The Silver Lining of the Democrats' Disastrous Defeat
Published on Friday, November 5, 2004 by the Baltimore Sun
The Silver Lining of the Democrats' Disastrous Defeat
by Larry Beinhart
Senator John Kerry's loss of this election is a disaster for the country, but it could be the salvation of the Democratic Party.

If Mr. Kerry had won, he would have had to deal with the mess that President Bush has created. The war in Iraq. The coming implosion of the economy.

Mr. Kerry would have had to face a Republican Senate and a Republican House and a Republican judiciary. All eager to oppose, undermine and, in particular, blame him. Just as they did in the campaign. Don't think that a spirit of bipartisanship would have arisen. Just remember how they went after the Clintons.

Still, this was Mr. Kerry's race to lose.

Mr. Bush was not running against Mr. Kerry. He was running against reality.

The reality was that Mr. Bush was asleep at the wheel on 9/11. But he ran as the man to make us safer. Instead of taking the helm or rushing to the scene of the disaster, he fled. To Nebraska. Then took three days to get to Ground Zero. But he ran as the hero of New York.

He took a surplus and turned it into a deficit. He was the first president since Herbert Hoover to preside over a loss of jobs. But he ran on his economic policies and claimed they were working.

Mr. Bush ran against reality and won.

This is fairly astounding. It demands respect. There is something to be learned from it.

Mr. Bush was, as he claimed, steadfast. You knew where he stood and you knew he wouldn't change. Mr. Bush also had a knack for identifying things that disturb people and promising clear, bold solutions to them:

  • Terrorism - War on terror.

  • Education - No Child Left Behind.

  • Taxes - It's our money, we should have it back. And now, let's simplify the tax code.

  • Social Security - Save it by giving you more control over your own money and taking it away from the government.

  • Astounding cost of medicine - Add a benefit to Medicare.

Each of these is, without doubt, a real problem. Mr. Bush's solutions - not as phrased, but as practiced - are terrible.

But Mr. Kerry was not able to articulate that. Nor was he able to articulate, clearly, simply and boldly, his alternatives. He couldn't articulate a program because he didn't have much of one. He didn't have much of one because we don't have one. When I say "we," I mean Democrats, liberals, the left, moderates, realists and humanists - you know, us.

There are terrorists. What are we going to do about them? And once we decide, how do we make it sound stirring? How do we speak of it with flags flying and the Marine band going oompah-oompah, so that the red-staters stand up and salute? How do we really reform education, so that the red-staters can see that it's better than Mr. Bush's fraud-ridden, test-taking, hide-the-failures-in-the-basement program? Do we dare stand up to the special interests and offer real tax reform? Make the tax code comprehensible? Make it so that GE pays taxes? Make it genuinely progressive?

The case for taxing people who make $1 million a year at a higher rate than people who make $30,000 is pretty easy to make. So is the case that making money from money should be taxed quite as much or more than money made from working.

The truth about private pensions is that they can be taken away, as Halliburton just did to a group of its workers in the process of selling a subsidiary. The truth about investing in the markets is that you can lose your money, as you would have if you invested in most of Mr. Bush's companies. That, too, is a case that can be made. But only if we have a different plan for "saving" Social Security.

The Democrats have been thoroughly and completely kicked out of office. It is their turn to watch the Republicans make a hash out of things. Based on the past four years, they most certainly will.

Based on their performance in this election, the Republicans are also brilliant at running against reality. So it is not enough to sit back and watch. It is the time to think. And rethink. And when those thoughts are strong and clear and useful, to phrase them and rephrase them into sound bites and test those sound bites on voters so that they convey, with power and brevity, the message that is intended.

Then, having saved themselves, the Democrats might be ready to return and save the country. Which will know, by then, that it needs somebody to set things right.

Larry Beinhart is a screenwriter and an author who lives in Woodstock, NY. He is best known for American Hero which became Wag the Dog. His newest book is "The Librarian," a political thriller.

© 2004 Baltimore Sun