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Jewish World Review Jan. 3, 2005/22 Teves, 5765

Suzanne Fields

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Double-edged politics | We've said goodbye to the old guy with a scythe (and a sigh), and the new baby will require the usual discipline and hard work. We've got 365 days to get it done if we want to finish this year.

Democrats had hoped that by this time in the new year their days would be full of planning for inaugural balls, buying new outfits and dealing with caterers, but all those limousines they reserved might as well be pumpkins. Like Cinderella's stepsisters, Democrats are sorting through the ashes for clues to what went wrong. You don't need magic to figure out why a flat foot won't fit into a high-heeled glass slipper.

Surveys taken at the party conventions in Boston and New York revealed that 14 percent of the Democrats had once been Republicans - and 28 percent of the Republicans had once been Democrats. This underreported fact is both fascinating and revealing, and you only have to look around you to see the statistic come to life. Smaller numbers of Hispanics voted for the Democratic nominee in '04, and even blacks and Jews, once the most unreconstructible of all Democrats, voted for George W. Bush in greater numbers than four years earlier.

Democrats started hitting the sawdust trail decades ago. "Democrats for Eisenhower" were a key component of the postwar revival of Republican prospects. Three decades later, Jeane Kirkpatrick and Bill Bennett led the Democratic tide for Ronald Reagan, drawn by their convictions that what America needed was a strong foreign policy and a revival of morality.

All kinds of reasons figure into conversions, political and otherwise, but two considerations are paramount in the reasoning of Democrats who became Republicans. Democrats had become soft on defense, and they typically scorn the notions of right and wrong firmly held by the rank and file of the red states - and of a lot of the rank and file in the blue states.

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Sneering that George W. is dumb no doubt makes the Democratic elites feel good, but if George W. is dumb, anyone who votes for him is by definition "dumber." An odd tribute to the voters they must persuade. This contempt was perfectly captured in the remark of John Kerry, overheard by a reporter for Newsweek: "I can't believe I'm losing to this idiot."

The corollary of this notion that "everybody who disagrees with us is dumb" is the sneer at anyone who takes religious faith seriously. This category includes a considerable majority of Americans, just those voters the Democrats will have to recruit to win elections again.

Sneering at the majority is getting to be a habit with many Democrats. Ronald Reagan's success was ascribed to the venality of the electorate - "selfishness, this greed, this new championship of caring only for yourself," was how Walter Mondale put it in 1984.

Hendrik Hertzberg, writing in the New Yorker, brings this up to date, accusing white evangelical Christians of being too stupid to vote their own interests. In voting for George W., he says, unworldly Christians "voted against their own material (and some might imagine, spiritual) well being." How on earth would he know? Tom Mertes, in the New Left Review, observes that "many of the voters that turned out to swell Bush's 3.5 million lead are blue-collar workers, those bearing the brunt of Republican policies."

The differences in the passion and convictions of Democrats and Republicans was amply illustrated on election day. The Republicans cultivated grass roots volunteers who believed in what they were doing, men and women with the determination to persuade. The Democrats hired mercenaries who were paid to knock on doors, and who often knew nothing of, or cared nothing about, the voters behind the doors.

"While the Democrats retain the cachet of being the party of the common man," writes Joshua Muravchik in Commentary magazine, "support for their economic policies has been leaching away." Democrats are more accurately described as the party of the rich, the famous, and the glittery. John Kerry beat George W. Bush by 59 percent to 41 percent among donors with assets over $10 million. George W. is indeed rich, but Texas roots and religious faith lend both the president and the first lady an earthiness of character unlike that of John Kerry, the husband of a woman far richer than George W.

A correspondent for Newsweek observed that at one campaign stop in rural Wisconsin, the audience of farmers, laborers and small businessmen laughed at the senator when he said he understood their financial problems because he had two children and three stepchildren to raise.

So the Democrats have work to do, and first on themselves. January, named for the mythical god Janus, who presides over all that is double-edged in life, may not be the most auspicious time to get started. Janus, with his double head, looks both backward and forward. Great for a god, not so great for a political party solidly stuck in a ditch.

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© 2001, Suzanne Fields. TMS