Sixteen years ago, following Michael Dukakis’ sound defeat by George H. W. Bush — the fifth Democratic loss in six elections — the Democratic Party was on the brink of electoral extinction. Now, Democrats have a real chance to build a governing majority that could dominate the first half of the 21st century.
Sen. John Kerry (Mass.) has already shown that, like Bill Clinton, he is a Comeback Kid. With the right campaign this fall, Kerry can make Democrats the Comeback Party.
Make no mistake: Democrats aren’t there yet. Republicans have wafer-thin control of government from top to bottom: one-vote margins in the Senate and the Supreme Court, a 12-seat swing in the House, a two-statehouse edge among governorships, and a swing of one-half of 1 percent in state legislatures.
But these days, Republicans are looking over their shoulders. Democrats have come a long way during the past two decades, and the successful formula that rescued the party from irrelevance in the 1980s is on track to bring Democrats a first-place finish in the popular vote for the fourth consecutive presidential election.
The Democratic Party’s journey from worst to first began in 1992 with the transforming election of Clinton. By offering new ideas that worked, Clinton and the New Democrats changed their party and the country. By giving Americans a common-sense alternative to failed conservatism and ineffective if well-intentioned liberalism, they saved progressive governance in America.
With his smart running mate selection of Sen. John Edwards (N.C.), a Southern centrist, Kerry has shown his determination to continue that change — to run a positive, New Democrat campaign that will champion the interests, defend the values, and help solve the problems of the forgotten middle class.
Under Kerry and Edwards, today’s Democratic Party stands for economic growth and opportunity, not redistribution; for expanding the middle class, not the middle-class tax burden; for national strength, not national weakness; for work, not welfare; for tackling big challenges with reforms; and for an ethic of duty and responsibility. In short, it stands for hope, duty, strength and reform.
By choosing Kerry in the primaries, Democrats made an affirmative decision to build on the New Democrat foundation of Clintonism with another round of progress and rejected an effort to reverse course.
But Democrats can’t rest on their laurels, because the Democratic comeback is not complete. If Democrats want to be the majority party in America, they need to once again summon the boldness, innovation and determination to apply those New Democrat values and principles to a whole new set of challenges in the post-Sept. 11, 2001, era.
That’s exactly what Kerry will do. He has spelled out a clear, principled vision of what we must do to make America stronger at home and respected in the world.
Kerryism is built on the best traditions of the Democratic Party and the pragmatic, centrist foundations of the 1990s. Kerry believes we live in a dangerous world and the United States has a special mission to defend not only ourselves, but also our values. He believes that to be strong in the world, we must be strong at home; that the measure of America’s economy is a growing middle class, and to achieve that we must expand the reach of opportunity, not the size of government. He believes that citizenship brings responsibilities as well as rights, and that all Americans have a duty to give something back. And he believes that, in Andrew Jackson’s words, the promise of America is “equal opportunity for all, special privileges for none.”
Unlike compassionate conservatism, Kerryism is reform with results. Kerry has a long history of backing successful reforms. He crossed party lines to support the Gramm-Rudman-Hollings budget reform in 1985, when fiscal discipline was a dirty word in the Democratic Party. He fought to pass Clinton’s “100,000 cops” program, which changed the way America fights crime — and helped cut violent crime by one-third, making our country the safest it has been in a generation. When his party was divided over welfare, he voted to pass a landmark welfare-reform law with tough work requirements and time limits that have cut poverty in single-parent households by one-third, and made welfare a second chance, not a way of life.
In the best New Democratic tradition, Kerry and Edwards have set out to make this election a campaign of ideas, not attacks. They have proposed a bold reform agenda to restore fiscal responsibility, end corporate welfare as we know it, and cut the deficit in half. They have a plan to increase economic growth and reward work, not wealth, by cutting middle-class taxes and putting the tax code back in line with our values. They want to finish the job of education reform by rewarding the best teachers for teaching in the schools and subjects where we need them most, and asking more of teachers in return.
Kerry and Edwards have an innovative plan to reform the health care system to improve quality, expand access and hold down costs. They have a plan to create jobs and increase security by making America the world’s leader in new, energy-efficient technologies. They are determined to make America safer at home by reforming our broken intelligence agencies and supporting the firefighters, police officers and emergency responders who form our front line of homeland defense. Above all, they have a strategy to win the war on terror by making sure the United States has the strongest military on earth and the strongest alliances with the friends we need around the world.
In the 1990s, Clinton showed Americans once and for all that Democrats could make the economy grow again, make government work again, and make America safe again. As a tough-minded internationalist and decorated war hero, Kerry has a chance to make his own mark, and complete the transformation of the Democratic Party as the one Americans can trust to make the nation stronger both at home and abroad.
Al From is founder and CEO of the Democratic Leadership Council. Bruce Reed is president of the DLC and was President Bill Clinton’s domestic policy adviser.