Diffident Democrats:

A recent widely noted New York Times article recounted the many difficulties that Democrats are having getting their preferred candidates to run in key races in 2002. Many prospective candidates are backing off from running because they believe that the current war against terrorism will make it too hard to run a strong campaign. The upsurge in national unity and patriotism, it is thought, will lead most voters to favor the incumbent party and look askance at challengers.


Good heavens! Can't someone get these timid souls--and the Democratic Party as a whole, for that matter--to eat their Wheaties? Start with the fact that history simply does not support this interpretation. As Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., pointed out in a Times op-ed that ran not long after the original article on diffident Democrats, wartime in the twentieth century has consistently failed to produce immediate electoral benefits for the incumbent party. Consider 1918, 18 months after war was declared: Incumbent Democrats lost both houses of Congress to the Republicans. Or 1942, 11 months after Pearl Harbor: Incumbent Democrats lost 50 seats in the House and 8 in the Senate. Or 1966, as Vietnam was entering the public consciousness: Incumbent Democrats lost 47 seats in the House and four seats in the Senate. Or 1990 and 1992, just before and just after the Gulf War: Incumbent Republicans lost seats in the House and Senate in 1990, and the presidency in 1992, with George H.W. Bush (despite a 90 percent approval rating when his war began) suffering the third-largest drop in support for an incumbent president in U.S. electoral history.

History clearly provides no reason to run up the white flag before the election's started. Now add in the likelihood that we're entering a recession and Democratic timidity starts to look downright goofy. Indeed, the economy was already on the skids before the terror attack, and the attack has just increased the pace of the economy's slide. Just-released government figures show jobless claims at a nine-year high, a level not surpassed since--could it be?--the last time a George Bush was president. And make no mistake about it: This George Bush owns the economy, as incumbent presidents usually do. But George W. and his party are particularly vulnerable because of the tax-cut package they put through and the claims they made for it as an economic tonic. Given where things are heading, the public is highly likely to conclude that this tonic was just snake oil and punish the incumbent party accordingly.


If the Democrats lacked issues to run on, that might explain why they are being so--to put it kindly--quiet. But what's most disturbing about Democratic reticence is that they have plenty of very good issues, from energy and the environment to health care and Social Security to jobs and unemployment. In fact, the emerging consensus before September 11 was that the Republicans had made a series of blunders that left them quite vulnerable to the Democrats on most of these issues.


Polls consistently showed that the Bush administration, seeking to unleash Big Oil on the Arctic and to scuttle the Kyoto global-warming treaty, was viewed as excessively friendly to business and not much concerned about the environment. A poll conducted by CBS in late August found that the public supported protecting the environment over producing energy by a margin of greater than two to one--but viewed President Bush as being more concerned about producing energy than protecting the environment by four to one! And when respondents were asked about oil-industry influence on Bush administration policies, 66 percent said it was too much compared with just 8 percent who said it was too little and 14 percent who said it was the right amount.


Republicans fared little better on a series of other issues. The American public supported Democratic priorities like a patients' bill of rights, a prescription-drug benefit for Medicare, and raising the minimum wage. Poll respondents were also suspicious of the administration's stacked-deck approach to Social Security privatization, and they worried that its signature tax-cut legislation was tilted toward the rich, draining money from Social Security, Medicare, and other needed programs like education.


No wonder that before September 11 the Democrats had more public support--sometimes overwhelmingly so--than the Republicans on practically every issue they were prepared to raise in 2002. In a Democracy Corps/Greenberg Research poll conducted in early September, voters preferred the Democrats by 3 percent on the economy, 7 percent on education, 16 percent on retirement and Social Security, 21 percent on health care, 21 percent on prescription drugs, 26 percent on Medicare, and 34 percent on the environment. (These results were hardly anomalous; they were consistent with the results of other polls taken in late August and early September.)

Of course, much has changed since September 11. But one thing that hasn't changed much is how the public feels about domestic issues and who it favors to handle them. An Ipsos-Reid poll taken at the end of September, several weeks after the attacks, revealed that prospective voters continue to favor the Democratic Party over the Republican Party by 7 percent on education, 15 percent on Social Security, 21 percent on patients' rights, and 32 percent on the environment. In addition, the public now favors the Democrats by 15 percent on jobs and unemployment.


Meanwhile, Republicans are making things even worse for themselves by continuing their tone-deaf approach to domestic policy and exacerbating this tone-deafness by couching their pet policies in bogus national-security terms. The terrorist threat has been proven real. To Republicans, this apparently means: Rich people are good! Wealthy corporations are good! The market is good! Privatization is good!


Such blind ideology leads them to depart from common sense and the interests of the country time and again. How else to explain the continued Republican resistance to a federal takeover of airport security on the grounds that it would jettison the "flexibility" that contracting out provides. (Apparently that means the flexibility to cut costs beyond reason, thereby undermining airline safety and national security.) Just as the left has defended failed experiments with public programs in the past, the right is now being equally myopic in defending failed experiments in privatization.


And on budgetary questions, the Republicans are showing themselves to be very much in thrall to their ideology, with its unpopular preferences for the rich and business above all. They are pushing for a stimulus package weighted heavily toward tax cuts, including such perennial Republican favorites as cutting the capital-gains and corporate tax rates. And they propose to speed up reductions in individual tax rates that are scheduled for 2004 and 2006, a move that would primarily benefit upper-income taxpayers.


In short, the terrorist attacks have not caused the GOP leopard to change its spots and Democrats should not be shy about pointing this out. Yes, during a national crisis it may be appropriate to unite on foreign-policy objectives--but this hardly means it's a time to give the other party free rein to impose unpopular biases on domestic policy. Polling data show that the public is already highly suspicious of the Republicans' chronic preferences for big business and the rich. It will not be hard to convince voters that they are getting more of the same.

Maybe the problem is that the Democrats don't realize how free they are now to pursue the programs that voters support. Take the late and not particularly lamented Social Security "lockbox." The Democrats embraced this accounting fiction in 1999 as part of a political strategy to fend off Republican tax cuts and capitalize on the popularity of Social Security. But like many fictions, it took on a life of its own once enough people were on record believing in it. The consequent necessity to act as if the lockbox were real and important severely reduced the Democrats' ability to propose useful new spending even if it was spending the public favored. The Democrats tried to make a virtue out of necessity by reinventing themselves as disciples of Calvin Coolidge, but it was not a particularly successful or convincing act.


But now they're free. The emergency-spending programs occasioned by the terrorist attacks have returned the lockbox to the fictional world from whence it came. Consequently, the Democrats have a great deal more fiscal freedom to propose critically needed programs--from federalizing airport and other domestic security needs, to reinvigorating our public-health infrastructure, to building the high-speed rail network the country so desperately needs as an alternative to air travel.


But doesn't this run against the American grain of skepticism about the federal government and large-scale spending programs? Not anymore. In the wake of the September 11 tragedies, Americans' attitudes toward government appear to have changed, perhaps as a result of seeing so much government (policemen, firefighters, emergency aid, bailout programs, national defense) springing into beneficial action. While Americans have been increasingly--but slowly--coming to see the advantages of active government since about the mid-1990s, that gradual warming has been transformed into a sudden and decisive thaw over the last few weeks. A recent Washington Post poll shows two-thirds of the public saying that they trust the federal government to do the right thing all or most of the time; that's a support level for the public sector not seen since the mid-1960s. As the headline of an article in The New York Times put it on October 3, "Now, Government Is the Solution, Not the Problem."


And if that's now the case, who you gonna call--Trent Lott? Nope, if you want strong government programs, you're going to go to the Democrats. Thus, the electoral horizon for the Democrats looks extremely bright in 2002. So where are they all? As another Democrat put it a long time ago: They have nothing to fear but fear itself. Anyone out there care to run for office?

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