In the wake of their fifth defeat out of the last seven presidential elections, Democratic Party leaders are once again arguing, pointing fingers and scratching their heads over how they can win back red-state America.
It's a pretty sad sight. I've seen more wrestling matches for the soul of the party than I can count, and this one reminds me more than ever of a flabby, middle-aged guy who is befuddled, after years of taking his wife for granted, that she is running away with a smooth-talking stud from down the street.
I like the party and usually, although not always, support its candidates. I'm a blue-state kind of guy and proud of it. Nevertheless, it is easy to look around and see a lot of likely Democratic supporters who think their party has let them down.
For example, exit polls reported 38 percent of union members voted for Bush, according to CNN. Exit polls also showed Bush winning 42 percent of workers who earn $15,000 to $30,000. Among other groups in the party's base, Bush won 45 percent of the youth vote aged 18 to 29, 44 percent of the Hispanic vote and 11 percent of the black vote. That's up from 8 percent of the black vote in 2000.
While unmarried women voted for John Kerry by a two-to-one ratio, married women tended to vote pretty much like their husbands did, overwhelmingly for Bush. Adding insult to Kerry's injuries, Bush also won 13 percent of self-described liberals and 11 percent of self-described Democrats.
The party needs to take a look at itself, realize that its world has changed and that it is not the hot young stallion it used to be. Just as it responded to the crises of the Depression and World War II under Franklin D. Roosevelt, building a political dominance that lasted a half-century, it must respond to current foreign and domestic crises with answers befitting this new century, not the last one.
First of all, the party must stand for something. It needs, like Samuel Johnson's famous pudding, a theme. Roosevelt had "the New Deal." Bush offers "the Ownership Society." Themes matter. They focus minds on creating an agenda that offers voters hope of a better world.
All of this came to mind as I was watching one of my guilty pleasures, "The Wire," an HBO drama about Baltimore cops and drug gangsters. Like life, it's a complicated show that produces unexpected nuggets of wisdom. During a dinner conversation, a detective was asked by his political consultant girlfriend whether he voted for Kerry or Bush. Neither, he responded wearily. No matter who wins the White House, he said, nothing changes on the streets where he works. Drugs keep flowing, kids keep dying.
There was more fact than fiction in that exchange. If Democrats, the party of poor people, working people and Baltimore people, are not offering a vision of a better future to drug-ravaged neighborhoods, who will?
Significantly, Bush has. His administration assists grass-roots faith-based leaders like the Rev. Eugene Rivers, co-founder of Boston's Ten Point Coalition. An effort by more than 50 local churches to join forces with Boston police, courts and City Hall to combat youth violence, the coalition reduced Boston's juvenile homicide rate to zero in the mid-1990s. It made a difference.
Unfortunately, the Democratic Party's response to innovative ideas like school vouchers, charter schools and income-based affirmative action has too often resembled that of classic conservatives, fiercely holding on to past gains without offering any new alternatives.
Fortunately, there are some rising Democratic stars who want to offer voters a pragmatic, what-works agenda suitable for a new century. I wish them well. Americans deserve to have Democrats who offer something more than befuddlement.