Have you ever been to a party without beer? You know you have been. We’ve all wandered into that forlorn little townhouse to find only discarded cups and passed out guests. That townhouse is the Democratic Party circa 2002. I spent election night at Democratic headquarters, and I can say for certain that the party has plenty of beer (well, at least it used to) but people are leaving the party like the fridge is empty. And that’s because it is. The sputtering keg that is the Democratic Party is dispensing lukewarm foam – the remnants of yesterday’s riotous celebrations.

Having sucked the life right out of that metaphor, let’s move on to the issue at hand: What the hell is wrong with the Democratic Party? In two consecutive elections, landscapes that looked ripe for big Democratic victories have ended with finger pointing on the Democratic side and celebration at GOP headquarters.

Not surprisingly, there’s a major fight brewing in the Democratic Party. On one side are the unreconstructed liberals. They’re ideologically rooted in the 1960s. They use populist rhetoric and advocate big government programs targeting the poor. Already, this wing has been beating the drum for a return to the politics of the Left. They say the party should have run on a platform opposing war in Iraq and calling for a repeal of President George W. Bush’s tax cut.

On the other side are the conservative Democrats. Unlike the Left, they view Democratic failures as connected to its social liberalism and pro-taxation leanings. The party should de-emphasize social issues, accept the Bush tax cut and remove any trace of gun control from its platform.

Not surprisingly, neither side is really telling the whole story. Every successful political party in American history has encompassed a huge swath of policy views and political strategies. You can’t ask Alabama Democrats to run like California Democrats, or vice versa. If you want ideological orthodoxy, form your own political party and don’t let anyone else join – otherwise it ain’t gonna happen.

Let’s dispense with the Left’s arguments first. The basic premise here seems to be that the Democrats lost because they moved too far to the Right. Yet Democrats couldn’t even win in liberal Minnesota with Walter Mondale and a base hyper-motivated by former Sen. Paul Wellstone’s (D-Minn.) tragic death. The contention that the solution to the electorate’s shift to the right is to move further left is perplexing, to say the least.

And then there’s the conservative wing. In South Carolina, Democrat Alex Sanders tried to get elected to the Senate by running further right than his opponent. He went so far as to criticize Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) for accepting the endorsement of Rudy Giuliani because after Rudy’s wife kicked him out his the house for having an affair, he lived with two gay men (it is a long story). Like pretty much every other Democrat in a close race, Sanders lost. The lesson is that Democrats can’t win by pretending to be Republicans. When it is all said and done, more voters will vote for a real Republican rather than a fake one.

Democrats are not doomed to being the opposition party forever. But they need new ideas and they need a unifying message. Ronald Reagan ran against government. It was kind of odd to watch, and led to some really stupid policies, but there was a consistent thesis behind Reagan and his disciples – government is the problem. And then there was Bill Clinton’s “Third Way.” Our distinguished alumnus didn’t always stick to his stated principles, but there was a real, governing philosophy behind the Clinton administration.

So what do today’s Democrats stand for? I read Democratic-leaning magazines and editorial pages obsessively and I still don’t know. Democrats can’t win as the party of incremental policy initiatives. “We support a somewhat larger prescription drug benefit than Republicans” doesn’t really have much of a ring to it. And even Democratic tactics linking Republicans to Social Security privatization proposals (though true), were exciting only to the Democratic base that wouldn’t vote for Abe Lincoln if he came back to life and ran as a Republican.

This is the part of the column where I planned to tell you on what Democrats should be basing their platform. I was going to articulate the great governing principle that will usher in a new age of Democratic dominance. But, darn it, I’m running out of space. Oh, and I also don’t have a clue. But I have a pretty good idea where to start.

Americans feel insecure – or at least I do. Sept. 11, the Sniper, Iraq, declining 401K’s – the status quo in America right now is anxiety. No tax cut can alleviate fear, and regime change in Iraq isn’t going to relieve the tension. That’s what Democrats need to run on – Security. Financial security, national security, the monitoring of guns and weapons and whatever other kinds of security there are. Civil libertarians will scream, and the emphasis on security issues will disappoint those who want to see new social programs. But it’s a winning issue. And it’s the right thing to do. The Bush administration wants to spend $7 billion next year on developing a missile defense system while anti-terrorist programs have to beg for funds.

The question is whether the Democratic Party will have the courage and the imagination to embrace some genuinely new ideas. John F. Kennedy said of Republicans in 1960, “they have the courage of our old convictions.” Sadly, that applies too well to the Democratic Party today. The party must recommit itself to being the party of innovation and forward-looking policy – not a disparate coalition clinging to the failed dogmas of earlier decades. Parties without beer or new ideas have a short shelf life in America.

Jeffery Lowenstein is a junior in the College and can be reached at lowensteinthehoya.com. Take It or Leave It appears every other Friday.

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