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Forum: My fellow Democrats: Wise up

To many voters, the Democratic Party stands for the party of handouts and the status quo. Enough is enough, says Nathan R. Shrader

Sunday, June 03, 2001

Democratic Party losses in races across Western Pennsylvania and statewide over the past eight years can be described with only one word: brutal. The once prominent and unbreakable Democratic machine has become a fixture of the past, with no real plan of action to address the problems faced by the party in the future.

The Democratic Party must make a real effort to attract new, young faces to the ranks of the party and re-evaluate its system of selecting candidates and determining which issues are important enough to promote to the people in the public spectrum.

  Nathan R. Shrader is a junior at Thiel College in Greenville, majoring in political science. He has been involved in the Democratic Party in Westmoreland County and at the state level since age 13.  

The Democratic Party comes off as one that is old, tired and lifeless. We keep running candidates who cannot identify with the needs and concerns of mainstream Pennsylvania. We choose issues which played well 30 years ago (or never played well at all), but are simply not able to motivate voters to pull the Democratic lever today. The insiders and interest groups who have controlled the state Democratic Party since the 1940s are still in the driver's seat.

We have made no effort to build a new, winning coalition that can attract younger voters and cast a much-needed image change for the party. In order to pull ahead into the 21st century and meet the needs of the changing electorate, we must readjust our ways of identifying issues and selecting candidates in order to actually win elections. As a college student, I see on a daily basis the sheer number of people who are turned off by our government and especially by the clannish tendencies of Democratic politics. Outsiders see the Democratic Party as an organization of insiders who lack the understanding of what goes on in the real world. In many cases, these folks are right.

To many voters, the Democratic Party stands for the party of handouts and the status quo. Enough is enough. The Pennsylvania Democratic Party must take a stand to represent middle America, wired workers, middle management families, minorities, women, government reformers, idealistic young people, educated voters and suburbanites. At the present stage, the state party does not represent these groups and families adequately.

Al Gore lost to George W. Bush nationally because he played the outdated and nonsensical "us against them" theme, attempting to pit the lower and middle classes in social and economic conflict with those whom Dick Gephardt foolishly calls "the winners of life's lottery." Voters are smarter than that. Bill Clinton was able to win votes from the upper middle class because he was inclusive and made a place at the table for families in all economic categories.

We expect voters to fall for our plans to "save Social Security." So far, no Democrat has even suggested a reasonable plan such as means testing, which will actually help to solve the problem. If the current Democratic "plans" are followed, we will all be out of luck when the system goes under sometime shortly after 2032. I suppose that to most Democratic officials, "saving" Social Security means doing nothing, letting the clock tick away, watching taxes go up, seeing benefits go down, and allowing more government borrowing to take place.

Instead of building the courage to take a stand on newer, better ideas, our party leadership falters in fear of offending those who think that free trade is bad, that Social Security will never run out, that all public schools are great and that government should guarantee success and opportunity.

If our party leadership hopes to win elections in the future by subscribing to the above notions, it is walking lockstep into a mirage.

Some believe that by unifying the party behind one candidate and wiping out primary election competition is the way to harness a greater number of general election successes. This is simply not true. In fact, this is the type of inside maneuvering that turns people off, and these actions truly are nothing but a slap in the face of the democratic process and good government.

The first example is the U.S. Senate race in 2000. If party insiders had let the chips fall, Ron Klink would have lost the primary (or better yet, would have stayed out of it all together), and in turn, Rick Santorum would have lost the general. It was disheartening to see new, refreshing candidates like Bob Rovner, Allyson Schwartz and Murray Levin ignored by the party.

The second example was the 4th Congressional District primary. The party felt compelled to nominate one of their own insiders for the job, and Melissa Hart easily defeated him. Meanwhile, youthful and energetic candidates like Jack Machek of North Huntingdon and Jerry Hodge of Beaver County were rejected and discouraged by the party elite. Is it any wonder we lost that one?

Finally, the Rendell/Casey primary next spring is one that will sharply divide the party. Party leaders are already discouraging the more accomplished and exceptional candidate, Ed Rendell, and prematurely endorsing Casey. Some insiders are even attempting to encourage Rendell, a man of true integrity and ability who saved the city of Philadelphia from economic ruin, to bow out of the race. So the cycle of Democratic losses will apparently continue.

It is time for the state Democratic Party to confront the realities of the 21st century. It must develop a message that resonates with modern times, and select candidates who stand for something other than politics as usual and who are not bound to the special interests of the old machine days of party.

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