By Gustavo Arellano
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By Charles Lam
Courtesy whitehouse.govWith the presidential election over and a basketballbrawl taking over the headlines, blue-state voters are settling into the reality that the smirking chimp will remain at the helm of the Titanic for the next four years. It's still a bit of a mystery as to how he persevered (though Kerry seemed to be as inspiring to most Americans as leaking battery acid). To make sense of an election where "moral values" trumped economic issues and the war in Iraq, it seemed like a fine idea to get in touch with Thomas Frank, the author of What's the Matter With Kansas? How Conservatives Won the Heart of America and the editor of the astute cultural journal The Baffler. The Kansan has gone deep into red-state territory and analyzed those God-fearing bumpkins, many of them poor and working class, who continuously vote Republican against their own fiscal interests.
OC Weekly: What can Democrats do to win the heartland or the South in the future? Is it hopeless?
Thomas Frank: Oh, jeez. The Democrats have a lot of problems, and one of them is they don't really know who they are, especially on economic questions, and they have to rediscover their populist roots. The Democrats repeatedly lose, and every time they do, they move to the center or right and try to minimize the distinction between themselves and the Republicans. This sounds good if you don't really think about it. It's like, well, the electorate is evidently moving to the right, so we better move to the right, too. But in practice, it has proven to be disastrous. One of the basic tenets of marketing is that you can't just say the same thing as your competitor. When he has a winning sales message, you can't just say, "Me, too." It doesn't work. It just reinforces him.
Bush had increasing amounts of women, Latinos and Jews voting for him in this election. What the hell were they thinking?
With each of these groups, the Republicans have perfected wedge issues, and the importance of a wedge issue is not to win over an entire constituency, but to chip away at Democratic dominance. And they've been doing this since the late '60s, the main constituency being blue-collar voters, working-class people.
Do you think it was really "moral values" that won the election for Bush?
I think the culture wars are important, and they always have been, and they [Republicans] will continue to defeat Democrats until Democrats figure out a way of dealing with them. They don't do anything about it now. Kerry goes around and does some photo-ops holding a shotgun. That's it.
Do you have any suggestions you would have offered to Kerry during the election?
I have a million of them. He should have done everything he could to connect Bush to Wall Street and the corporate scandals. He should have hammered that constantly. He should have connected Bush to big business and outsourcing. He should have really hit the issue of Social Security privatization. All he talked about was how it would hurt the federal budget. That's so abstract. Talk about what that change would do to people's lives, what that means for our country! It barely came up. He should have hit those things all the time, every campaign stop. There's no way Bush could have carried Ohio if Kerry had done that. No way!
Do you think Kerry perhaps did not succeed at selling himself during the debates? Wasn't it always more about Bush?
That was a problem with the campaign as a whole. It was a referendum on Bush. And that's a classic problem the Democrats have. Kerry was doing all this reaching out to the center and watering down the message. I think that was a mistake because in the end, he couldn't rally the core Democratic constituencies to vote for him.
I honestly don't know what they were doing. The first time, there might have been a reason for it when Edwards did it and Cheney was very gracious about it. And then when Kerry did it, there was no reason at all. It didn't make any sense, and the Republicans went crazy over it. They were up to some kind of deep strategy I haven't figured out.
Do you have a least favorite member of the Bush administration?
It was probably Ashcroft, but he's out now. There was something he said that I could never get over, which was that if you criticize the administration or certain policies of theirs, then you are aiding terrorism. I thought that was just staggering.