I’m not deaf, can you stop yelling?

My oldest son struggled with advanced algebra in high school. His teacher was part of the problem. Whenever he asked for help in understanding a difficult concept, he later explained to his concerned parents, his teacher’s response would be to repeat her original explanation–word-for-word–in a much louder tone of voice.

The national Democratic establishment seems to have embraced a similar approach: the “all we need is more volume to sell our message” strategy in courting American voters. While a message of social and cultural liberalism, vague or dovish national security positions, and half-hearted economic populism hasn’t brought the Dems either the White House or Congress in the past several elections, apparently sound levels is the real problem.

The party’s putative front-runner for 2008, Hillary Clinton, seems to be veering in this direction, away from the successful triangulation of her husband and Dick Morris, and more towards the liberal orthodoxy that wins early Democratic primaries and scares away voters in the general election in those crucial swing states.

Want more evidence? Look no further that Matt Bai’s intriguing cover story in The New York Times Magazine on former Virginia governor Mark Warner entitled “The Fallback.” Warner, a centrist with moderate-to-conservative social views (e.g., he supports the death penalty and opposes gay marriage), is being touted as an alternative to Mrs. Clinton by those Democrats worried about her electability.

Bai’s profile makes disturbing reading, more for what it says about the elitist heart and soul of today’s Democratic Party than about Warner, an earnest, pragmatic Southern governor who didn’t let the Republicans corner the “good ole boy” NASCAR vote in his state and, by all accounts, turned out to be a solid administrator, a talented negotiator and a skilled politician during his tenure in Richmond.

What Bai surfaces, however, in the course of his piece on Warner, is the tone deafness of the Democratic elite. One telling vignette: when Warner confronts some ideological “true believers” in northern California and discovers that he has entered an Alice-in-Wonderland world where all that matters is checking off the right boxes in the social policy litmus-test. Bai’s account is sobering:

Warner may have glimpsed a piece of his future when he attended a dinner of wealthy Democrats last summer at the Bay Area home of Mark Buell and his wife, Susie Tompkins Buell, well-connected contributors and close friends of the Clintons. Warner made some introductory comments about “the Virginia story,” but the first several questions were not about taxes or schools or health care, but about gay marriage (which he’s against), the death penalty (which he’s for) and abortion (he’s in favor of parental notification but vetoed a bill banning all late-term abortions). Warner thought his liberal guests would be interested in his policies to improve Virginia schools and raise the standard of living in rural areas; instead, it seemed to him, they thought that they understood poverty and race in an intellectual way that he, as a red-state governor, could not. Like a lot of politicians, Warner can be snappish when he feels he isn’t being heard, and the dialogue quickly grew testy.

At the end of the evening, according to people who were there, as some of the guests walked Warner to his car, one woman vowed to educate him on abortion rights. That was all he could take. “This is why America hates Democrats,” a frustrated Warner blurted out before driving away. (Still piqued a month later, Warner, speaking to The Los Angeles Times, summarized the attitude of the assembled guests about their plans to save the country: “You little Virginia Democrat, how can you understand the great opportunities we have?”)

After reading this story, it’s not hard to have some sympathy for Warner. All he had done was break the Republican electoral stranglehold on Virginia, broker a number of creative political compromises, and leave office with soaring popularity ratings. All of this accomplished in the real world. Did I mention that he also built a successful high tech company? In the real world.

What apparently matters most to the activists, however, is that Warner accept the orthodox positions established by his, well, his intellectual and moral betters. That Warner, a man in his early 50s with three daughters, needs to be “educated” about “abortion rights” says it all. (Perhaps “re-educated” would be a better verb.)

Bai’s piece also makes it clear that he sees Warner as a long shot in 2008. Unlike 1992, when Bill Clinton captured a devalued nomination (who thought George Bush would be vulnerable?), there isn’t much room for an insurgent candidacy this time around.

Democrats smell victory in the next two elections. The Bush presidency has hit a low point and the Republican leadership in Washington appears exhausted and compromised. Expecting John McCain to cure all ills is unrealistic.

That won’t help Warner. Even if Mrs. Clinton falters along the way, there is a growing list of orthodox Democratic contenders waiting in the wings, including John Kerry (who surfaced in the Boston Globe recently talking about the margin of victory in Ohio in 2004), John Edwards, and even, some (like Newsweek‘s Howard Fineman) say, Al Gore.

And yet…

Underestimating the disconnect between elite Democratic values and those of mainstream America is a recipe for another 16-state performance in 2008 (the wrong 16 states electorally). If the Democratic presidential candidate (be it Mrs. Clinton or another orthodox standard bearer) is boxed into a two-issue candidacy– say, demanding unilateral withdrawal from Iraq and abortion on demand–it’s not hard to see how defeat can be snatched from the jaws of victory. Unless you believe the problem is that you haven’t been yelling loudly enough.


Hard also not to identify with Warner when Bai repeatedly cites his “huge headedness.” As one who finds a 7 7/8 size baseball cap a comfortable fit, it’s reassuring to know that a “huge head” is not considered disqualifying.

Note to Al Siegal, conscience of the New York Times: is it possible to reconsider the front page photo policy for the Sunday magazine? Yes, I know it is somehow deemed more artistic to run close-up, strangely cropped photos of political and cultural figures and give them a seedy, fun-house cast (Warner’s photo is particularly off-putting, with his bared teeth as the focal point). But is this a fair representation of reality? Aren’t the weird, trendy photo spreads in the Style pages of the magazine enough?

Copyright © 2006 Jefferson Flanders
All rights reserved

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