Author’s Note: This article is Part Two of a series of reflections on historic Democratic political speeches aimed at laying out what the author sees as the Party’s fundamental historical principles. See also Part One.
The seemingly intractable debate over who will lead the Democratic National Committee shows that Democrats seem flounder when presented with multiple options for addressing a single agenda. But rare moments of unity have and could still yet yield dividends for the Party if it can clearly trumpet its working class economic message. Donald Trump has sounded downright New-Dealesque calling for infrastructure spending while slashing taxes for the rich and subsidizing the private sector. This means the party must also fight Republican attempts to parrot populist rhetoric while gutting the substance of a working-class and middle-class agenda. Here’s a battle plan the late liberal lion of the Senate, Senator Edward Kennedy (D-MA) laid out when conceding to his primary opponent, then-President Jimmy Carter in 1980:
1. Turning to a policy wonk candidate to run a personality election does not end well
Kennedy early on in the speech (ironically) chided a major focus on charisma and personality. “We have learned that it is important to take issues seriously, but never to take ourselves too seriously.”Hillary Clinton lost because she took #I’mWithHer more seriously than her own party platform, which her supporters hailed as one of the most progressive in history. The issues the platform took seriously involved measures that would have appealed to middle-class Americans struggling with college debt, small farmers looking for ways to make a living and protect their land, and Native Americans (also an influential Democratic constituency in red states like South Dakota, Arizona, and Montana). Instead, the campaign relied on personally attacking Donald Trump based on his personal attitudes on women and his outlandish Twitter habits, reinforcing the notion that party platforms, and issue-based campaigns in general, don’t matter. As we found out in 1980, when an unpopular and tepid but dedicated nuclear submarine engineer faced off against a movie star in a campaign of emotions, the movie star triumphed decisively. Similarly in 2016, a reality-TV celebrity faced off against self-proclaimed wonk in a popularity race to the bottom.The celebrity won. It’s fine to put forward candidates with a cool composure (Obama). But to resurrect their effective “Fifty-State Strategy” , Democrats must clearly communicate their issues and steer the campaign away from cults of personality. While Clinton’s personality lost the election for the Democrats, the 2016 platform might not be a bad cornerstone for rebuilding if they can sell it.
2. Clearly laying out principles wins Democrats elections
Doublethinking and adopting your opponents’ agenda does not.
“Let us pledge that we will never misuse unemployment, high interest rates, and human misery as false weapons against inflation.” Echoing earlier campaign criticisms of President Jimmy Carter’s fiscal conservatism, Kennedy did not hesitate to challenge his party’s nominees if divisions meant a sharper message during tough economic times. He did not wish to give Ronald Reagan more ammunition to attack Carter, but he knew that sacrificing the Party’s historical ties to Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal (as in fact Carter had done) would “let the great purposes of the Democratic Party become the bygone passages of history.” Carter blamed Kennedy for both his legislative failures and Carter’s pollster Patrick Caddell blamed the 1980 primary “civil war” for his general election loss. However, Kennedy’s vision for the party, one which prioritized people even if it meant bending abstract economic laws, has proved a more effective message for Democrats, helping Obama gain reelection handily with a Carteresque economy in 2012. Conversely, Clintonian “triangulation” proved disastrous for Democratic credibility both in the 1990s and 2016 despite solid economic gains in both periods.
3. Stop letting Republicans who are repealing your programs say they can run your programs better than you
Kennedy pushed back against Reagan’s 1980 acceptance speech quoting FDR to justify eliminating “useless offices” and making a “solvent” government “big or small.”Accusing Republicans of shedding “crocodile tears for our economic distress” Kennedy pointed out that Reagan had decried welfare as “ prepaid vacation plan for freeloaders." Against Reagan’s feigned sympathy for inner cities Kennedy highlighted a Reagan’s boast that "I have included in my morning and evening prayers every day the prayer that the Federal Government not bail out New York." He saved his harshest words for Reagan on Roosevelt:
And the same Republicans who are invoking Franklin Roosevelt have nominated a man who said in 1976, and these are his exact words, "Fascism was really the basis of the New Deal." And that nominee whose name is Ronald Reagan has no right to quote Franklin Delano Roosevelt... Some say that government is always bad and that spending for basic social programs is the root of our economic evils. But we reply: The present inflation and recession cost our economy 200 billion dollars a year. We reply: Inflation and unemployment are the biggest spenders of all.
Like Kennedy, Democrats must make a clear distinction between “smaller government”, “bigger government”, and “better government” or Republicans will make that distinction for them. Kennedy did not fear calling out Republicans for their proof-texting, and neither should Democrats...unless of course the Party of Roosevelt and Lyndon Johnson has the same debt to supply-side as the Party of Reagan.
4. Seize the opportunity to fight another day
Kennedy, like Bernie Sanders, probably knew he had run his last presidential race. But that did not stop him from championing progressive policies from the congressional Democratic majorities of the 1980s through the Gingrich and Bush era conservative backlash, to the early left-centrist years of Barack Obama. In 2017 the Democrats must “find [their] faith again” to ensure that “the work goes on, the cause endures, the hope still lives, and the dream shall never die.”
Get to work.
Edward Kennedy’s “The Dream Shall Never Die” Speech (Uploaded by C-Span)