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The Curse of Jesse

Taro Yamasaki/The Life Images Collection/Getty

If Democrats manage to regain potency on the presidential level, they will have two people to thank: George Bush and Jesse Jackson.

By running a shrewd, brilliant, relevant, symbolic, sometimes demagogic, and wholly successful referendum on “The L-word,” Bush focused the mind on the central question of modern American politics: Has liberalism gone too far? By winning with a solid majority, he has told doubting Democrats the answer: “Yes.”

If Bush has prominently reidentified the problem, Jesse Jackson has come to personify it. The man has the courage of his convictions. Of those men (13 of them) who ran in Democratic primaries in 1984 and 1988, Jackson came closest to speaking his mind. The others fudged; they did not have the intestinal fortitude or tactical sagacity to disagree directly and/or regularly with Jackson, although in fact they all did disagree with him. In extravagant caricature, and with monumental celebrity, Jackson embodies what the public holds against the brand of liberalism that has been publicized since the ’60s: America-is-guilty, America-is-racist, business-is-bad, defense-is-a-waste, law-and-order-is-an-unclean-issue, etc.

Bush has billboarded the excesses of liberalism, Jackson will almost surely run again in 1992 and embody that issue even if he tries to duck it. And so it is possible that the Democrats will finally be able to do easily and clearly what they should have done long ago: choose up sides, have an up-front clash of ideas, and decide whether the Democratic Party is moderate, tough and progressive—or very liberal, squishy, tending toward radical.

The presidential election was not close. It was ideological. On election night the television figures had Bush by 54 to 46—an eight-point spread. By the time the absentee ballots are all tabulated, the spread should be about nine points. That is almost “Eisenhower 1952,” which had a difference of 10.8 points between the major party nominees. But suppose Bush had chosen Jack Kerap or Bob Dole or Alan Simpson instead of Dan Quayle. How many Dukakis votes would have gone to Bush under such conditions? If the answer is 21⁄2 points (and there is exit poll data that suggests that this is a low estimate), then subtract 21⁄2 from Duke, add 21⁄2 to Bush, that yields about a 14-point differential, almost at the level of the landslide “Eisenhower 1956,” which was 15.6.

In either case the margin of Bush’s win was too large to explain away in the manner that nouveau-Iiberals usually make light of their ideological problem. In 1984 the line was, “We lost because Reagan is so good on television, but the people really agree with us.” Well, Bush wasn’t that good on television; he was often as dull as Dukakis, Quayle pulled the ticket down, Dukakis was not underfunded.

Ah, it is often said, the real reason is that the Republicans have all those great professional political handlers, and we Democrats always end up with amateur night at the opera; that’s our problem. Well, maybe. But remember that those Republican professionals are the same folks who let Bush know that Quayle might make a nifty candidate.

Was Dukakis a good candidate? Not particularly. Was the campaign a good one? Not particularly. Why? After all, Dukakis is articulate, hard working, and at least mildly attractive. The staff was diligent; during the primaries they were hailed as brilliant.

It’s said that Dukakis’s problem was that he didn’t counter Bush’s charges quickly enough. Wrong, Even when he ultimately dealt with the issue, he still didn’t get it right. He gave the “dead liberals” answer: “I’m in the tradition of Roosevelt-Truman-John Kennedy-Johnson,” But that’s not the charge. It’s the “live liberals” that are at issue: McGovern-Carter-Ted Kennedy-Jesse Jackson (and now, Dukakis).

There were three magic words that might have saved Dukakis: “We were wrong,” As in, “George, you want me to say liberalism went too far in the ‘60s and ‘70s? You got it. We did. We were wrong. But we’ve learned from our mistakes. We’ve returned to our roots. We’re ready to govern. And by the way, what about ‘The C-Word’? What about those bozos on your side? Didn’t they also go too far? Now let’s get serious and cut the cards. Let’s talk about the future.”

Such a plenary answer deals with all the L-word issues at once—credibly. Does it work? Ask former very liberal congressman Ed Koch. He’s been saying it for term after term after term, and gets elected term after term after term. But unlike Koch, Dukakis and his staff either did not believe that liberalism went too far or were afraid to say it. So they lost.

Probably the best poling question of the year was this one by KRC for “Hotline”: Would you describe Michael Dukakis as a liberal in the tradition of Franklin D, Roosevelt, Harry S Truman, and John F, Kennedy, or would you describe him as a liberal in the tradition of George McGovern and Walter Mondale? By better than 3-to-2, Dukakis was identified with Mondale and McGovern among all respondents, by 2-to-1 among all Independent voters, and by 8-to-1 among all Republicans. (I believe that the identification of Mondale with McGovern is a bum rap. The question probably should have read McGovern-Ted Kennedy, but the intent is clear to the respondent.)

The serious problem is not that the Democrats keep losing, but what might happen if they end up running the world’s superpower before they have reformed! Every four years there are signs that the Democrats collectively understand their problem and will act to solve it. We’ve now lost five out of six for roughly the same reason; sooner or later the message will get through (I hope).

If the message does get through, it will be carried by Democrats like Sam Nunn and Chuck Robb, I admire and usually agree with them both. They spearheaded the formation of the Democratic Leadership Council (DLC), which generally has the right idea. They worked to give Southern moderate Democratic political leaders more voice in the process.

But in American presidential politics, a horse is needed, as well as ideas and tactics. Both men opted not to run for president, Sam said Chuck ought to do it. Chuck said Sam ought to do it.

That won’t do this time around. By not running they let Jackson tilt the selection process to the left; seven nondwarfs were pushed to play a game called As-Left-AsThou. I think if Nunn or Robb had run, one of them might have been nominated, and if nominated, probably elected. Remember, Carter did it as a Southern moderate: antiWashington, religious, farmer, family man, military man, etc. Does anybody doubt, for example, that Bentsen-Dukakis would have been a stronger ticket? One exit poll shows why:

Defense was Bush’s biggest winner, by far. Take it away with a Nunn-Robb-Bentsen, and you might well have a winner.

None of this can happen without a public fight about ideas. The right wing of the left-wing party (that’s the American center) must join in the intellectual combat and the political combat. There are young prominent politicians and young less-prominent activists who have come to see that the only way out is to look again to the values of the earlier generation of tough liberals and apply those values to the current circumstance. And since every cause needs an issue—the tougher the better—I offer this one: support for the contras. Almost a year has passed since the contras were defunded. The Sandinistas have stepped up their repression of democratic forces. The Bushies will be looking for a creative new deal with Congress that stresses the idea that the Sandinistas won’t budge without pressure. Four Democratic senators mentioned regularly for president in 1992 have supported contra aid: Nunn, Bentsen, Robb, and Bill Bradley. Democrats should present Bush with a deal that allows him to negotiate from strength with Ortega. No issue would better demonstrate to the American public that the Democrats are back, and serious.