Dems in the Dumps

We have been here before. In the wake of yet another of their periodic election debacles, the Democrats are deflated and dispirited, bothered and bewildered. Bewildered, I think, more than anything else. After all, this is not 1980, the year of the Reagan ascendancy. The American electorate is not clamoring for less government. Indeed, the public's domestic concerns are precisely those issues that congressional Democrats should have won on: better schools, more affordable and comprehensive health coverage, economic security. Yet these are the issues on which Republicans successfully masked their differences with the Democrats.

Bewildered, too, because the Bush administration methodically used the terrorist threat to re-create the political advantage the Republicans enjoyed during the Cold War. Its strategy was to push beyond the real questions of homeland security, on which a bipartisan consensus plainly exists, to causes that may not affect homeland security at all -- indeed, that may diminish homeland security -- but that Democrats are reluctant to endorse. That was the logic of forcing the vote on Iraq, and of larding the homeland-security bill with anti-labor provisions that the Democrats could not support.

Bewildered, in short, because the Republicans played hardball while -- truly bewilderingly -- they themselves did not. For while the GOP did everything to press its advantage on homeland security and to obscure its disadvantage on economic security, the Democrats did nothing to press their own advantage on matters economic. According to an election-night poll conducted by the Greenberg Quinlan Rosner firm for the Campaign for America's Future, voters favored the Republicans over the Democrats by 59 percent to 19 percent on the question of which party could better keep America strong. Asked which party was on their side, however, they favored the Democrats by a whopping 1 point -- 38 percent to 37 percent.

This is a defeat that the Democrats need to quickly demystify. They did not lose this election because they were too far left but rather because they did almost nothing to rally either their diehard or their sometime supporters. If they misread this month's mournful numbers -- if they shun a progressive-populist economics, or flee from a defense of environmental or pro-choice policies -- then they cede all the wedge issues to Karl Rove's Republicans.

What's atrophied during the past couple years is the Democrats' basic political instincts. Clearly, some behavioral modification is in order: instilling self-confidence about the ongoing viability of Democratic values, reducing the party's dependency on corporate megabucks, finding a whole new generation of political consultants, hanging Democratic National Committee Chairman Terry McAuliffe by his heels above any one of Washington's numerous traffic circles. (For a party chair, neglecting to wage a get-out-the-vote campaign should be a capital offense.)

Over the past two years on Capitol Hill, for instance, the Democrats have shunned popular positions as frequently as they have risky ones. With the markets in free fall, the Democrats authored a bill reforming accounting practices that the Republicans were compelled to support. And there they stopped. Though his colleagues urged him to support legislation reducing the stratospheric stock options of CEOs, legislation that the GOP would have had to oppose, Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.) demurred. The CEOs of Silicon Valley had put good money into Democrats' coffers to keep such a thing from happening. So it didn't happen, and polling showed that the public believed Republicans were every bit as committed to corporate reform as the Democrats. Even worse, Daschle actually led the charge for bankruptcy-reform legislation that would benefit the banks at the expense of small-fry creditors.

This is not to say that the Democrats' problems are all self-created; far from it. George W. Bush is a wartime president presiding over a vitally important, understandably popular but largely imperceptible war on terrorism (which is by no means synonymous with a war on Iraq). Perhaps for this reason (because the thought of Bush failing can be a little scary), the public also has refused to hold him accountable for the sorry state of the economy, giving him a pass the likes of which no other U.S. president has ever received. These are genuine political conundrums for the Democrats. But they are no excuse for the Democrats' failure to exploit the conundrums that could have vexed the Republicans this November -- but did not.

Nothing reflects this strategic asymmetry more clearly than the voter turnout figures in the election just completed. The collapse of the Voter News Survey's national exit poll has complicated the task of assessing who exactly voted and who didn't in the midterm elections, but what evidence we have suggests that this was a whiter and wealthier electorate than anyone but Rove anticipated.

That's certainly an inescapable conclusion in the one-eighth of the nation that was successfully surveyed by an exit poll: California. What the Los Angeles Times' exit poll makes clear is that, as a share of the overall electorate, Latino and black turnout tanked between the 1998 midterm and this year's, so much so that the percentage of white voters increased from 64 percent four years ago to 76 percent this year.

And the whitening of the electorate does not seem to have been limited to California. Fox News conducted phone polls of voters on election night (an admittedly imperfect methodology), and concluded that the white share of the electorate grew in a number of "battleground" states from its figure in 2000: in Florida by 9 percent, in Colorado by 5 percent, in Missouri by 4 percent.

Rove is off trumpeting November's victory as a harbinger of a Republican realignment, but these figures on race call that analysis into question. If the Republicans must depend on the electorate to grow whiter in a nation that is growing less white, they are building their house from straw. And depend they must, as a look at the voting preferences of blacks and Latinos this November shows that outside of New York, where Republican Gov. George Pataki (running on a close-to-Democratic platform) appeared to pull down close to 40 percent of the Latino vote, Latinos and blacks voted Democratic by their usual margins.

To be sure, Republicans did do better than they customarily do among white voters. The last pre-election Gallup Poll, which correctly predicted the GOP's margin of victory, showed the Republican advantage over Democrats with white voters had grown from 12 percent in the presidential tally of two years ago to 20 percent this year. That increase is due at least as much to the Republicans' extraordinary base-mobilization program as to the changing preference of white moderates, which in itself -- minus the GOP's success and absent the Democrats' failure to turn out their respective bases -- would not likely have produced this month's Republican victories.

But the choice between a strategy geared toward turning out the Democrats' core voters and another intended to win over the swingers is in many ways a false one. An economic policy that stimulates the economy by putting more money into the hands of working-class and middle-class voters, for instance, is the kind that turns out both -- and that actually elects Democrats.

And it's exactly the kind of economics that congressional Democrats need to put forth over the next two years. Because the Republicans are determined to force votes on tax cuts, the Democrats should counter with tax-cut amendments of their own -- reducing, for instance, the payroll taxes that take so much money from many millions of working-class Americans and several million American small businesses. That's a debate that Democrats can win, if not on the floor of Congress then at least with the public at large. The only thing that could impede them would be their own green-eyeshade, fiscal-responsibility zealots. By pushing these cuts, leaders Tom Daschle and Rep. Nancy Pelosi (Calif.) would be giving the party a wedge issue of its own.

Moreover, the threat posed to Democrats who espouse liberal (as distinct from progressive-populist) positions on a range of social issues in the coming congressional session has been greatly overstated. The constituencies committed to arctic drilling are small. Opposing the confirmation of far-right judges will cost the Democrats the support of far-right voters, but hardly anyone else. No Democratic senators were unseated for failing to confirm Robert Bork.

The future direction of the party won't be charted by its congressional delegations, of course, but by the men (as yet, no women) who will soon announce their candidacies for president. None of these is a tabula rasa (though North Carolina Sen. John Edwards is only now being invented), and it's not too early to situate the field.

The candidacy of outgoing House Minority Leader Dick Gephardt (D-Mo.) looks to be stillborn. Gephardt not only lost seats in a year when it's customary to win them, but he did so while endeavoring to align the party with Bush's obsessive hawkishness on Iraq. It's hard to imagine a twofer better calculated to estrange Democratic voters and funders alike. Daschle carries some of the same stigma as Gephardt, and as minority leader, he'll be trapped responding to Bush's initiatives and hammering out compromises within his caucus more often than he'll be able to put forth ideas of his own.

Al Gore has already positioned himself as the anti-Gephardt; indeed, by the benchmark of his 2000 campaign, he's the anti-Gore, too. The supporter of the Gulf War became the first national Democratic leader to oppose Bush's call to attack Iraq and the belligerent unilateralism of administration foreign policy. The man who savaged Bill Bradley for proposing universal health coverage while the budget was in surplus now supports a single-payer plan at a time when deficits loom over the economic landscape. Gore seems determined to ingratiate himself to a liberal primary electorate as something of a progressive renegade -- making a virtue of the fact that the party elite is still justly steamed at him for losing the 2000 contest to Bush and the Supreme Court. If the born insider can transform himself into a born-again outsider, Gore will prove himself a far abler pol than he's ever been before. For this transformation to be complete, however, the inventor (really!) of the Social Security lockbox will have to shuck his balanced-budget mania and acknowledge that in a downturn, a stimulus may actually be a good idea.

As Gore moves left, the gap between him and erstwhile running mate Joe Lieberman becomes just about the widest rift in the Democratic Party. A hawk and an anti-populist in a reflexively (and reflectively) dovish, populist party, Lieberman's only hope is that all his more liberal opponents will eliminate one another. But the strategy that didn't work for Sen. Henry M. "Scoop" Jackson (D-Wash.) in the 1970s is unlikely to work for Lieberman now; at the end of the contest, he'll have to face the last liberal standing.

Vietnam veteran and current Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) is well positioned to formulate an alternative national-security policy, something that all the candidates will be required to do. As a Massachusetts liberal, he'll also boast a stellar record on issues of concern to most liberal cause groups. And yet as a constant critic of the approaching Iraqi war who nonetheless voted in almost perfunctory fashion to support it, Kerry has opened himself to accusations of opportunism, if not downright dissociation.

The idea of John Edwards, the upper South moderate with an appeal to swing voters, has excited Democrats for the past couple of years. The actuality of John Edwards, a freshman senator who's run for office exactly once (eking out a bare 51 percent victory) and who delivers platitudinous speeches and wafts vacuously through the Sunday talk shows, is a good deal less compelling. Nor has Edwards yet decided if he's a tax-cutting populist or a budget-balancing deficit hawk. He has Clinton's geographics but none of his genius.

Outgoing Vermont Gov. Howard Dean is the dark horse whose modestly trailblazing causes -- for universal health coverage and against the Iraqi war -- have suddenly been taken up, in more vehement and thoroughgoing fashion, by front-runner Gore. This gives Dean the option of running on an authenticity platform, for whatever that's worth.

What each of these candidates must cultivate is a serious perspective on national security, one that enables him to draw the distinction between the imperatives of the multinational war against al-Qaeda and the White House's insistence on a diversionary course of empire building. Each needs to learn again the basic arts of Democratic politics: how to advocate for the bottom and middle of the economic spectrum from where Democrats draw their support.

None of this, of course, guarantees a Democratic victory in 2004; the condition of the economy and of the war, if there is one, will determine the tilt of the playing field. But unless the Democrats remember how to play this game, not even a quagmire in Iraq and a recession here at home can be counted on to sweep them into power.

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