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Lord Acton was right.
The British historian and philosopher of the late nineteenth century is most famous for his observation that "power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely."
The Republicans in Washington today have absolute power. They control the White House. They control the Senate. They control the House. They control the federal bureaucracy. They control the military. They control the federal judiciary. They control the money of corporate special interests. They control powerful right-wing grassroots organizations. They control a conservative media that includes radio, television, print, and websites. They control an array of right-wing think tanks.
About the only thing they can't control is their lust for power.
This absolute power has corrupted the Republicans, absolutely. This tremendous concentration of power has corrupted our democracy, degraded our military, diminished our stature in the world, damaged our environment, bankrupted our Treasury, and indentured our children to foreign debt-holders.
There is one reason and one reason only the Bush Republicans enjoy this unchallenged power:
Democrats let them win it.
By being too timid or too weak, too hesitant or too confused, Democrats have allowed Republicans to run amok. Most important, Democrats have not clearly and courageously stated what they stand for and what they stand against.
It is the goal of this book to do just that. We've spent our adult lifetimes toiling in the Democratic vineyards. We love our country and we love our party and we're determined to take them back.
If you're looking for a book that merely bashes the Republicans, this will disappoint. We take a backseat to no one in our contempt for what the GOP is doing to our country. And this book catalogs the damage in some detail. But more important, the purpose of this book is to look unflinchingly at what Democrats must do and say in order to take back our party, our country, and our future.
To be sure, we don't have all the answers. But we've got a good start on them. Not because we're geniuses -- rather, because we're not. Too many Democrats over-think things. This is politics, not organic chemistry. Success has less to do with brains than with guts. The concepts are comparatively easy; it's the execution that's hard. Democrats have failed at the basics: defining their message, attacking their opponents, defending their leaders, inspiring their voters.
When we set out to write this book, we took a hard look at what the Bush-Cheney team did right and what the Kerry-Edwards team did wrong in the 2004 campaign. The short answer is, everything. Researching and writing that chapter was painful. We had to confront the reality that, in some cases, people we've considered friends for decades made terrible strategic and tactical decisions -- and their failure has given us four more years of the Bush-Cheney policies we believe are ruining our country.
Some of our friends in the progressive movement believe the answer is for Democrats to rally the base, to move more squarely to the left. They see a Democratic Party that is too close to corporate special interests, too eager to please big money, too willing to sell out working people, too quick to go along with an unwise and unjust war.
On the other hand, some of our friends in the center believe the answer to the Democrats' problems is to move to the center. They see a Democratic party in thrall to Hollywood bigshots and cultural elites. They see a party too beholden to liberal pressure groups like the National Abortion and Reproductive Rights Action League, too contemptuous of people of faith, too dismissive of the middle-class values moms and dads try to pass on to their children.
They are, in our view, like the proverbial blind people examining the donkey (hey, we're Democrats; we can't very well use an elephant analogy). They're both right and they're both wrong. They each have a point and they both miss the point. Sure, we want the Democrats to stand more forcefully against corporate greed and we are still angry that so many leading Democrats believed Mr. Bush's falsehoods and supported his march to war in Iraq. At the same time, we believe some liberal pressure groups have too much influence, that some left-wing intellectual elites truly do have contempt for traditional American values. We believe Democrats should be the party of family, faith, and flag.
Here's what both sides of this false choice get wrong: the problem with the Democratic Party is not ideological, it's anatomical. We lack a backbone. Consider this book an attempt at a spinal transplant.
It's not that people know what we stand for and disagree; it's that they have no idea what we stand for, and so they think we're too weak to lead. The Bible says no one will follow an uncertain trumpet. The purpose of this book is hand the Democrats a trumpet and teach 'em to blow like Gabriel himself.
This book is focused on a set of issues that we believe have cost Democrats elections -- issues that we believe we can Take Back. We believe we can Take Back national security, social issues, and taxes. We believe we can Take Back the issues of energy and the environment; we can Take Back the fairness of the media; we can Take Back the issue of health care; and we can Take Back our political system from the lobbyists and power brokers. We can Take Back all of those issues -- but to do so we've got to stand up and speak out.
When the current President Bush's father was running for president in 1988, Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan observed that if we can't beat these guys, we need to find another country. Of course, in 1988 Democrats couldn't beat Bush Sr.'s team -- and we didn't find another country. We know how Moynihan must have felt, however. After all the damage of the first term of George W. Bush, it was hard to imagine how the Democrats could have lost to those guys. And yet a combination of the Bush campaign's strategic brilliance and the Democrats' lack of a clear message and a strategy for delivering it sent George W. Bush back to the White House for a second term.
We wrote this book, in short, because we're sick of watching Democrats lose. We're also sick of Democrats whining about the Republicans' hardball tactics. We want our party to toughen up, smarten up, and listen up.
The stakes could not be higher. President Bush was re-elected despite the fact that a near-majority of Americans believed he was not doing a good job. Since then his position with the American people has only deteriorated. And yet Democrats seem unable to capitalize on the Bush/GOP collapse.
The debacle of the 2004 election gave birth to this book. As we prepared to write it, we met with some of the smartest, savviest people in American politics. We talked with them about the issues that were hurting Democrats. And we thought about how to take those issues back. Those conversations were enlightening, but the one light-bulb moment Paul had actually came from his twelve-year-old son, John.
Paul and John were driving out to their farm in the Shenandoah Valley in October, 2004. It was a beautiful fall day so they decided to take the backroads to enjoy the scenery. They passed a trailer on the side of the road. It was a little old, a little rundown. And it had a brand-new Bush-Cheney sign in the window. "Dad," John asked, "why are those folks for Bush and Cheney if you say they only care about the rich? And why are we for Kerry and Edwards if you say Democrats care about the poor? We're not poor."
We had a long talk about it. We discussed why, for many people, values trump economics. And we talked about how wrong some Democratic intellectual elites are when they denigrate working-class people who vote Republican. They condescendingly argue the Republicans have pulled the wool over their eyes; that they've been tricked into voting against their economic self-interest. We think that analysis is overblown. It just might be that these folks know full-well that the GOP doesn't represent their economic interests, but they've come to think the Democrats don't respect their culture and values and religion. Just as many rich liberals proudly vote against their economic self-interest, that working-class family living in that trailer is doing the same thing. When forced to make a choice, they go with their values, not their wallets. Why is it we celebrate prosperous progressives for voting against their economic self-interests, but denigrate poor and middle-class people who do?
The conclusion of that talk was the realization that rather than patronize poor people who put their principles ahead of their pocketbooks, Democrats need to make that choice unnecessary. We can and should represent both. Democrats need to show respect for voters' cultural concerns, while fighting for their economic interests. The problem is the values debate has been limited to a bizarre and tiny set of issues -- principally abortion, gay rights and gun control. But poverty is a values issue. Lack of health care is a values issue. The minimum wage is a values issue. Lying about a war is the ultimate values issue. In this book we suggest ways both to Take Back the more narrow values issue -- engage rather than ignore God, guns, and gays -- and to expand the range of issues values voters should consider.
This book is a blueprint -- a call to arms -- for Democrats to give voice to their beliefs. To stand up proudly and speak out strongly that both our economic ideas and our moral values are more in line with those of most Americans than the Republicans are. Most of all, this book is an effort to take back so much of what we've lost: not just power and position in Washington, but something more important -- the soul of a great party and the future of a great nation.
Copyright © 2006 by James Carville and Paul Begala