BONIFIELD: Blowout holds lessons for Democrats

November 17, 2012

Jake BonifieldAs the dust settles on the 2012 elections, new oaths of office will be accompanied by post-mortems by partisans on both sides of the aisle.

As the returns poured into headquarters on election night, the first casualty was the least significant. The president lost Indiana and the Hoosier State reprised its role as a reliable 11-point contribution to the Republican column. Indiana was again red in the simple dichotomy of the digitized electoral map, but it was not ready to embrace the fanaticism of Richard Mourdock.

As Mourdock’s opponent, Sen.-elect Joe Donnelly, traversed the state earlier in the day, he brought along Evan Bayh. The Prince from Southern Indiana shook hands, regaled thankful volunteers with stories of campaigns gone by, and charmed undecided voters as the cameras kept rolling. His presence seemed to evoke nostalgia for a time when it was harder to remember party affiliations and easier to forgive the occasional disagreement with a guy you trusted, who was honest with you and seemed focused on your well-being.

As a party, this is where we need to return.

In large part, this year’s races in Indiana followed a foreseeable pattern. Democrats ran spirited campaigns devoid of substance but laser-focused on the flaws of our opponents. These flaws, however legitimate, have become our only refuge against the self-fulfilling mantra, “This is a conservative state.”

The statement itself is often posed by the political cognoscenti and left to linger alongside the subtle insinuation that, to challenge its foundations, or even less boldly the strategy and messages that derive from its assumptions, is to brandish your naiveté. Don’t you know this is Indiana? Where the gun-totin’, Bible-quotin’ masses won’t stand for anything left of center, even as that center shifts further and further from reason.

This is Indiana. Where Barack Obama convinced a solidly conservative state to embrace a message of change four years ago, where Bayh and his father before him, along with Richard Lugar, Lee Hamilton and others forged a tradition of reasonable centrism without abdicating the issues they felt strongly about, and where hard-working middle-class families need affordable public education, health care and good-paying jobs.

Since when did a serious discussion of poverty and homelessness become taboo? Since when does a message of compassion have to appeal to struggling consumers at the expense of business owners?

The hard truth we must confront, in much the same fashion as our opponents must grapple with the costs of Tea Party extremism, is that we have become a second-choice party in this state. This owes not to the quality of our candidates but to the smallness of our ideas and the timidity of our platforms.

We need bold reforms to lessen the burdens of higher education and to put our state in a position to lead the country in emerging industries. We need to unburden our legislative docket from the red herrings of social issues and focus instead on ushering in an era of sustainable and inclusive prosperity.

We cannot be afraid to engage voters on big issues and to put forth detailed plans. The minutiae of a precise vision for the next four years or the fiscal score of a comprehensive policy plan may not be foremost on the minds of Hoosiers as they enter the voting booth on Election Day, but the sense that a candidate is sincere, knowledgeable and willing to take risks for a cause she believes in matters.

Whoever leads the party over the next four years should study 2012. From a year that magnified our flaws as well as our potential strengths, there is plenty to learn.•

Bonifield is a senior political science major at DePauw University and president of Hoosier Youth Advocacy, an organization focused on increasing youth participation in the Indiana General Assembly. Send comments on this column to ibjedit@ibj.com.


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