By Mark Mellman - 02/22/06 12:00 AM EST
Diagnoses of the ills of the Democratic Party abound. The brain, heart and spine are among the body parts commentators have implicated.
Often though, the discussion returns to issues. Compelling new policies are what we need, say many critics.
While I do not diminish the importance of agendas and ideas, the root of our problem is not a lack of policy but an absence of passion. When focus-group participants, poll respondents, reporters or constituents ask what Democrats stand for, they are not looking for policy objectives so much as insight into our deepest motivations.
Passion is an attractive and infectious quality. It is the passion of leaders that creates followers. It is, in part, the passion of our romantic partners for us that attracts us to them. It is no accident that Tom Peters’s famous prescription for American business was titled A Passion for Excellence. Both ingredients were required for success.
Passion is communicated most deeply by the willingness to sacrifice. Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King were willing to risk their liberty and even their lives for the civil rights of African-Americans. Their passion built a movement and transformed a nation.
Republicans often make their passions manifest. George Bush has become passionate about defending this nation from terrorism — not always wise, but always passionate. The president always appears willing to sacrifice for his beliefs, even if unwilling to call on others to do so. Bush is even passionate about tax-cutting.
Democrats are not so comfortable with passion. We claim the mantle of reason, seeing it as the enemy of passion. We write books deriding those who let their passionate commitments to God, country or their guns override their interests. We are repelled by passion on the right and fearful when we see it on the left.
So what are Democratic passions? What do we care enough about to take risks for? What is so important to us that we are willing to lose because of it?
Once upon a time, the answer would have been civil rights. John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson believed they were sacrificing the unified support of Southern whites for generations to come when they made the struggle for civil rights the passionate goal of a generation of Democrats. Eugene McCarthy and George McGovern were passionate about ending the war in Vietnam — willingly sacrificing their political careers to the cause.
Of course not all passions are rewarded. Those of McCarthy and McGovern were out of sync with the majority. So too Barry Goldwater. His classic call to arms — “Extremism in defense of liberty is no vice” — displayed an ardor America rejected in 1964. But 20 years later, his passion too spawned a movement.
Democrats today do have an agenda, but we lack a passion. John Kerry talked about energy independence, job creation and healthcare, winning strong reviews for breaking new policy ground. But the young John Kerry, who risked his life to save others, was a man of passion. With an innate predilection for speeches that sounded more like analysis than advocacy and with his nuanced answers to admittedly complex questions, candidate Kerry seemed devoid of passion. Al Gore, whom I admire greatly, appeared to sacrifice his passion for the environment on the altar of political expediency in 2000.
Any Democrat today can rattle off policy prescriptions and even heartfelt goals, but it is hard to discern their passion. It is hard to know what they would sacrifice for, what they would be willing to lose over.
Democrats care about healthcare, cleaning up corruption, education, energy independence and a host of other issues. But that is not enough. We must rediscover our passion as a party.
Mellman is president of The Mellman Group and has worked for Democratic candidates and causes since 1982, including Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) in 2004.