This is the season for political losers to invite harsh analysis of their failings so that they might better search their souls, or win next time, or both.
On Monday night, the Pulaski County Democratic Women—about three dozen, with a few men thrown in—invited me to tell them what was so wrong with them that their state had gone Republican before their very eyes.
“Don’t sugar-coat it,” came a voice from the back row.
All right, then. If you get invited, indeed encouraged, to tell off some nice Democratic women six days after they got drubbed by a misguided electorate that irrationally fears or hates a perfectly fine Democratic president, then I suppose you should oblige.
It was easy enough to be harsh, to seem candid.
Plied with a plastic cup half-filled with red wine, I dived in.
The Democratic Party so controlled Arkansas so long through inertia that it never stood for anything other than winning. So now it finds itself a loser not standing for anything.
It finds itself languishing as a passive default option for blacks and liberals, which will buoy the party all the way to a third of the vote.
Arkansas Democrats are at risk of becoming like the Democrats of Alabama and Mississippi and Oklahoma. By that I mean the kind of thing social scientists and political scientists seek out for a study of peculiarity, of lost habitat, of near-extinction. Kind of like an ivory-billed woodpecker.
Candor? They wanted candor? Here was some: There’s no positive way out of the mess.
You cannot fashion a positive Democratic message that has any coherence or cohesion or currency as long as you are the liberal party in a right-wing state.
You are left only to do what talented local Democratic operatives did the last few weeks of this recent campaign, and rather well, actually. They pulled themselves almost to a tie in the state House of Representatives when the rolling tide had indicated that Republicans might get close to 60 of the 100 seats.
That is to say you try to put together a patchwork quilt or a jigsaw puzzle, splintering yourself into targeted messaging.
You make your party about Mike Beebe’s pragmatism over here and Mark Pryor’s center-rightness over there and state Rep. Darrin Wiliams’ opportunity to be the first black speaker of the House back over here.
In between, you throw out a radio message hastily recorded by Bill Clinton about how Republicans are going to undo all the good that has been done by Democrats in the state where he doesn’t live.
I’m not criticizing. To get to 48 or 49 seats in the state House of Representatives with a mishmash like that—why, it’s like going to the salvage yard and driving away in a car you put together from whatever engine parts you could find.
Darned if the jalopy didn’t almost get you home. It broke down with your driveway in sight.
The easier way to win—the way everyone won this general election—is for the other side to be feared.
Republicans won in Arkansas because the majority feared Barack Obama. Democrats won nationally because a more logical and cohesive coalition than the salvaged jalopy of Arkansas—women, blacks, Hispanics, gays, lesbians, working folks in the Upper Midwest—feared the economic and social message of Mitt Romney and the Republicans.
My advice to the Democratic women? Sit back and wait for these Republican majorities in the state Legislature to cut rich people’s income and capital gains taxes, but not working people’s grocery taxes; to block Medicaid expansion and harm hospitals, and to impose so much school choice and charter-school expansion that regular public education gets threatened.
And then, once the Republicans have made this fine mess, put your messaging skills to work to make sure people know it.
Am I hoping the Republicans make a mess of the state? No. I’m just safely predicting it.
But Arkansas legislative sessions always get ridiculed in superficial public opinion, then lumped into a general disdain that is Washington-based.
The challenge for Arkansas Democrats will be in drawing the distinction that this is not the usual mess, but worse, and that it’s our own mess, not Washington’s.
Containing the party’s base as it did, this audience expressed some desire for Arkansas Democrats to stop hiding from Obama—having now lost twice by doing that—and to start openly embracing this president and his policies.
And there was murmuring about how maybe the ever-opportunistic Bill Halter will run for governor in 2014 in representation of what Howard Dean called “the Democratic wing of the Democratic Party.”
That kind of thing is mostly about having feel-good primaries and feel-bad general elections.
But it could work. Anything could—if the Republicans make their fine mess starting in January.
We simply must wait to see how much disastrous Tea Party madness we’re going to get.
Being the only and better alternative to the other side’s horror—there’s your mother’s milk of politics.
John Brummett’s column appears regularly in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read his blog at brummett.arkansasonline.com.