in a St. Louis suburb. But her wealth is of recent vintage: her second marriage, in 2002, was to a developer. She grew up in small-town southern Missouri. Her father's family kept a feed mill, and her mother had a drugstore that, she says, was "put out of business when Wal-Mart opened up." She worked her way through college and law school as a waitress, and later married David Exposito, with whom she had three children. It was a troubled marriage; Exposito nearly ended McCaskill's political career when he was arrested on a riverboat casino and charged with possession of marijuana. He was sentenced to community service, and he and McCaskill subsequently divorced. As we drove past strip malls and bigbox stores, McCaskill talked about the Democrats she most admires. "I would say I go back before McGovern to find role models. Clinton was an exception in some ways, but certainly not on a personal level. Harry Truman, J.F.K.- those are the role models." She added, "I'm not a liberal. When I was a prosecutor, I saw child murderers, people like that, and so I believe that there is such a thing as evil in this world."
In many ways, McCaskill sounds like any traditional Democrat. She speaks out against oil companies and pharmaceutical companies-she usually gets her biggest applause when she condemns Bush's prescription-drug plan-and she is in favor of abortion rights, although she doesn't make it a central issue. "If people ask, I tell them I'm pro-choice," she said. "That doesn't mean I can't understand the other side of the debate, though." She went on, "Being a Democrat is about balance. It's about being moderate and truthful and strong. Harry Truman, leaders like that, they were strong enough to take on foreign enemies when they needed to, but they were also strong enough to know when not to fight, when to use other weapons besides military force. That's the message the Democratic Party should be sending. We should let the American people know we want to work with allies, work with the U.N., and that we don't like war, but that we'll defend this country's interests with everything we've got."
Referring to the Kerry-Edwards campaign stop, she said, "I'm sure Teresa's motives were fine. But I think it's a tone thing. It's the 'We know better' thing. Some of it is completely unfair, but there's a critical number of Missourians who believe that people from the East Coast or West Coast don't think that people in the heartland are smart."
In 2004, exit polls showed that sixty-one per cent of voters who said that they attended church on Sunday supported Bush; Kerry received the support of thirtynine per cent of the churchgoers. Fiftynine per cent of voters who were married with children supported Bush, to Kerry's forty. It is difficult for Democrats, who are so closely associated with abortion and gay marriage, to shake off entirely their McGovern-era "acid, amnesty, and abortion" label, and the Party's recent history is a reason that many centrist Democrats still feel uncomfortable about the election, last year, of Howard Dean to chair their party. Dean had backing from the Party's antiwar wing, which supported his briefly astounding run for the Democratic nomination in 2004, but his main support came from state Party leaders, and he has rewarded them by funding a handful of field workers in each state to help fortify the local parties.
Dean has tried to reach out to, among others, evangelical Christians, and he doesn't like what he suggests is the Party's gradual abandonment of the socially conservative but economically liberal working class. "The Democratic Party was built on four pillars-the Roosevelt intellectuals, the Catholic Church, labor unions, and African-Americans," he said not long ago. "But we had stopped communicating with the Catholics and with labor, and so all you had left was the Roosevelt intellectuals and the African- Americans." Nevertheless, Dean often seems almost chemically incapable of communicating effectively beyond his base. Not long ago, at a rally in a union hall in a grimy industrial section of Albuquerque, New Mexico, he drew hundreds of Bush-loathing liberals of the sort who animated his 2004 candidacy. The crowd consisted of union members, including many from unions that represent government workers; Navajo activists from New Mexico's vast reservations; a modest number of hardscrabble Latinos; and a much greater number of retirement-age whites, some of whom came to the event from Santa Fe and Taos and who wore sandals and turquoise jewelry. Dean was late arriving from the airport, so a succession of local Democratic politicians took to the stage to deliver excoriations of the Republicans. (The popular centrist governor, Bill Richardson, skipped the rally, telling me later that he had been busy.) Many nodded in sympathy when the New Mexico secretary of state, Rebecca Vigil-Giron, told a story about the flag that flies over her house. A neighbor-a veteran, she noted- pointed out one day that her flag was "torn and tattered" and asked her if she wanted him to mend it or replace it. She said no, and explained, "I keep it here because it's going to stay flying tattered and torn because that's how this war is going. It's going nowhere. And it will come down when this war is over." The woman seated next to me, Carol Ann Bowman, the secretary of the Torrance County Democratic Party, leaned over. "I just hate this war," she said. "I don't understand how anyone could vote for Bush." Then she confessed, "I have two children who were in the military, and they voted for him. I just don't understand why." Dean came into the room at a gallop. The applause was raucous and sustained. "It's like a Dean rally," Bowman said, and, at the podium, Dean proved that he is still ready to follow his own muse, even in public. He was soon improvising an attack on Vice-President Cheney. Returning to Cheney's accidental shooting of a hunting companion in February, he said, "I don't want to get on Cheney's case too much, but this is a hunting state, right? I come from a hunting state. What kind of guy has a beer at lunch and then goes hunting and shoots a guy in the face? For God's sake." Dean's face was turning purple and his neck muscles were stretched tight. "I mean, this is a hunting state, this is New Mexico, right? Vermont's the same way. You know, you don't hunt like that. What kind of hunting program is that? I never heard a respectable hunter do that kind of stuff. Nonsense. Enough already. Go back to Vermont-I mean, go back to Washington. For God's sake, don't go to Vermont." Dean looked over at his fretting public-relations man. "All right, we won't go too far. I can see my staff and the choir over here are getting really nervous." His words were cheered enthusiastically. So was his praise for the absent Richardson, who recently ended electronic touch-screen voting in the state, reverting to a paper-ballot system. Dean got his loudest applause when he suggested that Republicans were conniving with the manufacturers of electronic voting machines, and he singled out Diebold, a favorite target of bloggers whose rage against the Bush Administration seems limitless. The only statement that was greeted with apathy was a blunt pledge to confront America's enemies. If the Democrats are restored to power, he said, "we will not permit Iran to be a nuclear power, we will make the deal with the Chinese to get nuclear weapons out of North Korea, and we will catch Osama bin Laden or kill him, one or the other."
One of the Democratic National Committee's initiatives under Dean has been to place campaign field workers in every state rather than to concentrate resources where the Party's chances seem most promising-in particular so-called "red states" on the electoral map that may be leaning Democratic. Dean told the crowd that his fifty-state program was going to pay dividends. "If we can win races in Mississippi and Alabama and Utah after only less than a year, because these organizers haven't even been on the ground a year, we can win races anywhere," he said. "You know why? Because this is a Democratic country, with a big 'D.' We ought to be speaking about our values everywhere we go, because the truth is, American values are consistent with Democratic Party values. Most Americans believe that it is immoral for small children to go to bed hungry at night, and we believe those kids ought to be fed, but the Republicans are cutting school-lunch programs."
Dean's fifty-state plan has caused fissures in the Party. Congressional leaders want the D.N.C. to direct its money to states where the odds-and the polls-favor the Democrats. Scott Pastrick, a former D.N.C. treasurer, said, "A lot of people think this strategy is pie in the sky, and this feeling is shared by a lot of the traditional donors. They're wondering why we're not putting resources in winnable states." Representative Rahm Emanuel, of Illinois, who chairs the Democrats' congressional campaign committee, and who has fought openly with Dean on this question, is more disparaging. When I suggested that Democrats in Mississippi were probably grateful for Dean's attention, he said, "If you think that Mississippi and Ohio are the same thing, you're an idiot."
In a restaurant in Santa Fe after the Albuquerque rally, I asked Dean if the crowd's lack of reaction to his stand on national security surprised him. His supporters, he replied, "are more liberal than I am." That is true. Because of his early opposition to the Iraq war, Dean was often characterized as a leftist, but he is a pro-gun, anti-gay-marriage (although pro-civil union) fiscal conservative who sounds hawkish on the question of a nuclear Iran. Dean's stance is actually in harmony with the idea put forth by Third Way, a new centrist group that advises Democrats on ways to speak to moderate voters. (Third Way's views are similar to those of the Democratic Leadership Council, which helped Bill Clinton win the Presidency in 1992, but more sharply focussed on the practical business of electing Democrats.) Third Way argues- and Dean agrees-that the Democrats risk perpetual irrelevance if they write off entire sections of the country. However, when I asked Dean, not long ago, if Democrats might have to risk alienating core supporters in order to attract national-security voters and cultural conservatives, he replied, his color rising, "Certainly not. Absolutely not. Why would you even think of such a thing? It goes contrary to everything we're doing. No, it's the wrong thing to do." For Governor Bill Richardson, a possible Presidential candidate in 2008, "the key to victory is to develop a coherent national message of optimism and opportunity and not incessantly try to appeal to our base." He said last week, "It's more important to try to appeal to disaffected Democrats and Independents who are on the verge of coming back to us. What is important is that we not just criticize the President, that we have alternative, positive policies."
Democrats have a set of policy prescriptions that they hope to enact if they win majorities in Congress, such as increasing the minimum wage, rolling back parts of the prescription drug law, and reinstating budget deficit controls. But they are only muddling toward a Gingrich-style Contract with America, which, in its drama and clarity, gave 1994 voters an understanding of national Republican priorities. Even on the minimum wage there is no consensus: Party moderates believe that a proposal to make college tuition taxdeductible would appeal to more voters than a promise to raise the minimum wage. As if policy differences weren't enough, the Party's many spokesmen tend to speak disparately and concurrently, especially on matters of national security. Witness the confusion, not long ago, when Representative John Murtha, of Pennsylvania, a former marine, called for an immediate pullout of troops from Iraq, leading to graceless scenes of Democratic leaders scrambling to embrace him and keep him distant, sometimes simultaneously.
Rahm Emanuel, who worked in the Clinton White House, says that the collapse of Bush's support-recent polls put his approval rating in the high twenties- is not enough to propel the Democrats back to power. "We still have to pick the lock here," he said, referring to the difficulty of unseating incumbents, especially in congressional districts that, over the years, have been gerrymandered into single-party redoubts. Some of his colleagues, however, do little to restrain their optimism. "I'll tell you this: if the election were held today, we would win," Nancy Pelosi, the House Minority Leader, who represents San Francisco, told me earlier this month. Pelosi appeared excited by the prospect of one specific consequence of a Democratic victory: "We win in '06, we get subpoena power." Pelosi has said that the Democrats would reserve the right to investigate every aspect of the Bush Administration, including its rationale for the Iraq war.
Pelosi's vision of a subpoena-filled 2007 appeals to her party's most liberal supporters. But there is a worry that such a tack might alienate moderates, and that it would motivate otherwise dispirited Republicans to go to the polls. "You know, if you spend your whole day trying to catch the dog that bit you because all you want to do is kick him, you're not going to win many friends," Brian Schweitzer, the Democratic governor of Montana, told me.
This would be a surmountable problem for Democrats if liberals outnumbered conservatives. But the liberal base of the Democratic Party, even fully mustered for battle, is too small to carry a Democrat to the Presidency, or even to many of the Senate seats being contested in 2006. The math is unforgiving, according to Jonathan Cowan, the president of Third Way. "Exit polls consistently show that twenty-one per cent of Americans self-identify as liberal and about thirty-four per cent as conservative," he said. "And a plurality, about forty-five per cent, self-identify as moderate. So this means that the Democrats have got to pull almost two-thirds of moderate voters to be the majority party." A recent report by the political scientists Elaine Kamarck and Bill Galston argues that greater polarization in the electorate hurts Democrats, for a simple reason: one out of every three voters belongs to the base that in the past Karl Rove has so successfully mobilized; only one out of five belongs to Howard Dean's. "In 1976, Jimmy Carter eked out a victory with only 51 per cent of the moderate vote because he won nearly three in ten conservative voters," Galston and Kamarck wrote. "In 2004, John Kerry won 54 per cent of the moderates and still lost by 3.5 points because he won a much smaller share of conservatives. With three conservatives for every two liberals, the sheer arithmetic truth is that in a polarized electorate effectively mobilized by both major parties, Democratic candidates must capture upwards of 60 per cent of the moderate vote-a target only Bill Clinton has reached in recent times-to win a national election." Al Gore received the support of fifty-two per cent of self-identified moderates in his popular-vote victory over President Bush, in 2000, but eighty-one per cent of conservatives voted for Bush-"enough to carry Bush through in states Gore needed," Third Way's Matthew Bennett said. On national-security questions, it is easy to misread even the most encouraging polls. "Before 2004, the Republicans generally polled somewhere around thirty-five points better on such questions as which party is better able to fight terror," Bennett, who worked for General Wesley Clark during his 2004 Democratic primary run, said. "Now that gap has closed entirely, but almost exclusively because people don't trust the Republicans anymore. It's not because Democrats have done something to take advantage of that." Meanwhile, position papers cascade from Democratic think tanks. The Democratic Leadership Council has just issued a book with the barrel-chested title "With All Our Might: A Progressive Strategy for Defeating Jihadism and Defending Liberty," which offers essays by nineteen Democratic foreign-policy and defense experts.
Even the most liberal Democratic of- ficeholders recognize the need to speak to security-conscious voters in ways that will separate them from Republicans. Nancy Pelosi made a game attempt at ferocity when I talked with her. "Here's my thing, and I will say this and you have to bear with me," she said. "I'm a mom. I have five children, and I have five grandchildren. I always say to people, 'Think lioness.' This is how Democrats are. You threaten our children-and that's America- you threaten our country, you're dead. You're dead."
Pelosi, Dean, and Harry Reid, the Democratic leader in the Senate, recently issued a report called "Real Security," which promises a "tough and smart" program of national defense. The report was met with some skepticism in Democratic foreign-policy circles. Leslie Gelb, the president emeritus of the Council on Foreign Relations (and a former State Department official in the Carter Administration as well as a onetime Times columnist), said, "Where I grew up, if you have to say you're tough and smart, you're not."
The "Real Security" report declares that the Democrats will "eliminate" Osama bin Laden, given the chance, although it does not say how. It also says it will implement the homeland-defense recommendations of the 9/11 Commission and provide better support and health benefits for American soldiers and veterans. There is no discussion in the report of the doctrine of pre-emption, or of Bush's endorsement of global democratization as an antidote to terrorism, and it states that the Democrats will "insist" that the Iraqis themselves "defeat the insurgency." Democrats are sensitive to charges of defeatism-Howard Dean was widely criticized when he said earlier this year that the war is lost- but the Democratic Party's more hawkish leaders (Connecticut's Senator Joseph Lieberman excepted) no longer argue in terms of victory or defeat. "I don't think we're losing," said Tom Vilsack, the governor of Iowa and the chairman of the Democratic Leadership Council (as well as a possible candidate for President in 2008). "It appears to be a draw. People are upset by the fact that their kids are over there and there doesn't seem to be any end to this whole process. It's not pacifism that makes people think this way. They're questioning the credibility and competence of the Commander- in-Chief."
Though Vilsack is no optimist on Iraq, he still puts himself on the more conservative side of the Democratic spectrum. "I don't think the face of the Democratic Party is Nancy Pelosi," he said pointedly. When we discussed why there had been no domestic terrorist attacks since September 11th, he even echoed Bush's argument that fighting jihadists in the Middle East is preferable to fighting them in America: "We have a hundred and thirty-two thousand Americans in a country where they have a lot easier shot at hitting us than they have here. It's a lot easier to attack us in Iraq and Afghanistan, since they're a lot closer."
Rahm Emanuel notes that nearly five years after the September 11th attacks Democrats still lack an authoritative spokesman on national-security questions. "What we need is a single credible voice," Emanuel said. There is also a worry that the Party will confuse antipathy for the Iraq war with a desire to make national security less of a priority. "We make a mistake if we think that just because people are fed up with George Bush they want George McGovern," Kathleen Sullivan, the chairwoman of the New Hampshire Democratic Party, said. Democrats in Republican-leaning states worry, in particular, that much of the Party's national leadership underestimates the role of patriotism-the impulse to celebrate American virtues, even in difficult times. Brad Carson, a former Democratic congressman from Oklahoma, appears to see this as a benign sort of nationalism.
"The well-heeled New York, Northern California world of Democrats considers nationalism a very discredited concept, that nationalism equals Brown Shirts," Carson said. (Carson lost his race in 2004 for Oklahoma's open Senate seat. The winner, Tom Coburn, is among the farthest right members of the Senate.) "In most of the country, nationalism is as normal as breathing. I live in a bloodred state, I know"-sixty-six per cent of Oklahoma voters chose Bush in 2004- "but this holds true across thirty states. The Democrats have to look like they axiomatically stand up for America's interests if they're going to be competitive." Claire McCaskill fits the Carson model: she sounds pugnacious, and not overly nuanced, on the subject of national defense. Though she believes in multilateralism, she also asserts, "We need to be the strongest country on the planet, so I view our problems as 'What do we have to do to maintain our strength?' In Washington, there's this hyper-dissection of Iran, all these layers of complication- what's going on with China, and Russia, and so on. For Missourians, the issue is: Iran is thumbing its nose at us. If we're so strong, why are they thumbing their nose at us? The reason is because the President is letting it happen. If he's so tough and smart, how did he let this happen?" Mc- Caskill doesn't attempt an answer; the clear implication is that Administration fecklessness is to blame.
Barack Obama, the freshman senator from Illinois, who has quickly won a national following, is troubled by demands for an immediate withdrawal from Iraq. "The two foreign-policy issues that have bloggers most fired up are getting the troops out of Iraq and sending troops to Darfur," he said. "They are exactly right to be fired up about Darfur. It is in our national interest to stop states from failing, and to stop genocide. But they also have to recognize that if we are willing to engage militarily in those circumstances, then there certainly are situations that call for direct military engagement in defense of our national interests." Iran, he believes, is an example of a country that might one day warrant the attention of the American military. He looks at the war in Iraq as a test of American credibility- which is why he doesn't support an immediate withdrawal, even though he believed that the original invasion was illconceived and badly executed. In front of Illinois audiences, he said, "I'll talk about the fact that we are less equipped to deal with Iran because of the Iraq war." Obama has been criticized on the Party's left for his stance on Iran, but voters in Illinois approve of his position, he said. There is a desire among many liberals to see the Democrats more energetically oppose the Bush Administration's domestic surveillance program, and its treatment of detainees at Guant?namo Bay and other U.S. facilities-to campaign, in short, against the Administration's perceived immorality as well as its mismanagement. "We have a good message to send about the rights of innocent Americans," Senator Russell Feingold, the Wisconsin Democrat, who recently led an unsuccessful attempt in the Senate to censure Bush, said. "We believe that folks who have done nothing wrong should not be abused. If we don't go out there and say it, there's going to be a sense that we're hiding, that they've successfully intimidated us. I see myself in the middle of a creative process of transforming the Party into one of boldness. If you go into your foxhole, they win." When I asked Rahm Emanuel if he thought that the Democrats should make civil liberties a focus of the upcoming campaign, he replied, "Middleclass American families are proud of their country. Economic security is the issue we should be talking to people about." Obama, making much the same point, said, "Americans want to feel good about themselves and their government. They can be called upon to sacrifice, and they can be ashamed when we fall short of our ideals, but they don't believe that the main lesson of the past five years is that America is an evil hegemon." The proper lesson of Iraq, Senator Christopher Dodd, of Connecticut, said, is that the Democratic Party should run not to the left of President Bush on national security but to the right: "It's a better opportunity than Jack Kennedy had when he ran on the phony missile gap. We have real issues."
To run to the right of the G.O.P., Democratic centrists say, the Party's candidates must learn how to speak the language that conservatives speak. Third Way has distributed a primer on countering the traditional Republican emphasis on national security. It cautions Democrats to "take fear seriously," and says, "Voters will not respond to approaches that ignore fear, mock it or try to intellectualize it away, like calling Bush a 'fearmonger.' " The voters, the guide says, "need to know that you understand the dangers we face." The primer counsels Democrats to "show comfort with the military," and warns candidates not to "pity or patronize the troops when criticizing the war. Remember that they are serving their country and proud of it." The guide goes on to note, "Progressives have always been surprised that the morale among troops deployed in Iraq is quite high-they are doing their mission."
Bush's diminished credibility on national security should help Democrats in local races this fall, Dodd said, but 2008 is a different matter-for the obvious reason that Bush won't be running. A John McCain candidacy, or the nomination of the Massachusetts governor, Mitt Romney, would alter the dynamic in ways that cannot now be measured; in 2008 voters may have a choice between candidates with more similarities than differences on issues like national defense, health care, individual opportunity, and whatever appears to be the latest iteration of "family values." Dodd is convinced that the Party is so weary of losing that its voters will make their decisions strategically. "The Party won't nominate someone who starts in a hole. They will make that determination if they perceive a person not to be a winner. They want to win. They really want to win."
Claire McCaskill knows the price that Democrats pay when they send a Northeasterner to Missouri. Although she said that she didn't blame Senator Kerry for her own loss-"The person on the top of the ballot always affects what happens to local candidates"-she added that Kerry would not be coming to Missouri to campaign for her. "John Kerry is a good man and a brave man, but he's from the city," she said. When I asked what she would do if Howard Dean showed up to endorse her, she said, "I'm not afraid to say I disagree with Howard Dean. I can go toe-to-toe with Hillary Clinton or Ted Kennedy if I disagree with them." Hillary Clinton is a sensitive subject for McCaskill. After the governor's race two years ago, many Missouri Democrats assumed that in 2008 McCaskill would make another run against Matt Blunt, the Republican who defeated her. But she has told people in Missouri and in Washington that a ticket led by Clinton would be fatal for many Democrats on the ballot, and that a Clinton candidacy would rule out her chance to win the governorship. "The Democratic Party has to look at candidates who can be competitive in all fifty states," she said. A few days later, at the annual Jackson Day dinner of the Greene County Democrats, in Springfield, Republican protesters held signs labelling her "New York's third senator."
In states like Missouri, coolness toward Hillary Clinton puts many Democrats in an uncomfortable position. Harold Ford, Jr., is close to both Clintons. He is running a strong race in Tennessee- if he wins, he would be the first popularly elected African-American senator from the South. When I asked Ford if Hillary Clinton would be campaigning with him, he said, "I'm not running away from her position on the war or her position on energy independence. I'm doing events with her." When I asked him where, he said, "In Washington." Some Democrats fear any association with national Democrats, who are perceived to be too liberal. "I had this notion that I could convince people who were skeptical of national Democrats to vote for me because I could bring home the bacon, or because I could find some personal pitch to them," Brad Carson, the former Oklahoma congressman, said. "But it was very hard for people to separate me out from Hillary Clinton. All their ads were Hillary Clinton, John Kerry, John Edwards, and me. They said I was more liberal than these guys, and that if I went to Washington I'd be supporting their agenda. I found that extremely difficult to overcome."
Across Missouri, I heard similar fears. At a breakfast fund-raiser for McCaskill in Kansas City, Katheryn J. Shields, a Democrat who is the chief executive of Jackson County, which encompasses Kansas City, said of Hillary Clinton, "She's great." But when asked if Clinton should be the Party's nominee, Shields said, "That would be a hard one." The outgoing executive director of the Greene County Democrats, Nora Walcott, was more direct. Though she said she was to the left in the Party, she feared that Clinton's liberal credentials would alienate Missouri voters. "You've got to tell the people in Washington not to nominate Hillary," she told me. "It would do so much damage to the Missouri Democratic Party." Clinton's obvious shifts to the center frustrate Walcott on two counts, she said: "I disagree with the way she's going to the right, but my biggest problem with it is that it's not working. People don't believe she's a moderate."
Uncertainty about Senator Clinton's real views seems to be more troublesome than the views themselves. She has always been less liberal than some believe, and at times her centrism is ostentatious, as when she spoke in favor of a law banning flag-burning. Clinton has reached out to anti-abortion voters, she refuses to call for a troop withdrawal from Iraq, and she has become a new friend of Rupert Murdoch, the proprietor of the onetime Clintonbashing New York Post and Fox News, who is hosting a fund-raiser for her this summer. All of this recently led the Washington Post columnist Richard Cohen to write, "Does she know what she believes? Do we know what she believes? Hillary, help us. Who the hell are you?"
Clinton, who is expected to easily win a second Senate term in New York, refused to be interviewed for this article; she has apparently decided not to discuss Democratic political strategies for now. But her chief strategist, Mark Penn, said that Democrats in conservative states would benefit from a Clinton candidacy. "She has a wildly enthusiastic base, much larger than anything we have seen in a long time. People say about her what they say about President Clinton: wherever he went, votes followed." Penn also said that Clinton could win over skeptical voters in red states. She has done so in upstate New York, where she continues to be popular.
Only a few nationally known Democrats have been invited to Missouri to speak on Claire McCaskill's behalf; one was Obama, whom she described as "so popular that we have to get him back." Obama returns the compliment: McCaskill, he told me, "is a terrific candidate who is deeply rooted in Missouri and understands the people of Missouri." He added, "A successful swing-state candidate can and should stand for progressive values, but they've got to appeal to common sense and pragmatism as opposed to ideology. I think what doesn't work in these places is a sense that you are ideologically liberal."
The former Virginia governor Mark Warner, who was the keynote speaker at the Jackson Day dinner in Springfield, was another welcome visitor. (Spring- field is perhaps the most conservative part of the state; it is home to John Ashcroft, the former Missouri senator and United States Attorney General, and it is also the headquarters of the Assemblies of God.) The crowd applauded Warner after watching a campaign-style video that highlighted his achievements in education and business development in Virginia. (It did not mention that he had raised taxes.)
Since the Lyndon Johnson landslide of 1964, only two Democrats have won the Presidency-both moderate Southern governors. Warner, who has shown signs of interest in becoming a Presidential candidate in 2008, argued elliptically against a Hillary Clinton run for President, saying that it would be self-defeating for the Party to nominate someone who has appeal in only sixteen states. He criticized what he calls the "triple bank shot" approach of focussing on the Northeast and the West Coast and hoping for a win in Florida or Ohio: "There's no reason to write off whole regions of the country." Warner said that he represents the "sensible center" of Democratic politics: fiscal soundness and a robust but selective national-defense strategy. When I mentioned that Missouri Democrats seem to resent what they see as the condescension of national Party leaders, Warner said, "Part of this is just showing respect. Respect for culture, faith, values. You know, not everybody wants to live in a big city. The assumption sometimes is 'Why wouldn't you want to be in the middle of where all the action is?' I think people in rural America may talk a little slower, but they get a good sense of whether you understand where they're coming from. Sometimes the folks in the press have translated that into 'Well, that means it's only about faith.' I don't think it's only about faith; it's about values and respect. It's about being comfortable at a NASCAR race as well as in a boardroom."
In 2001, when Warner ran for governor of Virginia, he sponsored a NASCAR truck, campaigned enthusiastically in the state's conservative southwest, and even commissioned a perishable bluegrass song extolling his candidacy. None of this spared him from having to visit Springfield's Bass Pro Shops Outdoor World, which is advertised as the world's largest hunting-and-fishing store. There Warner submitted to one of the most reliable humiliations of Democratic politics: the firing range. Though his spokeswoman described him as "more of a rock climber than a hunter," Warner, entourage in tow, found himself facing a paper target eight yards in front of him.
"Eight yards?" a local reporter asked. "That's not a lot of distance." The Bass Pro Shops guide gave Warner a petite .22 to fire. "You generally want to start out with something small," he explained. Warner managed to put holes through the target, although he missed the bull's-eye.
Later, he turned to more substantive issues. "One of the challenges we've got right now is that this Administration is undermining the American people's confidence that our national government can get anything right," he told me. "You know, whether it's successfully removing Saddam Hussein or getting Iraq to a stable position, or whether it's reacting in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina or getting the prescription- drug-benefit program right." Warner does not believe that the Democrats automatically benefit from popular unhappiness with the Administration. "I think the Republicans bear the vast majority of the blame for these things, but there's a little bit of a 'plague on Washington' feeling now." The Democrats, he said, would serve themselves better by focussing less on Bush's problems. "I get some criticism from Democrats who say, 'Well, Warner, you're not giving us enough red meat all the time.' But the case has been made. We don't need to remake the case of all the mess-ups of this Administration. What we've got to do now is answer the question 'All right, if we turn the keys over to you guys, what are you going to do differently?' " Warner added that the Party needs to start by trying to reach beyond its liberal base: "Sometimes the Democrats advocate tolerance, except for people who don't agree with them."
The Democratic Party of 2006 bears little resemblance to the party that dominated American politics from 1932 until 1964. But if the New Deal coalition has dissolved, there is a persistent desire to revive it-and to modernize it-especially among those who feel estranged from the Party's national leadership. "We used to be the party of the big tent," Montana's Governor Schweitzer said. "We have to respect regional differences. A Democrat in Montana looks a little different than one from Massachusetts. You don't have to agree with my idea about gun control, but you've got to respect it."
Schweitzer's idea about gun control is this: "You control your gun and I'll control mine." In 2004, Schweitzer became the first Democrat elected governor of Montana in twenty years; he won fifty per cent of the vote, to his opponent's forty-six. (Kerry lost to Bush in Montana by fifty-nine per cent to thirtynine.) Schweitzer did not win by posing as a Republican, he said. "In the first ninety days, we put more money into Kthrough- 12 education than anyone had ever done; we used the money from a new tobacco tax to help small businesses buy health insurance for their employees; we passed a law to incorporate a curriculum about the great achievements of our Indian population into our schools; and we passed a law to require that fifteen per cent of our electricity will come from wind power or solar power. Now, does that sound ruby-red to you? Or does it sound progressive? We're not hiding as Democrats out here." Success, he said, comes in the approach. "Democrats are losing elections because they're less likable sometimes. They want to explain the whole book, and voters want the Cliffs Notes. Most of us go to church on Sunday to hear a sermon. We don't want candidates telling us about all the things that are wrong." There are certain issues that can't be neutralized by a friendlier manner, he conceded, such as the Second Amendment. "We have about nine hundred and twenty thousand people here, and about six or seven million guns. This is who we are. You can't get around it. But you can accept it."
For more than thirty years, since the Roe v. Wade decision, nothing has been so divisive for disaffected Democrats as the Party's stand on abortion. But here, too, the Party appears to have become more pragmatic; it has, for instance, embraced Pennsylvania's Bob Casey, the anti-abortion, pro-gun candidate for the Senate, which would have been unimaginable ten years ago. (Casey's father, the late Pennsylvania governor Robert Casey, Sr., was not allowed to address the 1992 Democratic Convention, because he refused to endorse the Democratic ticket, which favored abortion rights.) Abortion-rights groups are uneasy when Democratic centrists urge them to shift the discussion from "a woman's right to choose" to the need to reduce the number of abortions. Recently, at a meeting held at the Center for American Progress, the left-leaning think tank founded by the former Clinton chief of staff John Podesta, an abortion-rights activist named Rachel Laser, a former senior counsel at the National Women's Law Center, was impatient with the refusal of others to view abortion as a moral issue as well as a personal one. "I said at this session that there are 1.3 million abortions in this country and that's too many, and it's too many for the majority of Americans," Laser, who runs Third Way's Culture Project, recalled. "Polls show that a majority of Americans think that abortion is morally wrong some or all of the time, and we have to address that." After Laser spoke, the moderator asked the audience "by a show of hands, how many people here think that 1.3 million abortions is too many abortions?" As Laser remembers the moment, "It was only me and maybe one other who raised our hands. I definitely touched a nerve. The fact is the majority of Americans are pro-choice, but the majority of Americans also see something sad in what this procedure does." Laser believes that Democrats have an opportunity to attract voters troubled by Republican inflexibility, and she called the South Dakota legislature's recent ban on all abortions a bracing example of extremism. But, she continued, liberal Democrats must learn to speak to people who feel differently about things. "If you're a candidate in many parts of the South or the Midwest, you shouldn't be using the old frames of choice and individual rights, because against the frame of life you will likely lose. You can neutralize the playing field by talking about reducing the number of abortions. If progressives are going to win nationally, they have to meet the American people where they are."
The Democratic Party's challenge, though, is not only to recalibrate its positions on abortion and national security but also to persuade voters that Democrats have something essential to offer: an aptitude for governing. Moderates argue that a year after Katrina Americans are searching for plausible and competent leadership. (Michael Dukakis, who in 1988 campaigned against charisma, may have been a prophet without honor.) But, the argument continues, candidates must express concern for the welfare of their audiences, have a vision of an equitable society, and, perhaps above all, learn to speak without condescension. "Every time a pro-stateincome- tax candidate runs in New Hampshire, they get their butt kicked," Kathleen Sullivan told me. "And then what you have is Democrats who say, 'Well, we just have to educate people more.' Well, no, that's not what we have to do. We have to not nominate someone who is for a state income tax. The voters don't need to be educated on this. They know what they believe." Sean Wilentz, the Princeton historian, said, "The impulse behind the people who run the party is humanitarian, and humanitarians have a problem in American history-they're always trying to perfect you, make you better." Wilentz added, "Acceptance of human imperfection would do a lot to help the Democratic Party."