Downbeat Democrats need a new attitude

November 20, 2003|By Ellen Goodman

BOSTON -- My Dad was a JFK Democrat who swore he could identify Republicans in our precinct by the way they came to the polls: mad. Back then, our neighborhood conservatives were Brahmin elders who still thought of Franklin Delano Roosevelt as a traitor to his class.

Anyway, I grew up thinking that Democrats were the happy warriors. FDR, Harry Truman, JFK. I thought that liberals, or progressives if you prefer, were the ones who believed in people and the possibility of change. They carried the torch for the improvement of everyday life, the flag of hope for American progress.

But it doesn't feel that way this year. I'm having trouble finding a happy warrior.

It's not just that the most committed Democrats in the primaries are the most angry. After all, there's much to be angry about, and no one should have to smile through bad news like a TV anchor reporting disaster as if it were a pep rally.

Nor is it just the passionate anti-Bush sentiment that has turned this Democratic primary season from a debate about who should be president to a debate about who can beat the president.

It's something deeper, maybe even darker.

When you talk to folks in the most committed wing of the Democratic Party, the deep frustration at the Bush administration often turns on one question: "How do they get away with it?" How did they get away with tales of weapons of mass destruction? How did they get away with an underfunded No Child Left Behind Act, a polluting Clean Water Act, a soaring national debt?

This outrage at Mr. Bush morphs too easily into pessimism about the American people, a perception of the public as dupes. I have heard, even shared, some of it. After all, about two-thirds of Americans in polls say they believe that Saddam Hussein was connected to the Sept. 11 terrorists. How could they?

But I also know that when liberals start talking about the American people as "them" instead of "us," they're done for.

On Monday, Rush Limbaugh came back from rehab, and after some baby steps -- about 12 steps -- he returned to liberal bashing. "You ever see liberals smile about anything?" asked the man who epitomized and energized the "angry white man."

But he's making a charge that has some Velcro. Since I lifted my personal embargo on presidential politics, I've watched several debates and joined in one. The closest thing to a happy warrior is Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina, and he exudes more good nature than gravitas. Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry is cursed with a cartoonist's delight -- sad eyes and a hound-dog seriousness. Former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean has perfected a rallying cry of empowerment -- "You have the power to take this country back!" -- but his optimism is only about Mr. Bush's defeat.

There's a cloud over these candidates and, art imitating life, even my own Democratic president, Jeb Bartlett, seems to have lost the idealistic lilt in his voice in a downbeat West Wing. Are we having any fun yet?

Mr. Bush no longer claims to be the "compassionate conservative," but he knows enough to work on the vision thing. In a recent foreign policy speech, he staked out hope for his team. Americans were not only fighting against terrorism, he said, but fighting for a "global democratic revolution."

Well, I don't believe pre-emptive war is a good ambassador for democracy. But Democrats who are dead-on right about this misleadership have yet to share their own ideal of how to turn enemies to allies and despots into democrats.

Sometimes I think of the late Paul Wellstone, a man who loved his work. He argued that progressive politics should be less about what's wrong with the other guy and more about getting citizens "to dream again." Where are the big dreams about universal health care or education or jobs?

I am not looking for a happy-talking, cockeyed optimist, Candidate Feelgood. This week, America is commemorating the 40th anniversary of JFK's death. But it's worth thinking of the life of the man who called on our best. A man who lightened his Cold War realism with wit and eloquence.

Remember Jimmy Carter's malaise? Leaders who project an energetic belief in people and the future draw voters into their magnetic field. Politicians with that sort of positive energy hold an edge whether named Ronald Reagan or Bill Clinton.

There is nothing contradictory about anger and idealism. But anger without idealism makes for an unhappy warrior and an unhappy election. As Mr. Clinton, who is still a better politician than Karl Rove on his best day, said recently: "We've got to fight. And we gotta look like we're havin' a good time doing it."

Anger may win a primary. But it takes an upbeat pol to get folks to come to the party.

Ellen Goodman is a columnist for The Boston Globe and appears Mondays and Thursdays in The Sun.

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