A fundamental reason why John Kerry lost is the perception, by many voters, that he is an indecisive flip-flopper who will say different things to different groups to garner their favor. He will pose as antiwar when the audience is Howard Dean supporters, but will revert to hawk when the audience consists of Midwestern moderates. One wonders if the photo-op of his duck hunt, the Dukakis tank moment
of his campaign if there was one, is something that would have happened had he simply been running for reelection to the Senate in Massachusetts. Kerry, as Reason's Tim Cavanaugh put it
was, "neither hot nor cold, [so] America spewed him out."
No more was this on display than with Kerry's position(s) on gay marriage. He opposed it. But he also opposed a constitutional amendment that would have enshrined his position on the issue, as well as ballot initiatives that would have forbidden courts from recognizing gay marriage. Lacking the courage of his convictions, the best he could argue was that such initiatives were divisive. We should just move on to more worthwhile topics closer to Kerry's heart, and pay no attention to the elephant under the rug.
But this isn't limited to Kerry. Here in Wisconsin, Governor Doyle takes issue with the Republican Legislature's policies, not on the basis that they are necessarily wrong, but that they are "divisive." The Legislature, Doyle has said, should focus on his priorities, which are the typical Democratic priorities of using government programs to play with the economy. The Republican obsession with "God, gays and guns" is wrong for the state. Like Kerry, he does not explicitly come and argue that the Republican positions are wrong
, merely that they are divisive.
Had Democrats been in control of the Legislature in Wisconsin, and had they proceeded to pass stronger gun control legislation and gay rights measures, I somehow doubt Doyle would fault them for making "divisive" social policies. Similarly with Kerry, I doubt very seriously that if the Supreme Court mandated gay marriage under a Kerry presidency that he would have objected, and certainly not on the basis of the Court's being “divisive.”
So am I going to argue that Democrats, and Kerry, could have won last week if they had merely taken stronger, more decisive stands on these issues, especially given that they might have ended up on the losing side of the argument? No, but I do wonder if they would have at least earned more respect from voters as decisive people who don't fear taking controversial stands on issues. (Bush, for his part, didn't have that fear, even when he took positions that weren't in line with the majority. You may not like the guy, but you have to respect him for that.) Instead of Monday morning quarterbacking, I will instead offer an alternative strategy that Democrats who are skittish about gay marriage may find useful in 2006 and 2008.
Democrats need to understand that one man's “divisiveness” is another man's “decisiveness.” Strategic ambiguity may be useful in currying favor with both the Chinese mainland and Taiwan, but with the possible exception of Bill Clinton, it generally doesn't win elections. (Clinton also won both presidential terms with Ross Perot Naderizing Republicans both times around. It's hard to call a 43% plurality an enthusiastic mandate of the people. And maybe it'd be more apt to say that Nader Perotized Democrats in 2000.)
Democrats are at a fork in the road now. They have three or four options, though they probably only see two of them. One is to continue with their strategy of whining that the “God, guns, gays” of the Republicans is divisive, and that they'd rather talk about some other issue that doesn't put them in the minority or require them to flip-flop. (One that they will not consider, for various reasons, is to march lock-step with the Republicans. I will not consider the merits of that possibility here.) Another option is embrace the more forthright approach of Howard Dean, and grow more radical. This option solves one horn of the dilemma – Democrats would have an unambiguous, decisive platform to run on, but it would run the risk of further alienating the blue collar types that Kerry tried to win over with his official opposition to gay marriage and his duck hunt.
I suspect that Democrats will take one or the other strategy, and suffer the disadvantages accordingly. The third option that, if they want to win, that they should take is to innovate, and confound Republicans with positions that are strong and decisive, yet which break the mold of the issue and make it impossible to be pigeon-holed into a liberal extremist stereotype. This requires creativity, something the Democratic Party hasn't shown much of since deciding that they could only run the same welfare statism that worked for FDR and (sort of) for Kennedy. Even Clinton's meager success came by winning back a few Reagan Democrats by running as a “New Democrat.”
I'll even give the Democrats a huge favor and outline what their strategy should be on gay marriage. It just so happens to be my own position on the issue, coincidentally enough. Republicans could also embrace it to their advantage, though I suspect that with their victory, they may not be as worried as Democrats about coming up with new, innovative approaches to issues to change the political landscape.
I've written out my position on this issue elsewhere
. But to recap the essentials here, my suggestion is that Democrats form a larger agenda aimed at removing the government from people's bedrooms and family life by removing its role in marriage altogether. That is, no local, state or federal government agency should recognize marriage – they should be blind to marital status, in the way that they are supposed to be blind to racial status. (The gay marriage issue, which exposes the limitations of a single definition of marriage, is analogous to a similar problem in affirmative action, which is the tricky question of how to define a disadvantaged minority racial group. As race is an arbitrary cultural and political designation, so too is marital status).
Much has been made of the problem Democrats have had in taking the concerns and issues of middle America seriously. And I don't disagree – it's hard to want to vote for someone who thinks you're a bigot or an idiot for believing and living the way that you do. This approach is one of the best ways that Democrats could take middle America's concerns seriously. Democrats should explain to middle America that they are right – no judge should define a cultural institution like marriage for everyone else, and certainly not giving the idea enough time to gain enough popularity to be properly approved by standard political means on its own. But we only have this problem because marriage, like reproductive health before it, was deemed at some point as the legitimate business of government. Removing government recognition of marriage levels the playing field, making everyone and every family equal in the eyes of the law. No longer is it one-size-fits-all; marriage becomes more personal. It is something that exists between you, your family, your community, and your conception of God, if you have one. No more marriage penalties, no more special treatment for the married over the unmarried. Government is kicked out of the bedroom, and Democrats can run as the party of small, unintrusive government (at least, on this one issue).
This preserves the right of Billy Graham to deny recognizing RuPaul and his girlfriend as a married couple like any other, while not granting to married heterosexuals any special privileges denied to gays and lesbians. The 14th Amendment's Privileges and Immunities Clause is given its proper due, and religious conservatives aren't dealt a blow in the cultural wars – the government, in essence, refused to take a stand. It's a separation between state and marriage. The law would only involved insofar as it facilitates affidavits, contracts, pre-nups and wills, as it already does for gays and lesbians who wish to “marry” without legal recognition.
This would go a long way to actually giving something new for Democrats to run on, instead of the same tired script they've run on for decades. Innovation goes a long way with Americans, however “conservative” (in the traditional sense of the term) their reputation may suggest. Democrats could sell this particular innovation to gay marriage opponents as a way to protect marriage once and for all from the clutches of an unelected judiciary – it would, in effect, remove their jurisdiction entirely, placing it squarely in the hands of God alone. What could Republicans possibly say in response – that an institution ordained by God demands involvement and approval from Caesar?
I should say, I don't have any confidence that this particular approach on this particular issue would win any new votes for Democrats. There's a good chance, but I could be wrong. Given how many people voted both for Democrats and for anti-gay marriage referendum both, it may be people are happy enough with the status quo to shy away from innovation on this issue. But this is the kind
of innovation Democrats need to come up with to gain traction. If people keep rejecting what you're selling, the thing to do is not to curse your customers for being too foolish to see the beauty of your product (especially when your chief selling point is how rotten the other guy's product is). Nor should you whine that your opponent's product is too “divisive.” Rather, the thing to do is go back to the drawing board, and give them something fresh.