For Democrats, Route to Midterm Elections Wins Is Through the Middle

“I’ll take a stand in favor of hatred,” said psychoanalyst Justin Frank, author of “Bush on the Couch.”

Frank was defending Susan McDougal’s tirade about why she hated Bush over my more restrained approach to winning elections.

Radio host and commentator Hugh Hewitt scribbled furiously. A stand in favor of hatred. Hugh could not have been happier. His theory is that “angry Democrats” will give Republicans a victory in the midterm elections. It’s probably the Republicans only shot, given the current numbers.

Do Democrats have the capacity to seize defeat from the jaws of victory? You should have heard them boo Hugh at the Palm Springs Book Festival last weekend. It was music to his ears. I found it somewhat terrifying.

Susan McDougal is best known for her role in an episode most other Democrats I know would prefer to forget. (She was “The Woman Who Wouldn’t Talk” in the Whitewater scandal, which is also the title of her book). McDougal is typical in many respects of a minority of Americans, but a passionate segment of the Democratic Party, the ones who quite simply hate George Bush.

They find him smug, arrogant and self-righteous. They distrust his motives. They do not understand why leading Democrats don’t just come out and censure, impeach and otherwise string him up at dawn. They love Russ Feingold and Howard Dean, and are impatient with Hillary’s perceived hawkishness. Get them going and they get going.

The only problem, of course, which they don’t want to hear, is that Hugh is right about them. If you only needed 40 percent to win elections, it might be fine. But elections require 51 percent, and you can take all the stands you want in favor of hatred, but it doesn’t get you to that magic number.

The people in the middle, the people whose votes take you from the hard core liberal Democrats to a governing majority in this country, are increasingly concerned about the direction this country is going in, but they don’t question George Bush’s motives. They don’t think he lied to them intentionally, and they don’t have much use for people screaming about the fact that he did.

Argue that stand and you lose. Define the middle right, and occupy it, and you win.

“We have the wind at our back," Sen. Jack Reed said a few weeks ago. "We just need to put up a sail . . . “

I loved the quote, and started using it all the time. Republicans were losing to Democrats on every issue, including, even, terrorism. Imagine if Democrats actually had an agenda... That’s a joke line, though. If they had an agenda, it would be hard to maintain those 25- and 28-point advantages that they have in health care and the environment. Unless it were a moderate agenda. Which is not what the liberals want.

It’s not that we’re stupid, one of my friends who works in the Democratic leadership pointed out to me, the way I used to point it out to people when I was in her position. The Democrats have done the research, polling and focus groups, just like the Republicans do. They know that they need an agenda, but the contents are tricky.

Here’s the problem — and it’s no different from the one I faced on the lawn in Palm Springs this weekend: You’ve got a significant number of Democrats, from safe districts and blue states, who might as well call themselves Bush Haters, and are certainly proud liberals, and for whom it would be easy to fashion an agenda that would command a rousing 42 percent support in this country.

Access to abortion; gay rights; universal health care; all of those would be easy issues.

The only problem with that agenda is that you would end up doing yourself no good in the midterms, and losing the next presidential race. Other than that, Mrs. Lincoln, it’s brilliant. Every analysis suggests that such a program would get you at most 46 percent of the vote, and no more. The Democrats who win in red states run as moderates. To a one. See Harry Reid.

The Republicans ran as conservatives and they won, someone says to me. People always say this to me. True enough, I respond, but there are more conservatives than liberals, and race has shifted the South to the Republican column. The only Democrats who have won in 40 years have been moderates.

Fashioning an agenda that will satisfy the liberals without scaring away the middle takes some restraint, which tends to be in short supply in some circles. You can’t stand up for hate and reach out to the middle. You can’t lead with anger. You can’t call Bush a liar. You can’t insist on ideological purity with respect to issues that trouble people in the middle, like teenage abortion and gay marriage.

You can be deeply troubled and occupy the middle, but you’ve got to hold the anger in check. You can be troubled that the war has gone wrong, troubled that people can’t get their prescription drugs, troubled at the absence of pregnancy prevention and stem cell research — and you win. If you need to hate something, hate gas prices, not George Bush.

It’s a question of respect, or it’s opposite, contempt. The Bush haters tend to think that they’re smarter than the president of the United States, that he’s a dummy and so are the people who support him.

This rubs a lot of people, quite frankly, the wrong way; they tend to think that the haters are laughing at them too, and wonder how it is that, if Bush is so dumb, he managed to get himself elected president when all those folks who the haters have supported (all the liberal geniuses) managed to lose so handily.

Frankly, I’m no fan of the president’s, but I don’t know how anyone can call him dumb.

Some years ago, just after the 1994 midterms, I went to the Ronald Reagan Library as a favor, to fill in on a panel where another guest— as it happened the only woman— had cancelled at the last minute. I was the only Democrat on the panel, and when I made some entirely innocuous comments about such things as respecting the presidency, the crowd, most of whom had turned out to see Newt Gingrich, loudly booed.

In the hall, it felt awful, and Mrs. Reagan, always gracious, was visibly embarrassed and sent me flowers later. But on television, on C-Span, it played very differently: I clearly won every exchange. There I was, trying to be moderate and modest, seeking no more than respect for the office of the presidency, and the crowd, blinded by their hatred of Clinton, could not restrain themselves. That day, at least, they lost the middle.

The right plainly went too far in their hatred of Clinton and paid a price for it. The left has to remember that, and remember that majorities are made in the middle. The upcoming midterm election is an incredible opportunity for Democrats. They do need an agenda. But it must be forged in the middle, out of hope and not hatred.

Otherwise, it’s an agenda for defeat, not victory.

Susan Estrich is currently the Robert Kingsley Professor of Law and Political Science at the University of Southern California and a member of the Board of Contributors of USA Today. She writes the "Portia" column for American Lawyer Media and is a contributing editor of The Los Angeles Times. She was appointed by the president to serve on the National Holocaust Council and by the mayor of the City of Los Angeles to serve on that city's Ethics Commission.

Estrich's books include "Real Rape," "Getting Away with Murder: How Politics is Destroying the Criminal Justice System," "Dealing with Dangerous Offenders," "Making the Case for Yourself: A Diet Book for Smart Women" and "Sex & Power," currently a Los Angeles Times bestseller.

She served as campaign manager for Michael Dukakis' presidential bid, becoming the first woman to head a U.S. presidential campaign. Estrich appears regulalry on the Fox News Channel.

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