Eighteen years ago this month, Democratic presidential candidate Michael Dukakis visited a plant in Michigan where he took part in a photo-op with an M1 Abrams tank. Many felt that, rather than instilling a sense of confidence in his ability to lead America’s armed forces, Dukakis appeared awkward and uncomfortable at the helm.
This evening, the Yale Political Union will debate “Resolved: The Democrats Aren’t Losing Because of Their Ideas,” and Dukakis will open the Union’s debating semester with a speech in the affirmative. In all likelihood, he will argue that the Democratic Party may need to change its infrastructure, its tactics of outreach or its central leadership in order to garner the support of the nation, but does not have to change its basic ideas.
As this is the first debate of the year, the leadership of the YPU will encourage the student debaters on each side to capture the attention of freshmen by addressing controversial issues that generally divide Republicans and Democrats. Unfortunately, this tactic disregards the most essential component of this debate: The Democratic Party is losing because of its general trend toward reactionary policymaking and its lack of a comprehensive vision for the United States.
Tonight’s debate will prove tremendously fun for political pundits. First, consider the cumbersome wording of the resolution: “Yes, we aren’t losing because of our ideas” might remind some of the old song “Yes, We Have No Bananas,” which by its own merit highlights the absurdity of the affirmative argument. Second, those of us leaning to the negative can still make negative speech on the affirmative side: “Yes, the Democrats aren’t losing because of their ideas — they don’t have ideas at all!”
This, of course, would go too far. After all, the Democrats have distinct opinions on the environment, health care, education and, some would argue, national security and U.S. foreign policy. That said, they have failed to integrate these disparate stances under a central philosophy. Repeatedly attempting to distance themselves from Republicans, Democrats have criticized the Bush administration on decision after decision, but these individual pockets of dissent remain fractured without any attempt to forge a uniform political identity. This is a problem far greater than simple infrastructure.
Meanwhile, the Republican Party has established an identity as the party of the religious and moral right, with millions of Christian voters pledging unwavering support at every election. This loyalty comes not only from the party’s position on individual issues, but also through a moral and political stoicism — though many would call it stubbornness — that has allowed Republicans to garner and maintain support for their stances on controversial issues and their aggressive foreign policy.
For many moderate voters, this last issue — foreign policy — tips the balance in favor of the Republican camp. With last week’s New York Times report that many New Yorkers still feel apprehensive five years after the Sept. 11 attacks, the left’s persistent calls for restraint in Iraqf drain the confidence of would-be Democratic voters. Simply put, Americans concerned about national security would rather put their trust in a policy too strong than in a policy too weak. How fitting, then, that Dukakis is here to give a speech for his party: 18 years later, the Democrats once again look weak at the helm.
Alexander Dominitz is a sophomore in Saybrook College. He is a member of the Tory Party.