WASHINGTON — The first step on the road to recovery is to: 1) admit you have a problem. Denial is a sweet temptation for Democrats in the face of last month's devastating defeat, but they should not indulge. The party has been given another wake-up call, and it is time to stop hitting the snooze alarm.
Democrats need to make a simple but profound admission: They are not the nation's natural majority party. What's more, they have not been for 25 years.
Yes, Democrats have long held a majority in the House and often in the Senate--but often in name only. The last major wave of social-reform legislation ended with the elections of 1966; since then, a moderate-conservative coalition has ruled more often than not--and, of course, Democrats have won the White House only twice, once with 51% of the vote, the other with 43%.
Democratic weakness was disguised because many white voters, especially in the South, voted Democratic for historical reasons while being philosophically much closer to the GOP. If the "emerging Republican majority" predicted by Kevin Phillips never quite emerged in partisan terms, it did ideologically.
The 1992 election represented a fragmenting of that majority under the pressures of deep economic change. Some Democrats thought a new majority had arrived, when, in fact, the party had only been given a window of opportunity to construct one. The electorate has now shut that window--on Bill Clinton's and the Democrats' heads--and the Republicans have their chance to try.
Stopping the consolidation of a renewed Republican majority will be hard work. Actually constructing a governing Democratic majority will prove harder still. But Democrats can get there, if--and only if--they acknowledge where they start from. Then they can move on to the other steps of this 12-step program toward a healthy Democratic body politic
\o7 2) Stop defending the past. \f7 One benefit of retroactively surrendering power is that Democrats need not defend the past 30 years. Rep. Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) says the country has been in trouble since 1967--who are Democrats to disagree? Force Republicans and conservatives to defend the bad old days, which they presided over. And when Republicans blame government for every social problem, remind people that we live in an era of government retrenchment and unfettered free enterprise.
Just as important is staying focused on the future rather than refighting the old wars. Let Gingrich date himself with talk about the "counterculture" and "McGovernicks," but don't take the bait. The elites of both political parties love to fight about the 1960s--but voters care about the 1990s and beyond.
\o7 3)\f7 Act \o7 like outsiders--after all, you are.\f7 Even when they have political control, Republicans are smart enough to sound as though they do not. Political outsiders are always rewarded in America's populist culture, especially in times of general dissatisfaction. Democrats reverse the formula--acting like they are in charge even when they are not--and get the worst of both worlds.
There is much for reasonable people to be angry about in 1994 America--social breakdown, economic insecurity and a seemingly detached and ineffective politics. Democrats must recognize and validate that anger, then give it political direction, just as Republicans have. Clinton, in particular, must regain his voice as a social critic.
\o7 4) Let the Republicans lead.\f7 Clinton has given some signs that he feels he must compete with the Republicans for attention, perhaps by giving a major December speech. But Democrats should welcome the move of the spotlight to GOP leaders, and give them all the rope they need.
We have already learned of Gingrich's family-values plan to take poor children from their mothers and place them in orphanages, and watched the spectacle of Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.), prospective chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, promoting national security through threats on the life of the commander in chief. The Republican presidential contest is especially promising--with Sen. Phil Gramm of Texas and Bob Dole of Kansas in the field, networks will have to schedule debates after 9:00 p.m. to avoid scaring young children.
\o7 5) Fight for the center, but also fight to redefine it.\f7 The party's "New Democrats" are right when they say Democrats must win the political center--that is what political struggle is always about. Democrats must communicate that they got the message and are committed to a more modest, pragmatic and non-bureaucratic approach to solving problems. But the party's liberals are also correct in saying that Democrats must frame a clear choice between the parties, and give people positive reasons to vote Democratic. Democrats must give middle-class voters a reason to believe government still matters to them.