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The Sum of Its Parts No Longer Works for the Democratic Party By: Thomas B. Edsall
The Washington Post | Wednesday, November 27, 2002


In the days since the Nov. 5 election, the Democratic Party and its leaders have faced a barrage of criticism for having no "message" for voters. If only it were as easy as cooking up a message or two.

Even if it were possible to lock top Democrats behind closed doors and force them to concoct a set of themes, policies and ideas for 2004, their declaration would do as much to expose the party's liabilities and provoke internecine conflict as it would to put the Democratic Party on the road to recovery.

The Democrats' message problem is actually symptomatic of much more serious structural ailments. The threat of terrorist attack and the prospect of war with Iraq have only exacerbated the Democrats' preexisting condition. These ailments were papered over by the Clinton presidency and the economic boom of the 1990s, but they are resurfacing with full force now.

The problems facing the Democrats are many, but here are the main ones: first, an erosion of Democratic support among women, driven in part by concerns about terrorism and in part by Republican gains on the issues of education and prescription drugs; second, a new twist on racial tensions between black and white Democrats; third, a Republican president determined to mute the most threatening aspects of the GOP; and fourth, a cohort of 18- to 34-year-old voters who lean more toward the GOP than toward the Democratic Party on school vouchers and Social Security.

These trends are not fleeting, though current events have made them more evident. Changes in the American electorate and savvy Republican strategy have combined to create a historic crisis for Democrats, even though the GOP's edge in Congress remains relatively slight.

Republicans smell opportunity. Under the guidance of Bush adviser Karl Rove, the Republican Party is treating the elections as a chance not only to win in one two-year cycle, but also to wrest power, issues and money from the Democratic Party in a bid to dominate national politics and realign the electorate for many years to come. Meanwhile, Democrats are foolishly counting on the GOP to make mistakes. They are passively waiting for the Republican Party leadership to either promote a tough anti-abortion, socially conservative agenda that would scare moderate suburbanites, or accede entirely to the corporate interests that have become the financial backbone of the GOP, or both.

The Democrats can't afford to adopt a wait-and-win attitude while hoping for the GOP to implode. They have much too daunting a list of demographic and internal tensions.

The 2002 elections revealed significant erosion of Democratic support among women voters. Women have been the key to victory for the Democratic Party in House and Senate elections since 1980, when the "gender gap" first emerged, and women were the key to Bill Clinton's win in the 1996 presidential race. In 2000, Al Gore won among women voters by a 54-to-43 margin, while George W. Bush won among men by a 53-to-42 margin, according to Voter News Service exit polls.

VNS data for 2002 has not been made available yet, but the Democratic firm of Greenberg Quinlan Rosner Research conducted a post-election survey of 2,647 voters that found the Republican tilt among men remained virtually the same as in 2000, while Democratic backing among women dropped by 6 percentage points. Anna Greenberg, vice president of the firm, contended that Bush and other GOP leaders "have successfully muddied the waters" on such key domestic issues as education, prescription drugs and Social Security, eliminating or reducing the Democrats' traditional advantage when these issues become central to the political debate.

The post-9/11 climate has helped the GOP win support from women, especially married women with children. While under normal circumstances women tend to be more averse to national defense spending and military action than men, the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon and the continuing threat of domestic terrorism have changed women's attitudes.

Andrew Kohut, head of the Pew Research Center, found a dramatic shift in women's views about the creation of a national missile defense system. Just before the attacks, his polling showed that 29 percent of women and 42 percent of men agreed that "we need a national missile defense system right now." In October, after the attacks, support among men grew only slightly, to 47 percent, while among women the percentage soared to 51 percent, with 59 percent of women with children backing immediate creation of such a system.

Similarly, a post-9/11 survey by the Winston Group, a Republican firm, found that a higher percentage of women than men backed the idea of arming commercial airline pilots (76 percent as compared with 73 percent).

All of these findings point to the increased receptivity of women to the generally more aggressive and tougher stands of Republicans on issues of military preparedness and dealing with foreign adversaries. These shifts may be temporary, a product of the terrorist threat. But while a war with Iraq might come and go, no one knows how long the threat of terrorist attack will continue. There is no reason to believe that this aspect of the political environment will change in the near future.

Domestic conflicts are hurting the Democratic Party as much as foreign ones. The black-versus-white working-class conflict that plagued the party from 1968 to 1988 has been supplanted by a less overtly hostile but equally damaging clash. It pits public-sector unions, blacks and Hispanics -- the wing of the Democratic Party most supportive of government activism -- against middle- and upper-middle-class, well-educated whites -- the most important new source of Democratic support.

These educated voters, many of them professionals, are inclined to vote for Democrats because of social issues, especially reproductive rights and abortion, along with gay rights and domestic partnership legislation, and to use the ballot to voice their hostility to the Christian right. In many respects, these relatively upscale voters have replaced white working-class and lower-middle-class voters who have defected from the Democratic ranks. But the core agenda of these new Democrats is based not on big government or labor union rights, but on personal freedom and autonomy. In many ways, they are social libertarians -- liberal counterparts to conservative libertarians devoted to free-market policies.

Bill Clinton bridged the gulf between traditional Democrats and the new professionals through his personal, not policy-based, appeal. He also remained committed to abortion rights and personal freedoms. If his policies -- such as welfare reform or free trade -- sometimes strayed from the views of one of the party's constituencies, he could present himself as the only roadblock stopping a conservative House and Senate from enacting policies seen as even more harmful by blacks, unions and the culturally liberal wings of the Democratic Party.

A majority of voters in the 2002 election showed they were ready to dismantle the Democratic roadblock. That's because of President Bush's success in thwarting the demonization of the GOP, pollsters have found. Bush has replaced the harder-edged Newt Gingrich-Jerry Falwell face of the GOP with an image of "compassionate conservatism" by stressing his "leave no child behind" education legislation and his proposed prescription drug legislation that would reduce costs to the elderly.

In June, for example, the bipartisan Battleground Poll found that voters trusted Bush more than congressional Democrats on the issue of education, by a 47-to-38 margin, while congressional Democrats and Republicans were virtually tied on this once decisively Democratic issue. Bush had a 17-point advantage over Democrats, and congressional Republicans had a 9-point edge on the question of which party is more likely to keep the nation prosperous.

None of these Republican advantages is necessarily permanent. A major international setback, another recession or the takeover of Republican agenda-setters by the social right or those determined to severely reduce domestic spending could produce a Democratic revival.

But perhaps the most significant recent development in the makeup of the electorate was found in an exhaustive August survey of 2,886 adults by The Post, the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation and the Harvard University School of Public Health.

The survey found that the nation's youngest voters, who turn out in very low numbers on Election Day, are significantly different from the rest of the electorate. Their libertarian views cut across the social and economic spectrum. They support gay marriage and are more suspicious of religious values in public life, making them fair game for the Democrats. But they are also the only age group with majority support for partial privatization of Social Security (62 percent) and school vouchers (56 percent), both Republican issues.

As these voters grow older and turn out in larger numbers over the next decade, they are the only age group in which a plurality of people identify themselves as Republicans, edging Democrats by a 46-to-41 margin. This suggests not only that the Democratic Party cannot depend on the electorate of the future to restore its competitiveness, but also that the party faces intensified conflicts between its traditional constituencies and the more libertarian young electorate.

The Democratic Party's constituencies have fought among themselves many times in the past. Many of those clashes have had more drama: rural progressives versus urban working classes, the Southern Democrats versus the Northern liberals, the anti-Vietnam protestors versus the LBJ Democrats. But the current, less bitter differences have not led to a pitched battle for the soul of the party, but rather to defections among the ranks, to people simply turning their backs and changing their allegiances, driving the party into what could be an even more serious retreat. For Democrats looking back at this election, perhaps that is the message.


Tom Edsall is a political reporter on The Post's national staff.


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