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News ::
Incorporating the Left, Learning From the Right (english)
03 Sep 2003
To show how much his answer pissed me off, I grabbed his whole stack of papers and made a run for the nearest recycling bin -- I just needed a poignant way to show that if you want change, you can't ignore potential allies.
Incorporating the Left, Learning From the Right
Jake Honigman, The Cornell Daily Sun, September 3, 203

I was successfully flagged down in front of Collegetown Bagels the other day by a guy selling a left-wing newspaper. While I had no plan to subscribe for the year, I wanted to hear what he had to say.

"Are you interested in leftist politics?" he asked.

"Well, I'm a Democrat," I proudly offered.

"Democrat..." he said, before pausing. He had clearly heard the word before, but not thought about it much recently. "We're definitely to the left of them."

To show how much his answer pissed me off, I grabbed his whole stack of papers and made a run for campus and the nearest recycling bin. I had nothing against the papers; I just needed a poignant way to let him know that if you want change, you can't ignore potential allies.

Ok, the truth is, I didn't steal anything. I just respectfully declined.

The other truth is that he is not alone in feeling distant from the Democratic Party. If he were just as radical on the other side, however, he would sure as hell be a member of the Republican Party. And he'd fit right in. This discrepancy reflects a major difference between Republicans and Democrats in this country.

Democrats are constantly caught in a debate over whether to cater to the party's enthusiastic, liberal supporters or to cast out a net wide enough for soccer moms, NASCAR dads, and every other type of middle-of-the-road American. It's a struggle that generally leaves one side feeling neglected -- usually those on the left, who then go out and vote Green. More importantly, it's a struggle that's unnecessary.

I know it's unnecessary because the Republicans have, in the last few years, avoided it deftly and to their advantage.

A little over a month ago, at the College Republican National Convention, former chair Jack Abramoff rallied the crowd by warning of "the ascension of evil, the bad guys, the Bolsheviks, the Democrats." Paul Erickson, a Republican operative, explained that "the life of a liberal is hell. It is not possible to have a debate, a discussion, with [one]." I'm sure he hasn't exactly worn himself out trying.

That's some extremist stuff, folks. An atmosphere like that -- there were also speeches from Karl Rove and Rep. Tom DeLay (R-Texas) -- is what excites the faithful party base. It's hard to imagine it leaving many people on the right feeling excluded.

But the GOP hasn't allowed itself to exclude the middle, either. On his campaign website, President Bush lists an eightfold agenda that doesn't exactly ring of partisan fervor. Creating jobs and growth tops the list, followed by compassion, improving health security for all Americans, education, good stewardship of the environment (your cue to laugh), and strengthening and preserving retirement security. He recently told a crowd in Oregon: "I have a vision that includes everybody."

The party seems to be taking special pains to have its cake and eat it too; it is not willing to sacrifice its staunch elements, but sees that as no reason why it can't woo the more hesitant.

Democrats, on the other hand, have let this challenge turn into a crippling dilemma. The late Paul Wellstone's championing of the "democratic wing of the Democratic Party" is used as a rallying cry for some who call for a reactivation of the left wing. Others point to President Clinton's more moderate image and the rare, compelling success he enjoyed.

By entertaining this dispute, they're all missing the point.

Democrats need those who adhere most stridently to their traditional message -- liberals who cheer when political opponents are compared to the villains of history. They fill the seats, and fill the coffers.

And it's not unrealistic to get the middle while focusing on the left, for two reasons.

First, Bush spent a record $100 million in 2000. It didn't come from swing, independent voters, but it was used on them, and successfully. We're already seeing, in Howard Dean's campaign, how articulate ideas and unafraid opinions can translate into dollars and cents.

That brings me to another reason: Americans like people with principles.

I don't think voters are drawn to George W. Bush because of his anti-union record or his plans to drill in the Rockies.

But I'll believe that he comes off as a principled guy. People are reassured when a politician will take a risky position if they think it's the right thing to do.

And that could mean opposing the Iraq war just as easily as it could mean promoting it. It could mean healthcare for the poor as easily as tax cuts for the rich.

There are signs that top party officials are aware that this is the way to go. Terry McAuliffe, the Democratic national chair, recently told The New York Times that "in order to win the election, you have got to get your base out ... but you've got to get your swing voters out, too." Bush's campaign manager, Ken Mehlman, noted that "in the last few years, if politics has taught us anything, it's that you have to do both." You get the feeling the Republican means to say that you can do both.

But the Democratic Party could certainly cement that strategy in 2004, and would reap substantial dividends if it did. And it already has some gutsy, determined fundraisers.

They're standing in front of Collegetown Bagels.
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