MAXWELL: Democrats should stand for something
12/4/2002 – Printed in the EDITORIAL section of the St Petersburg Times Newspaper

SAN ANGELO, Texas
A few nights ago, I spoke to about 100 members of the Tom Green County Democratic Club. When I received the invitation, I suspected that I was being set up by a Republican prankster.
After all, Democrats keep their heads down out here. But the invitation was real. When I arrived at the venue, a popular diner in San Angelo, flesh-and-blood Democrats already were laughing and talking. An added treat was seeing the dozen or so African-Americans there. During the nearly four months I have been here, I had never seen that many blacks together in one place at the same time.
My speech was part pep talk, part commiseration and part admonition. Like most Democrats in other parts of the nation, West Texas Democrats are in a funk. But unlike many Democrats elsewhere, this bunch remains fiesty and determined to do a few things differently _ beginning now. Members said they were not going to wait until another election rolls around to get started.
That is a smart move. If you care to read on, here is part of what I told the club: Almost to the person, Democratic candidates in the mid-term elections nationwide ran like scalded dogs from the party label, especially in the South and Texas. They apparently took the advice of South Carolinian Preston Callison that he offered nearly 40 years ago. While running for Congress, Callison warned that if a Democrat wanted to win in South Carolina and the rest of the South, “Don’t act like one.” In Dixie and Texas, Democrats did not act like Democrats. And they still lost big time.
In Texas, Ron Kirk, the Dallas ex-mayor running for the Senate, fell over himself touting his support of President Bush’s desire for war against Iraq. He even said he probably would support Bush “more times than not.” In trying to be everything to everyone, Kirk also ran away from his ethnicity. But none of his dissembling worked; unequivocal Republican John Cornyn trounced Kirk.
In Arkansas, Mark Pryor, son of a liberal senator, sounded like a long-time conservative. Pryor went so far as to don camouflage hunting wear and carry a rifle in TV ads. In Georgia, Max Cleland bragged about supporting Bush’s tax cuts and the impending war with Iraq.
In Louisiana, Mary Landrieu played the same conservative game. In Tennessee, Bob Clement out-Bushed Bush on some issues. Even North Carolina’s Erskine Bowles, Bill Clinton’s chief of staff, sounded like one of the Boys from Crawford, Texas. Bowles rose to prominence because of the Democratic Party.
In short, by trying to be conservative lite, Democrats did not stand for anything _ for anybody. If I have learned one thing from living in conservative, contrarian West Texas, I have learned this: If you want people to respect you and have a reason to consider voting for you, you have to clearly stand for something.
Why would a Texan or a Southerner who is a Republican, or who leans to the right, vote for a Democrat who tries to sound like a Republican? They do not. They vote for straight-talking Republicans _ the real thing.
I heard Ron Kirk speak and thought he would grow a new head of hair when someone brought up the dreaded “L” word. Kirk is not alone in fearing being associated with anything that smacks of liberalism.
Democratic candidates do not mention the great programs and issues the party stood for, programs and issues that saved families from starvation, that gave old people comfort in their golden years, that gave us the GI Bill of Rights, that helped clear some of our waters and the air, that give youngsters a head start in school. Democrats run from these programs and ideas because the president and the GOP now oppose many of them.
Democrats should be on every corner telling Bush that they do not want to ease emissions standards by letting industry establish guidelines. They should be telling the president they oppose the recreational use of snowmobiles in our precious forests.
Unfortunately, I saw only one young person in my audience. The inability to attract young people is one of Democrats’ most serious problems. The old-timers are not developing a farm team _ an army of new bloods with new ideas, the stamina, the enthusiasm and, most of all, the courage to lead the party in a new direction.
Few things are uglier than a Democrat trying to win an election by mouthing the GOP mantra. If Democrats are going to win, they will need to stand for something, I told my audience. If they are going to lose anyway, why not lose by standing for something?