The Fall Election: Follow the leader

Near the end of the film “Primary Colors,” there is a memorable exchange of dialog where a campaign aide expresses his disillusionment with the presidential candidate — because of a morally questionable, although quite legal, act that the candidate makes. The candidate’s response is (I am paraphrasing): “There are all these wonderful things we want to accomplish. Things you support and want to see as much as I do. But we can’t do any of it if we don’t win the election.”

On one level, it sounds like a classic case of the ends justifying the means. And I suppose it is. The question is how far are you willing to stretch the means to get to your end. In the film, it was really a small stretch. So it was easy to support the candidate’s assertion. But what if it had been a bigger one? What if it had been illegal? When does the rationale fall apart?

I think about this a lot as I watch the events surrounding the upcoming election. The Democrats appear poised to take over at least one house of Congress, if they don’t snatch defeat from the jaws of victory (as they have so often done in the past) and if the Republicans are sufficiently stymied in their continuing efforts to manipulate election results to their advantage (i.e., steal the election).

But what then? What will the Democrats in Congress have to do to stay in power? Do they have to keep moving to the right (as the New York Times describes as continuing to occur in the South)? Or can they finally take a position that may be attacked as “liberal” without fearing an automatic loss of their seat?

When your views appear to differ from the majority of your constituents, it seems to me that you have only two legitimate choices: (1) Shift your position to be closer to those of your constituents, as much as you can without abandoning your principles, or (2) Convince your constituents to shift their position closer to yours (or convince them that your positions are in fact closer than they might think).

For too long, Democrats have focused on the first option. And it has gotten them next to nothing. The Republicans still manage to slice-and-dice them at each election. Partly, this is because Republicans often go for yet a third alternative: Denigrate your opponent so vigorously and raise the fear level so high that, at worst, voters see you as the lesser of two evils. They also are extreme advocates of the ‘end justifies the means” approach. It’s not what I recommend Democrats do, though it would be tempting to beat Republicans at their own game.

So I vote for choice #2. With the Republicans in disarray, there has never been a better time in the last 20 years for Democrats to stand up for what they believe, with the conviction that they can convince voters of their views. It isn’t enough to just state your position. You have to be able to sell it! If they can’t do that, perhaps they should lose.

I’m not suggesting a move to the extreme left. Any extreme position is, by definition, extreme and therefore not mainstream. And it won’t win. But I do mean to stop drifting to the right. I want to see Democrats win elections. Badly. I have had more than enough of the results of a Republican Congress and Administration. And, like the candidate in Primary Colors, I am willing to support some stretching in the name of winning. But not much. More importantly, a good candidate should be a leader. He should inspire voters to follow him, rather than just follow the lead of the voters. Part of the Democrats problem have had in recent years is an almost complete failure to have such candidates. If there was ever a time for them, it’s now.

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