As discussed in this column a few weeks back, it's always been tough to make a case for the Democratic Party in this year's election. Even before 9/11, Democrats simply could not frame a clear message. Political disarray showed early on, beginning with the tax cut debates. Some Democrats voted for Bush, some didn't. Significantly, the elected party leadership seemed confused, if not altogether absent. Then came 9/11 and the country shifted into its historical pattern of supporting presidents during a crisis. Wartime presidents often watch that support erode, but not so long as a crisis continues to be perceived, as this one has.
Again, the Democrats, now thoroughly outflanked by circumstances, failed to stake out a position on related issues, from homeland security (originally formulated under Bill Clinton) to Iraq.
Many pundits have accurately stated that in this election actual ideas -- even bad ones -- trumped no ideas. Without a plan of their own, Democrats could not take advantage of the tenuous economy. Nor Bush's absent-without-leave Secretary of the Treasury. Nor the President's reverse "soak the rich" tax cut. Nor environmental issues, long a burden for national Republicans. Nor the cozy relationship between the White House and most if not all of the CEOs now in hiding. Nor the rising deficit. Nor even the president's shameless pork barrel initiatives tossed Florida's way at the eleventh hour in behalf of his brother, Jeb.
In the end, the President deftly invested his political capital into some key races, thereby nationalizing the election. This has left the Democrats in a dazed state and himself in a position to call the tune on Capitol Hill. A mandate? You'll hear the term bandied about, but 20,000 votes here and there going in a different direction and this could have been a very different election. The fact that Democrats performed as well as they did, lacking in coherence as they were, is perhaps more telling than the Republican victories. Let's face it, LBJ had a mandate, with huge majorities in Congress. Bush has a sliver-thin margin to work with, and if Senate Democrats have the guts to take a play out of the Republicans' own playbook, you might start hearing the word "filibuster" more and more.
There will be consequences. Remember all those very penetrating and skeptical questions about the President's Iraq plans that Senate Republicans aimed at administration representatives? They were questions that forced the President to retreat from his original claims -- that he needn't consult with the U.N., that we were after "regime change," that America would go it alone and that he needn't even discuss the matter with the Congress. Remember those questions asked by respected Republicans such as Richard Lugar? Don't expect such scrutiny over the next two years. Instead, expect a grateful Republican Congress to do as it is told, no questions asked.
The slim good news for the Democrats is that they did very well in key gubernatorial races, and now, going into the presidential election in 2004, they are well positioned in the battleground states of Pennsylvania, Michigan and Illinois. That said, they face an efficient Republican political machine that has figured out how to do to the Democrats what Bill Clinton did to them: steal policy ideas while maintaining the party base.
A course of action seems obvious: First, Congressional Democrats must find effective leaders. Dick Gephardt is stepping down, but so should the beleagured Tom Daschle, whose failures were even more obvious. Both men should resign, not to seek higher office, but because their party lost -- period. As do prime ministers when their party goes down to defeat, so should the Democratic leadership leave office. None other than Newt Gingrich broke the trail. In 1998, when the GOP lost much of what it had gained in 1994, Gingrich took full responsibility and immediately resigned.
For the Democrats today, leadership in Congress is critical. Where else will they find a voice for their ideas, assuming they can finally generate some and not merely register complaints? Lacking the personal force of a sitting president and absent an experienced governor who can advance and articulate ideas in the way that, say, a Mario Cuomo did, Congressional leadership must do more than work for consensus. It must fill this "idea vacuum," all the while leading the critique of ideas coming from the other side.
A closing word for those unwisely stuck in denial: The 1980 exit polls showed that voters didn't want Ronald Reagan so much as they didn't want any more of Jimmy Carter. But you know what? It didn't much matter. In the end, only the outcome mattered. If Democrats haven't learned anything yet about George W. Bush, they should realize that this president clearly understands that in politics, might makes right.
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