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.
It is the first sign of trouble in a play about nothing but trouble. Asked by her father in the play's first scene what she can say to demonstrate her love for him, Cordelia says, "Nothing." To which Lear responds, "Nothing will come of nothing."
Which is a pretty fair summation of the Democrats' 2002 campaign. They had no message. They were an opposition party that drew no lines of opposition. They had nothing to say. And on Tuesday, their base responded by staying home in droves.
Nothing came of nothing. The Democrats lost the Senate, lost seats in the House, and picked up significantly fewer statehouses than they had counted upon.
"When I go door-to-door, and they open it up, they don't really listen to me," says Patrick Vilar, a fresh-faced young Democrat who is seeking election to the Florida House of Representatives this November in a district that, the conventional wisdom says, is Cuban, Republican and, for a Democrat, a fool's errand. "They read down the piece until they come to the line, 'Colombian Bar Association,'" he says. "That stops them. They look up and say, 'You're Colombian?' Then we start speaking in Spanish. It's a match."
"Of my three campaigns, this one has generated the most emotion, the most volunteers," Paul Wellstone told me on an unseasonably cool and beautiful afternoon in late August as his legendary green campaign bus bounced along down some Minnesota byway. "My supporters think there's just so much at stake, so much to lose."
With the midterm elections now less than a month away, the Democrats have been split into two camps on the issue of war and peace. The most dramatic split, surely, is the one between the House of Gephardt and the House of Gore. The rift is more glaring because, at least at first glance, each leader has had to reverse his stance on the Persian Gulf War to arrive at his present position. In endorsing a microscopically watered-down version of Bush Junior's original resolution, Dick Gephardt has said just that: He now believes his vote opposing the 1991 resolution authorizing Poppy Bush to go to war was a mistake.