LINCOLN
Danny Johnston  /  AP file
Sen. Blanche Lincoln, D-Ark., argues that Democrats must listen to voters in rural America and address everyday cultural issues.
By Tom Curry National affairs writer
msnbc.com
updated 11/10/2004 5:54:44 PM ET 2004-11-10T22:54:44

Only two years after Republicans’ colossal 1964 loss to a president from Texas, Lyndon Johnson, the GOP gained 47 seats in the House of Representatives, three in the Senate and eight governorships.

The president, bogged down in an increasingly costly war, saw events slip out of his control.

Republicans built on their 1966 victories to win the White House in 1968, launching an era in which the GOP controlled the presidency for 24 of the next 36 years. Could the Democrats do in 2006 what the Republicans did in 1966?

Find the answer at Applebee’s
One veteran Democratic strategist, Clinton White House political director Doug Sosnik, sums up the answer in one word: Applebee’s.

For Sosnik, the chain of modestly priced restaurants (more than 1,600 in 49 states), symbolizes precisely what is wrong with the party’s Washington-based elite.

Democratic leaders are out of touch with the American people, Sosnik said in a panel discussion Tuesday sponsored by the centrist Democratic Leadership Council (DLC).

“The leadership of our party has a cultural disconnect,” Sosnik said. “Our leaders — particularly Washington, D.C.-based — don’t really have the same life, day to day, as all those people out there in those red states. We don’t eat at the same restaurants. I don’t know how many politicians in town that are leaders of our party who voluntarily go to Applebee’s, unless it’s for work. You look at the swing voters out there, what their sporting events are, the music they listen to, the celebrities, the television programs, it’s just not what the East Coast leadership (watches) — it’s not quite where we are.”

"Talk about Applebee's, we don't even go to the Cracker Barrels and the Denny’s as well," added Donna Brazile, who served as Al Gore's campaign manager in 2000.

Sosnik said, “We can’t figure out a better way to sell to those people — we’ve got to be more like them.” Being “more like them” requires finding Democratic leaders from small-town and rural America.

Sen. Blanche Lincoln, D-Ark., who won a second term last Tuesday, the only Southern Democrat to win a Senate seat, fits the bill.

Language on the school bus
Lincoln told the DLC audience that what mattered to Arkansas voters was not just the details of a plan to provide medical insurance for the uninsured, but real-world cultural issues. “They’re thinking, just like I am, when they put their child on the (school) bus, what kind of language are they going to learn? What kind of security do they have at school? What are the things that, God forbid, my kids are going to be exposed to when they go to middle school?”

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Lincoln urged the party to have a 50-state strategy, “and that encompasses dealing with people who live where I grew up: in the middle of nowhere, out in rural America.”

Sosnik believes the answer will come from outside Washington.

“To me the solutions start with being an opposition party that is based and grounded outside the Beltway,” Sosnik said. “It’s no accident that four out of the last five presidents were governors.… Governors live with the people they work for every day. They’re outdoor politicians as well as indoor politicians…. And we have a lot of red-state governors.”

Sosnik is right about Democratic governors who govern states that Bush carried last Tuesday. The governors who might merit consideration as either presidential or vice presidential contenders include Phil Bredesen of Tennessee, Mike Easley of North Carolina, Kathleen Sebelius of Kansas, and Mark Warner of Virginia.

Looking ahead to 2008, Al From, the DLC’s founder, pointed to last Tuesday’s electoral map.

“For the second election in a row, we did not win one electoral vote in the South,” From reminded his audience. “We have to expand the map…. If we aren’t challenging the Republicans to defend their turf, they will constantly challenge us to defend ours, and that’s why this year the close states were Wisconsin, Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Minnesota, all states that we need to have.”

From is echoing what Southern Democrats have said for more than four years. Well over a year ago, Georgia Democratic Party Chairman Calvin Smyre said at a meeting of the Democratic National Committee, “We are not going to win the White House unless we win some Southern states…. You can’t talk about a national strategy until you talk about a Southern strategy.”

Ceding the South
In the wake of the Nov. 2 results, Smyre’s argument seems even more irrefutable, but after the Democratic National Convention, John Kerry spent no more than a few days campaigning in the non-Florida South, perhaps because his campaign strategists thought his ideology and voting record gave him scant hope of winning any states there.

If the 2008 Democratic nominee tries to compete in Southern states, will he or she have a chance to win there without a change in the party’s message?

From said, “We have to convince people who would naturally support them (the Republicans) that we offer a better alternative. We have to have a strategy that is grounded not just in turnout, but in persuasion.”

In other words: Make some Bush 2004 voters into Democratic voters in 2008.

Former Clinton aide Bruce Reed stressed the importance of changing some of the Democratic orthodoxy.

“If we don’t have at least one position that forces skeptics to take a whole new look at the Democratic Party next time, they won’t,” Reed said. 

Of course some Democratic beliefs are very likely non-negotiable.

Even if a majority of voters in “red states” believe abortion is the taking of an innocent life and ought to be banned, it is hard to see how Democrats can simply announce they no longer support the Supreme Court’s 1973 Roe v. Wade decision. At some point in its overtures to Bush voters, the party would lose its ideological identity.

While Applebee’s was the one-word key for Sosnik, another Democratic strategist at Tuesday’s DLC panel discussion, Will Marshall, personified the party’s woes in a name: Michael Moore.

No love for film maker Michael Moore
“Let’s let Hollywood and the Cannes Film Festival fawn all over Michael Moore. We ought to make it clear he sure doesn’t speak for us when it comes to standing up for our country,” Marshall said.

“Democrats have to make it very clear to the electorate that we believe that America is essentially a force for good in the world,” he argued.

“Sometimes in our zeal to condemn Bush policy, we can go overboard in ways that really make them wonder whose side we’re on,” he said. “It is one thing to say the war in Iraq was a mistake; that’s a legitimate position held by many thoughtful people. It’s another thing to say it’s an expression of some grasping new American imperialism, some kind of plot to grab Middle East oil or, even more ludicrously, all just about putting more money into Halliburton.”

Marshall added, “We’ve got to make it real clear to folks that while we believe true patriotism means acknowledging our country’s mistakes and being willing to change course when things are going wrong, as they are in Iraq, we’ve got to repudiate the most strident and insulting anti-American voices out there, sometimes on our party’s left.”

Marshall’s warning calls to mind similar cautions sounded by two DLC-allied Democratic senators, Sen. Joe Lieberman of Connecticut and Sen. Evan Bayh of Indiana.

“The Democratic Party is at risk of being taken over by the far left,” Bayh warned in July of 2003, as Howard Dean rose to popularity on the strength of his denunciations of the Iraq war.

Bayh has a following among party activists and seems well-positioned for a bid for the 2008 nomination. Among his other advantages, Bayh has a perch on the Senate Armed Service Committee, from which he can offer detailed criticism of administration policy in Iraq, Afghanistan, and elsewhere.

But Dean isn’t retiring into a cloister. He is considering running for chairman of the Democratic National Committee. So he’ll have a chance between now and when the DNC votes in February to give his rejoinder to Bayh, Marshall and From.

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