What Happens to the Losing Team?
Having lost five of the past seven presidential elections, the Democrats have to decide whether to reinvent their party and who should lead it forward

Nov. 15, 2004
Coming after the 2000 cliffhanger and a negative, hard-fought campaign, it's no surprise that John Kerry's loss would leave Democrats deflated and searching for answers. "We had the money, we had a ground operation the likes of which has never been seen, and we had a good candidate who stood toe to toe with the President and bested him in three debates," sighs Harold Ickes, who ran two of the cash-rich outside groups that sprang up in this election to help the Democrats contend with the G.O.P. fund-raising advantage. "We had all that, and we still lost. People are going to ask, 'What do we have to do?' There's going to be a real aftershock."

With aftershock there usually comes second-guessing and recrimination. Picking over the tactical blunders and missed opportunities is a tradition in any post-election recovery. But political parties tend to make major course corrections only in the wake of catastrophe. That's what happened after the 1988 race, when the elder Bush eviscerated the hapless Michael Dukakis to deliver the G.O.P. a third straight electoral landslide. Out of the ashes of that defeat and a struggle between the party's liberal and moderate wings arose a Bible-citing, charisma-infused Southern moderate named Bill Clinton, who went on to give the Democrats their only presidential triumphs in a generation. Having lost two close and winnable elections in a row since the Clinton era ended, is it time for the Democrats to engage in another round of intraparty bloodletting before they settle into the task of selecting their nominee for 2008?

It depends on which Democrat you ask. "In the 1980s, we got hit by a political 2-by-4," says Bruce Reed, president of the centrist Democratic Leadership Council, which helped launch Clinton on his way to the White House in 1992. "This election was a whole lot more complicated. It was so close that it's unlikely to be a learning experience for Democrats. I suspect there'll be more finger pointing than soul searching. And that's a shame." For Reed and other so-called New Democrats who struggle to keep the party from veering too far to the left, Kerry was a vast improvement over Howard Dean, who rode a wave of antiwar and anti-Bush sentiment to prominence before crashing in the primaries. But, insists Reed, Kerry should have run a better campaign. "We can't let George Bush define our future. That's where the Dean and Kerry campaigns both came up short," he says ruefully. "Democrats need to put forward our vision of how to win the war on terror. Defeating terrorism is going to be the defining issue for years to come. For our party's sake and our country's sake, we have to get it right because Americans won't take us seriously until we do."

Because the election was so close and because the war in Iraq and loathing of Bush were the chief propellants fueling the Democrats' campaign, party professionals and activists seem disinclined to engage in much self-criticism while Bush remains in the White House. "The threat posed by Bush unified the party," says Robert Borosage, co-director of Campaign for America's Future, a liberal advocacy group. "And he'll continue to unify Democrats in a second term." It was the willingness of Dean and progressive organizations like MoveOn.org to attack the Republican President and his policies directly, adds Borosage, that "gave the Democratic Party its voice and its will to win. The progressives come out of this emboldened by what they were able to do. They feel like they have the power to change politics."

The capacity of independent nonparty organizations like MoveOn, Americans Coming Together and the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now to raise money and mobilize anti-Bush voters has acted like a fresh rain on the Democratic Party's parched grass roots. Even though the Democratic candidate lost, the party and the broader network of liberal, anti-Bush organizations succeeded in raising record sums of money and enlisting unprecedented numbers of volunteers. Far from being distraught and depressed by the election, the way they were after 2000, many Democrats sound surprisingly upbeat about the future.

"If there is some upside to people's lack of passion for Kerry, it's that this campaign was all about a struggle for a fundamentally different direction for the country from where the conservatives are taking it," says John Podesta, a former Clinton White House chief of staff who last year launched a progressive think tank, the Center for American Progress, modeled on the successful think tanks created around the conservative movement in the 1970s and '80s. "When a campaign is about the person, in defeat the whole thing collapses. That's not going to happen because this feels more like movement politics."

And instead of harping on what Ruy Teixeira, co-author of The Emerging Democratic Majority, calls "the same debate Democrats have been having for 20 years—should we be more populist or more centrist?"—activists from various factions may focus on working together against a common enemy. "Just because they lost, these people are not going to be any more disposed toward the Republican Party," says Teixeira. "We're seeing the emergence of a new Democratic Party. It's more pragmatic and less ideological. And it's unified in its desire to defeat a Republican Party that's widely viewed as stopping at nothing to crush the opposition."

If there's a battle for the soul of the Democratic Party, predicts Simon Rosenberg, president of the New Democrat Network, a moderate advocacy group, it won't be the usual skirmish between the liberals and moderates of the professional political class in Washington but one between the Washington insiders on one side and the rank-and-file activists spread out across the country on the other. "What's changed over the past two years is that activist Democrats believe that Republicans are venal people," says Rosenberg. These activists "are going to be very intolerant of Democrats in Washington who cooperate with the Republicans. There's going to be tremendous pressure to stand up and fight and not roll over and play dead."

If Rosenberg is right, it could mean that when it comes to partisan acrimony, Bush's first term will be remembered as a period of relative harmony compared with his second. In that kind of environment, anyone hoping to contend for leadership of the Democrats and the 2008 nomination will be under pressure to clash early and often with both Bush and the G.O.P.-controlled Congress. The result could be something very close to a four-year campaign for the presidency.

Already, potential candidates for 2008 are being handicapped. Kerry could argue that he deserves another chance, but not since they renominated Adlai Stevenson in 1956 have the Democrats thought—mistakenly, in Stevenson's case—that they could make a winner out of the previous election's runner-up. Early attention will be focused squarely on New York Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton. "If she wants to run, she will completely dominate the field," predicts Podesta, who admits, as a veteran of the Clinton White House, that he may not be totally objective. "In terms of fund raising, charisma, ideas and positioning, she dominates." Donna Brazile, Al Gore's campaign manager in 2000, agrees. "There will be John Edwards' band of friends, but in this party, the Clintons have the juice," says Brazile. More than any other potential candidate, she adds, Senator Clinton transcends the party's ideological fault lines and the battle between its insiders and outsiders. "She's acceptable to everyone," Brazile says. "The moderate wing likes her; the liberals like her. There's no question, Hillary's the person people will focus on."

Some of the Clintons' closest advisers predict she will run. They also say her husband is, if anything, more enthusiastic about the idea than she is. The first hint of her intentions may come Nov. 8, when she speaks to the board of the Brookings Institution, a leading Washington think tank. But her candidacy is not guaranteed. Clinton could face a formidable opponent when she comes up for re-election to the Senate in two years: both Governor George Pataki and former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani are said to be considering a challenge. A loss would effectively terminate Clinton's presidential prospects. But even if she were to win, such a campaign would be a mammoth distraction and a serious drain on resources she would need for a presidential run. "In the end, I think she beats Pataki or Giuliani, but it's two years of struggle," says Podesta.

And while the name Clinton may send Democratic true believers into states of political rapture, both husband and wife remain highly polarizing figures among the broader electorate. "Democrats have a problem with middle-to-low-income voters who are culturally conservative," says Teixeira. "I think Hillary still annoys them." Few things could excite the passions of the "vast right-wing conspiracy"—as Clinton once called her husband's enemies—or motivate the Republican base more than the prospect of a President Hillary Clinton. "I'm one of the few in the semi-inner circle who don't think she can win," says Ickes, a close Clinton ally who was deputy chief of staff to her husband in his first term. "It would be a brutal, bruising fight. It would make this year's race look like kindergarten."

Despite her name, Hillary Clinton might not be the most Clintonesque candidate in the race for the nomination. That distinction would belong to Edwards if he runs, as many Democratic insiders assume he will. Supporters of Kerry's running mate are quick to point out that the only Democrats to win the White House in the past 44 years—Clinton, Carter and Johnson—were Southerners. They also like to compare Edwards' skills on the stump and in front of a camera with President Clinton's. But it's not clear that running for Vice President helped Edwards, whose presence on the ticket did nothing to break the G.O.P.'s stranglehold on the South.

For Democratic activists tired of Washington insiders, Dean remains an option. His bid for the nomination helped spark the activism that transformed the party and revolutionized the way Democrats raise money. "Dean needs a serious image makeover," says Jim Jordan, who helped run two of the pro-Democratic independent groups that aired ads and organized massive get-out-the-vote campaigns across the country. "But he also has a serious constituency out there with a lot of energy. He'll be a power."

If Democrats want a fresh face and a candidate who can't be tagged as a liberal, they could turn to Indiana Senator Evan Bayh. A former Governor who consistently wins in a heavily Republican state, Bayh is a centrist's dream on paper. But after Kerry's defeat, Democrats may want to steer clear of nominating another Senator, even a former one like Edwards. After all, no member of Congress has won the White House since 1960. Governors have fared much better. For that reason, expect New Mexico's Bill Richardson, Iowa's Tom Vilsack and Pennsylvania's Ed Rendell to hit the party speaking circuit to gauge support. Other possibilities include Governors Janet Napolitano of Arizona and Kathleen Sebelius of Kansas. With the exception of Rendell, all these potential candidates come with a built-in regional advantage: they can't be labeled Northeastern liberals.

No matter who emerges as the next leader of the Democratic Party, he or she will be under tremendous pressure to take the fight to the G.O.P., and to win. The Democrats have now lost five of the past seven presidential elections and seven of the past 10. Over the past 30 years, the party has seen its majorities in Congress, in Governor's mansions and in state legislatures all disappear. For the first time since the 1920s, more Americans identify themselves as Republicans than as Democrats. Which means that losing again in 2008 wouldn't just be disappointing for the Democrats. It could leave the party in the wilderness for many years.

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