If the Democratic Party wants to figure out how to win national elections again, it has an unexpected guide: Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton.
By Nicholas D. Kristof
The New York Times
March 16, 2005
If the Democratic Party wants to figure out how to win national elections again, it has an unexpected guide: Hillary Rodham Clinton.
Senator Clinton, much more than most in her party, understands how the national Democratic Party needs to rebrand itself. She gets it - perhaps that's what 17 years in socially conservative Arkansas does to you.
The first lesson Mrs. Clinton is demonstrating is the need to talk much more openly about God and prayer. That resonates in a country where a Pew poll found that 60 percent of Americans pray at least once a day.
"I've always been a praying person," Mrs. Clinton declared recently. Of course, this approach works in her case only because her religious faith is longstanding. It didn't work for Howard Dean when he described the Book of Job as his favorite book in the New Testament. With a candidate like him, you'd worry that more talk about religion would lead to comments about how much he treasures the Twelfth Commandment.
Democrats are usually more comfortable talking about sex than God. But that doesn't work in a country where 70 percent say that "presidents should have strong religious beliefs."
Then there's abortion. Mrs. Clinton took a hugely important step in January when she sought common ground and described abortion as a "sad, even tragic choice to many, many women."
The Democratic Party commits seppuku in the heartland by coming across as indifferent to people's doubts about abortions or even as pro-abortion. A Times poll in January found that 61 percent of Americans favor tighter restrictions on abortion, or even a ban, while only 36 percent agree with the Democratic Party position backing current abortion law.
That doesn't mean that there's no middle ground on abortion. In fact, most of America is standing, conflicted, on middle ground. Many people are deeply uncomfortable with abortions, but they also don't want women or doctors going to prison, and they don't want teenage girls dying because of coat-hanger abortions.
What has been lethal for Democrats has not been their pro-choice position as such, but the perception that they don't even share public qualms about abortion. Mrs. Clinton has helped turn the debate around by emerging as both pro-choice and anti-abortion.
That is potentially a winning position for Democrats. Abortions fell steadily under Bill Clinton, who espoused that position, and have increased significantly during President Bush's presidency. (One theory is that economic difficulties have left more pregnant women feeling that they cannot afford a baby.)
Mrs. Clinton is also hard to dismiss as a screechy obstructionist because she's gone out of her way to be collegial in the Senate and to work with Republicans from Trent Lott to Sam Brownback. Senator John Kerry never seemed much liked by his colleagues, while other senators seem to like Mrs. Clinton. Perhaps it's that, according to New York magazine, she surprises other senators by popping up during meetings and asking: Anybody want a coffee?
The makeover is working with New York State voters. Mrs. Clinton has an approval rating in the state of 69 percent, according to a Times poll published last month, and her negative ratings have tumbled to 21 percent. That puts her approval rating even higher than that of New York's popular senior senator, Charles Schumer.
Still, I doubt that Mrs. Clinton can be elected president. I use my hometown, the farming community of Yamhill, Ore., as my touchstone for the heartland, and I have a hard time imagining that she could do well there. Ambitious, high-achieving women are still a turnoff in many areas, particularly if they're liberal and feminist. And that's not just in America: Margaret Thatcher would never have been elected prime minister if she'd been in the Labor Party.
In small towns like Yamhill, any candidate from New York carries a lot of baggage, and Mrs. Clinton more than most. Moreover, television magnifies her emotional reserve and turns her into a frost queen. Mrs. Clinton's negative ratings nationally were still around 40 percent at last count, and Hillary-hating thrives.
So Mrs. Clinton may not be able to get there from here, and in any case it's way too early to speculate meaningfully about 2008. But it's just the right time for Democrats to be fretting about how to reconnect to the heartland, and they can't find a better model for how to do that than Mrs. Clinton.
I am a fan of Nicholas D. Kristof. He feels, as I do, that as we Democrats map out our different strategy, the 2008 nominee must appeal to red states (read Hillary Clinton will not qualify). But she sure is doing a great job of helping us perfect our message and get it out to the rank and file.
Mr. Kristof wrote a classic column entitled "Living Poor, Voting Rich" that was the subject of a 11-3-04 post. Here is part of that column that was written the day after the 2004 election:
In the aftermath of this civil war that our nation has just fought, one result is clear: the Democratic Party's first priority should be to reconnect with the American heartland.
I'm writing this on tenterhooks on Tuesday, without knowing the election results. But whether John Kerry's supporters are now celebrating or seeking asylum abroad, they should be feeling wretched about the millions of farmers, factory workers and waitresses who ended up voting - utterly against their own interests - for Republican candidates.
One of the Republican Party's major successes over the last few decades has been to persuade many of the working poor to vote for tax breaks for billionaires. Democrats are still effective on bread-and-butter issues like health care, but they come across in much of America as arrogant and out of touch the moment the discussion shifts to values.
"On values, they are really noncompetitive in the heartland," noted Mike Johanns, a Republican who is governor of Nebraska. "This kind of elitist, Eastern approach to the party is just devastating in the Midwest and Western states. It's very difficult for senatorial, Congressional and even local candidates to survive."
In the summer, I was home - too briefly - in Yamhill, Ore., a rural, working-class area where most people would benefit from Democratic policies on taxes and health care. But many of those people disdain Democrats as elitists who empathize with spotted owls rather than loggers.
One problem is the yuppification of the Democratic Party. Thomas Frank, author of the best political book of the year, "What's the Matter With Kansas: How Conservatives Won the Heart of America," says that Democratic leaders have been so eager to win over suburban professionals that they have lost touch with blue-collar America."
There is a very upper-middle-class flavor to liberalism, and that's just bound to rub average people the wrong way," Mr. Frank said. He notes that Republicans have used "culturally powerful but content-free issues" to connect to ordinary voters.
One-third of Americans are evangelical Christians, and many of them perceive Democrats as often contemptuous of their faith. And, frankly, they're often right. Some evangelicals take revenge by smiting Democratic candidates.
Then we have guns, which are such an emotive issue that Idaho's Democratic candidate for the Senate two years ago, Alan Blinken, felt obliged to declare that he owned 24 guns "and I use them all." He still lost.
As for gays, that's a rare wedge issue that Democrats have managed to neutralize in part, along with abortion. Most Americans disapprove of gay marriage but do support some kind of civil unions (just as they oppose "partial birth" abortions but don't want teenage girls to die from coat-hanger abortions).
"What we once thought - that people would vote in their economic self-interest - is not true, and we Democrats haven't figured out how to deal with that."
Bill Clinton intuitively understood the challenge, and John Edwards seems to as well, perhaps because of their own working-class origins. But the party as a whole is mostly in denial.
To appeal to middle America, Democratic leaders don't need to carry guns to church services and shoot grizzlies on the way. But a starting point would be to shed their inhibitions about talking about faith, and to work more with religious groups.
Otherwise, the Democratic Party's efforts to improve the lives of working-class Americans in the long run will be blocked by the very people the Democrats aim to help.