I’m old enough to remember the election of 1980. It wasn’t a great time in our country. Inflation, interest rates and unemployment were high. At age 23 I eeked out a living a little above the minimum wage at a Montgomery Ward. We had hostages in Iran that looked like they would never be released. This was an inescapable news story even bigger than O.J.’s trial. It turned Ted Koppel into something of a celebrity. Every night at 11:30 after the late news he hosted yet another special report: “Day 333: American Held Hostage”. A bungled raid by our military to liberate the hostages failed spectacularly. The national morale was near rock bottom.
In the midst of all this a presidential election was held that put a genial B movie actor and former California governor into the Oval Office. In the midst of a sour national mood Ronald Reagan had a message that fell on receptive ears: it’s morning again in America. Let’s shake off the national gloom. It was a great message that connected with the voters. It won him an overwhelming victory in 1984 despite the fact that the economy wasn’t really doing all that much better. Reagan was about attitude and spirit. We latched on to that spirit. Arguably it began the ascendancy of the Republican Party after decades of being in the political basement. Americans don’t seem to like to be in a gloomy mood for very long.
If it worked in 1980, it can work in 2004 but this time for the Democrats. A lot of the same factors are present. We have no hostages in Iran, but we do feel fearful. In spite of our overwhelming military and economic power, we don’t feel all that more secure and we feel vulnerable to forces we’re not sure we can control: such as one crazed fanatic or a suitcase bomb. We don’t have sky-high interest rates, we have rock bottom interest rates, yet we have learned that either extreme brings its own dangers. We now fear the deflation demon as much as we feared 18% mortgage rates in the early 1980s. Unemployment is statistically lower than in 1980 but many of us know the statistics are lying. The unemployment rate has been recalibrated to be more politically correct. We know that the true unemployment rate is much higher and that huge numbers of “discouraged” workers aren’t counted but would be employed if they could just find a job. We know that the length of time people spend unemployed has roughly doubled, and that to survive thousands of people are taking large wage cuts. Others cannot find employment in their field anymore and are working at relatively unskilled jobs at half or less than what they used to earn. We have all this plus a grinding war in Iraq that increasingly looks like a pointless quagmire.
Let’s face it: our national mood is depressed. Having our tanks roll into Baghdad had a short cathartic effect but, like a cup of coffee, the buzz soon wore off. Because our nation feels depressed our economy is in the doldrums too. Even tax cuts don’t seem to cheer us up.
Bush will have little to run on in 2004 but the fear factor. He’ll run on it because he and Carl Rove ran the Republican Party on it in 2002 and they will hope it will work again. But 9/11 is a receding memory, and Bush’s chickens have come home to roost. The economy is unlikely to turn around markedly before the next election. Even if it does it is unlikely we’ll come close to regaining the number of jobs lost during this administration. Poll after poll suggests that national red ink scares voters. Weapons of mass destruction turn into weapons of mass deception; Iraq shows all the signs of being our next Vietnam.
A Democrat with a positive message can win using Ronald Reagan’s approach. Here’s how.
First state the obvious: our fears of terrorism are vastly overblown. That’s not to say they aren’t there, but the likelihood of any individual American being a victim of an act of terrorism is virtually nil. Even on 9/11 when we lost 3,000 souls, that was 3,000 out of 300 million. We lose many magnitudes more citizens every year in automobile accidents. One is more likely to be a victim of terrorism, small as it is, if you live in Washington or a major city. For most Americans neither your life nor the lives of anyone you love is not in jeopardy from terrorism. If you are living in small town America you are more likely to be hit by an asteroid than to die from terrorism.
Second, point out where the real problems lie with national security. It’s not in Iraq, it’s in organizations like al Qaeda, and it’s in vulnerable nuclear research laboratories in the former USSR and in Eastern Europe. For the tens of billions of dollars we spent trying to obliterate Iraq we could have secured a lot of Russian nuclear facilities and made our country a whole lot safer. Point out that Bush has done hardly anything in this area; in fact he has cut this funding.
Third, advocate positive changes that can reduce the likelihood of terrorism. Advocate a Marshall plan for the Middle East where we work to improve the standard of living of the people. What if we rebuilt every destroyed Palestinian home crushed by an Israeli bulldozer as a starter? Don’t you think that would be very positive toward America, show true retribution and genuine concern for a people? Don’t you think it would sap a lot of the energy that creates terrorists in the first place? Wouldn’t this in effect buy us a lot of long-term national security? It’s cheaper than another Iraq-like war.
On the economy advocate what Americans already believe: that deficits are bad and the latest tax cuts have been reckless and unnecessary. Americans now believe in national health insurance. Too many people are uninsured and costs continue to spiral out of control. People will pay for it because with it they will have peace of mind.
But mainly what Democrats need is a message of moderation and hope. We need to say loudly and clearly: we refuse to live in fear any longer. We will take pragmatic steps to ensure our national security but we will not be slaves to our fears. We will not let this country become a victim of 9/11. We will not let terrorists destroy our spirit. We will be a party about pragmatic, progressive policies that uniformly helps all Americans, not just the richest.
That is how to win the White House and how to take back Congress in 2004.