November 04, 2004

Lesson from Russ 

posted by Paul Smith @ 9:48 AM
We're all sorting out the reasons John Kerry and the Democrats couldn't put this election away despite an appalling track record by the incumbent. Certain narratives have emerged, especially the surge of evangelical voters and the prominence of "cultural values" (i.e., hating gays), though I agree with Matt Yglesias that if you combine exit polling about "terrorism" and the "war in Iraq" into "national security," "cultural values" looks much smaller in comparison. Still significant, but smaller.

But there was, let's face it, a problem with the candidate. In key demographics Kerry did miserably because he wasn't perceived as a "strong leader" with "a clear stand on the issues." Without getting in too deep here, Democrats are simply going to have to do better about this in the future, to combat the perception that they are the party of wishy-washy and ineffective leadership.

Democratic candidates ought to take a look at Russ Feingold of Wisconsin. In 2001, he was the lone opposition to the Patriot Act in the Senate. His Republican opponent in the senate race this year, Tim Michels, thought he smelled blood and saw an obvious win: I'm going to nail Feingold to the wall for that vote, I'll make him squirm and force him to take two sides of the issue. So what did Feingold do? He said, without hesitation or focus grouping: yeah, I voted against the Patriot Act, and I'd do it again; here's why. And then he'd elegantly explain his rationale, but the point is, he totally diffused the situation and took the issue off the table. He won reelection by 12 points. Of course, that's not the only reason Feingold won, but there's no way he would have won had he not taken a principled and clear stand on that issue.

It's about leadership.

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