West Wing: Democrats Must Turn Right to Win

By Gabor Steingart in Washington

Both John Edwards and Barack Obama want to move the Democrats to the left. But that's a sure way to lose the election. Many voters may live their lives on the left, but their hopes and dreams are well to the right.

It isn't easy to see the similarities between Germany's political system and that in the United States. Sure, they are both democratic. But whereas Berlin hosts a multiparty, parliamentary system that relies on coalitions to govern, the US has a two-party, winner-takes-all system.

However, when it comes to individual politicians, similarities abound -- particularly when one looks at Kurt Beck, leader of Germany's Social Democrats, and Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama: Both men want to shift their parties to the left.

It's almost election time. Do you know where your voters live?
AFP

It's almost election time. Do you know where your voters live?

Expansion of the social welfare state is on the wish list of both Beck and Obama, the democratic candidate looking "for the best way to strengthen Social Security." This is an issue, he says, where it's important to stick to your principles and not, as his latest campaign ad argues, to simply put your "finger out to the wind and see what the polls say." Beck, too, has encouraged his party to expand welfare payments, particularly to the aging unemployed.

These are the kind of proposals that energize their fellow party members and get die-hard leftists behind them. But do the two candidates (Beck was confirmed last weekend as party leader, putting him in line to go against Angela Merkel in the 2009 elections) know where their voters live? Voters happen to be harder to reach than most people think, and that's because they all live in two different places at the same time.

Like an Open Book

Their first place of residence is real life. There are no mysteries here: the unemployed person is unemployed, a student is a student, the blue-collar worker wears a blue collar, and the businessman is a businessman. This is the realm where the politician knows exactly how much his potential voters make and how much they spend. For the politician, the lives of voters in this first world are like an open book.

Behind the door of the second place of residence, on the other hand, is an inaccessible place built of hopes and dreams. This is where we enter the realm of the possible, and this is where everyone is what he wants to be. In this second world, people dream of a better education and of climbing the social ladder, of more money and greater happiness. It's a place where opportunities outnumber duties.

This second world is the perfect place for a politician to meet up with his voters. It's the only place where he can deliver his most important commodity -- the promise of a better life -- to the men and women of the electorate. It is here that people are actually waiting for someone to finally show up with a slice of a better future.

But, as it happens, we know a lot less about this second world where voters live. One thing, though, is clear: This second world may not be terribly far from the first but, in political terms, it can be found to the right of it. The unemployed person wants to be a worker again; the worker dreams of being promoted to foreman; the foreman wants a better-paying office job; and the white-collar workers wonders whether he wouldn't be happier as an executive.

Dreaming to the Right

This is why voters aren't just interested in their own tax bracket but also in the tax brackets of those richer than them. This is why higher estate taxes are so unpopular not because they actually affect the voter, but because they could affect the voter. The voter doesn't want to see the person he aspires to be punished or treated poorly. What it comes down to is that most voters live their lives on the left side of the political spectrum, while their dreams lie to the right of their reality.

In short, elections are not won at the center, as is so often claimed, but slightly to the right of center. In Germany, the conservatives have won 10 of the 16 parliamentary elections in the country's postwar history. In the United States, the Republicans have won seven of the last 10 presidential elections. In the US, the Republicans are simply better at promising a brighter future, as former President Ronald Reagan showed with his simplest of pledges: "It's morning in America."

What the Democrats and their presidential candidates are saying about their country these days has little to do with optimism and visions of the future. Some of their favorite words are: poverty, inequality, health insurance and tax increases. The old battle within the left is back, and it's being fought on three issues: Who does more for the military? John Edwards says: Edwards. Who has the better concept for expanding social welfare? Barack Obama says: Obama. Who has the guts to more heavily tax the rich and the super-rich? Both of them say: I do.

No Power for the Left

So far, Hillary Clinton -- who is well ahead of Edwards and Obama in every opinion poll -- has studiously kept herself out of this contest. Last weekend, a spokesman for Clinton made it clear that she will continue her strategy of not yielding to pressure from her opponents: "As president, her first priority will be restoring fiscal responsibility." Also speaking on the weekend, Obama slammed her for "ducking the issue."

Her refusal to enter the fray is a tremendously shrewd decision. If elections were decided in the first world of voters -- i.e., the one dominated by their unembellished current interests -- left and center-left parties would have been in power in every industrialized nation for the last 100 years. But they haven't been in power, nor will be they be in the future -- unless they find a candidate whose way of thinking and disposition lie to the right of his or her own party, like former Chancellor Gerhard Schröder in Germany, former Prime Minister Tony Blair in Great Britain and former President Bill Clinton in the United States.

Despite producing respectable candidates like Edwards or Ségolène Royal, the Socialist candidate in the last French election, left-leaning social democrats hold power hardly anywhere in the world. Voters listen to them, nod their heads in agreement, but they don't vote for them. The analysis of "Two Americas" Edwards presented in the 2004 presidential election was brilliant, but it was ineffective.

Why? People already know about the cramped conditions of their own lives. What they want to know is how to expand those conditions and improve their circumstances. Recognizing this need, Schröder reduced unemployment benefits and made the rigid German labor market more flexible. Instead of doubling welfare benefits, Blair redoubled the government's efforts to do away with welfare. And instead of handing out subsidies, Clinton produced a budget surplus. Even former President John F. Kennedy, a man idolized by many today, was hardly a leftist. His take on the issue of economic equality was clear: "Life is unfair."

Knocking on the Wrong Door

All of these political leaders were constantly at odds with their leftist party bases. Indeed, humiliating the left was seen as a way of proving one's ability to govern effectively. Like every hunting dog worth its salt, a Democratic president must be capable of proving that he isn't gun-shy, even in response to uprisings within his own party.

Clinton was a seasoned hound in this respect. He appointed a green leftist as his vice president, only to sideline him later on. Blair broke the backbone of his party's left wing even before coming into office. Socialist former French President Francois Mitterrand, for his part, flip-flopped when his nationalization policy went sour and suddenly went from being a socialist president to a conservative one.

Those who align themselves too closely with the left will win the hearts of their party members, but power is likely to remain elusive. Liberal politicians around the world may have the best of intentions, but they can't seem to win elections. Their mistake? They are knocking on the wrong front door.

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan

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