Democrats Win the Shrillness Contest

Since 1980, Democrats have tended to blame their losing candidates for not being tough enough. They somehow believe that their attacks on Republicans were not sufficiently sharp, and that Republicans are more focused on winning and more willing to do whatever it takes to win.

I think this is nonsense generally, but especially so this year. There is no question that on the shrillness meter, Democrats have won hands-down. Democrat friends of mine maintain that George Bush drives them to it and that shrillness is the only way of breaking through the political stupor in which most Americans live.

If they believe this, it is fine with me, speaking as a Republican. It is utterly counterproductive in terms of winning over undecided voters and only preaches to the choir that already hates Bush. It even makes lifelong liberals consider the possibility of voting Republican. As Washington Post columnist Richard Cohen recently wrote, “Bush haters go so far they end up adding a dash of red to my blue, pushing me by revulsion into a color I otherwise would not have.”

I understand the futility of this sort of hate because Republicans used to be this way. Just read some of the vitriol hurled at John F. Kennedy by Republicans and conservatives in the early 1960s. It appears ludicrous now, since Kennedy’s championing of big tax cuts, free trade and a strong national defense would put him on the far right wing of the Democratic Party — out there with Georgia Sen. Zell Miller — if he were alive today.

The hate was borne of frustration, a feeling of powerlessness in a political system that was utterly dominated by liberal Democrats — Dwight Eisenhower’s two terms notwithstanding. Just as Kennedy would hold down the right wing of his party today, Eisenhower would certainly hold down the left wing of the Republican Party today.

Over the years, responsible conservatives have purged most of the real haters from the movement. They are still out there, of course, but are totally marginalized, with no political power or intellectual influence whatsoever. And Ronald Reagan taught Republicans that optimism and a sunny disposition are extraordinarily powerful politically. Whatever one may think of Bush’s policies, he is much more like Reagan in his personality than John Kerry, who often comes across as dour and impatient.

Another similarity between the Democrats of today and the Republicans of yore is that they have replaced each other as the party of the elite. Republicans used to be caricatured as the party of big businessmen, financiers and graduates of Ivy League universities. The party’s base was on the nation’s coasts. The Democrats’ base was in the south and in the nation’s heartland. It was the party of working people — farmers and laborers.

Now, of course, the Democrats have become the party of the elite, and their geographical base is precisely the same as the Republican Party’s in the 1940s and 1950s. As a consequence, the Democrats’ connection to working people has become tenuous at best. Some of the party’s own supporters know this and see it as key to its declining fortunes. Writing in New York magazine — a publication written by and for the elite — columnist Thomas Frank wrote:

“One of the reasons Democrats are never able to mount a convincing comeback is because, at the bottom of their hearts, many of the party’s biggest thinkers agree with the ‘liberal elite’ stereotype. They can’t simply point to their working-class base and their service to working class America, because they aren’t interested in that base; they haven’t tried to serve that constituency for decades.”

These days, being a billionaire or a professor at an Ivy League school is an almost perfect predictor of being a Democrat. Churchgoing people who work with their hands are much more likely to be Republicans, partly as a backlash against Eastern liberal elitism. As novelist Tom Wolfe put it, “I think support for Bush is about not wanting to be led by East Coast pretensions. It is about not wanting to be led by people who are forever trying to force their twisted sense of morality onto us, which is a non-morality. That is constantly done, and there is real resentment.”

Along with taking over the Republican Party’s base, the Democrats have also adopted its agenda. Republicans used to obsess about budget deficits, now Democrats do. It used to be Democrats who said that Americans would “pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe, in order to assure the survival and the success of liberty.” Today it is Republicans who say such things and Democrats who complain that the cost is too high.

Whether Kerry wins or loses, the Democratic Party will not achieve long-term success as the party of the elite.