I started Take It Back: Our Party, Our Country, Our Future, by Democratic strategists James Carville and Paul Begala. This book was published in 2006, but it was written before the Democratic victories that year. The setting of this book is the aftermath of the 2004 Presidential election, when George W. Bush beat John Kerry, and even Republicans whom Carville and Begala considered to be quite looney defeated reasonable Democratic candidates. This was a time when the Democrats were tired of losing.
The question that Carville and Begala ask is why the Democrats did so badly. In my latest reading, they offered some answers: the Republicans crafted a narrative about John Kerry being an elitist flip-flopper, whereas John Kerry failed to convey a coherent narrative and even to attack George W. Bush adequately; the Republicans were able to identify people who were likely to vote for them and knew what buttons to push to get those people to the polls; and there was a feeling among a number of low-income and middle-income people that the Democrats did not share or even honor their values.
There were at least three noteworthy passages in my latest reading. First, Paul Begala had a moving story about when he and his son were taking a ride back to Begala’s farm. They passed a trailer that had a new Bush-Cheney sign in the window, and Paul’s son asked why poor people would vote for Bush and Cheney, when the Democrats are the party that cares for the poor. Paul replied that they feel that the Democrats do not respect their values (i.e., religion, guns, right-to-life). This has been a common narrative: that Republicans in the lower economic classes vote out of values rather than their economic interests. But I can think of reasons that they’d be drawn to Republican rhetoric on economics, not just values. They may value individualism and see dependence on government as a bad thing (even if they find that they have to receive government assistance in order to get by). Perhaps they pay taxes—-not federal income taxes, necessarily, but other taxes—-and they feel that they are over-taxed. And they may have seen or experienced government regulation of business and found the government’s demands to be arbitrary and unreasonable. Would Republican economic policy help them? I doubt it. But I can understand why they would be economic conservatives, not just social conservatives.
Second, Carville and Begala portray Tom Coburn as one of the looney Republicans who won in 2004. As they say on page 2: Tom Coburn “called for the death penalty for doctors who perform abortions. He also called his state legislators ‘crapheads.’ And he decried ‘rampant lesbianism’ in Oklahoma schools. He won. By 12 percent. Against Democratic congressman Brad Carson, who is a Rhodes Scholar, a former Defense Department official, and a member in good standing of the First Baptist Church of Claremore, Oklahoma—-not exactly a dangerous extremist.” I myself remember Coburn being portrayed as an oddball in 2004. And yet, my impression is that Coburn since then has come to be regarded as a reasonable and highly-respected public servant. Coburn is one who is willing and able to work with the other side—-he even sat by Chuck Shumer at President Barack Obama’s State of the Union to take a stand against partisan rancor, after the shooting of Gabrielle Giffords. People can surprise you!
Third, I got a chuckle out of what Carville and Begala say on page 12: “But absent an overarching story—-or a clear, specific rationale for firing Bush and hiring Kerry—-the [Kerry] campaign’s issue litany didn’t have any resonance. Or, as Bush has said, ‘It didn’t resignate with voters.’ Sure, he mangles the nomenclature, but Bush…sure understands the concept.” Lol.
So why am I reading this book? Barack Obama triumphed in 2012. If there are any people these days who feel like ineffective has-beens who need to do serious re-evaluation about their stances and strategy, it is the Republicans, not the Democrats. The reason that I’m reading this book has to do with where I am ideologically more than where the country currently is. I believe in God and go to church. I have long believed that life begins at conception. But I have become disenchanted with the Republican Party on such issues as economics and health care. Yet I wonder: does the Democratic Party speak to certain values that I hold, such as my respect for the life of the unborn? If not, can it? After 2004, the Democrats were chastened, they were humbled, and they were willing to acknowledge strengths in the ideology of the “other side”, if you will. Perhaps this book by Carville and Begala can help me as I struggle to define and to formulate my political ideology.