Debacle: Without Vision, A Senate Majority Perishes

By Harold Meyerson
First published by The American Prospect
November 6, 2002

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.

The Democrats lost the Senate, lost seats in the House, and picked up significantly fewer statehouses than they had counted upon.

On what should have been the Democrats’ defining issues, they endeavored to be indistinct. They could never bring themselves to oppose Bush’s tax cut, his trillion-dollar handout to the rich, though that made it impossible for them to advocate any significant programs of their own. Nor could they bring themselves to oppose the White House’s headlong charge into Iraq, though polling showed over two-thirds of the American people oppose a unilateral war. So Missouri’s Jean Carnahan, Colorado’s Tom Strickland, New Hampshire’s Jeanne Shaheen and Georgia’s Max Cleland — Democratic Senate candidates in close races — backed the president. All of them lost.

The candidates were merely following their leaders. Senate Majority (now Minority) leader Tom Daschle condemned the tax cut but did not call for its repeal. House Democratic leader Dick Gephardt supported the president’s Iraqi adventurism and pushed it through the House at the earliest possible moment, so the Democrats could refocus the nation’s attention on their domestic message. Which, unfortunately, did not exist.

This past Sunday, The New York Times published a poll in which voters were asked whether the two parties had a clear plan for the country if they gained control of Congress. By a 42 percent to 39 percent margin, voters said the Republicans did. By a 49 percent to 31 percent margin, voters said the Democrats did not.

On election night, the AFL-CIO conducted a poll of 1020 union members, 68 percent of whom said they had voted for a Democratic House candidate. The members were asked whether they thought the Democrats had clear plans for strengthening the economy and creating jobs. Forty percent of this heavily Democratic working-class group said yes. Forty-seven percent said no.

They were right: In a nation where economic anxiety is high and rising, the Democrats had no economic plan. On corporate reform, they did nothing more than pass a bipartisan bill instituting some accounting reforms, but they squelched stronger legislation that would really have cracked down on corporate abuse — and which Republicans would have opposed. That was Daschle’s doing; he was afraid of alienating the Silicon Valley CEOs who wanted to preserve their stock options. Now, with wall-to-wall Republican control, the CEOs will preserve their stock options. The Democrats also promoted bankruptcy legislation that would have ruined working-class creditors. That was Daschle’s doing, too; he was afraid of alienating big banks. Now, with Republican control, the big banks will be able to run amok.

So Tuesday was a great day for the business interests with whom the Democrats sought to curry favor. Actual existing Democratic voters, on the other hand, couldn’t figure out what their party stood for. The Republicans knew very well what their party stood for; the president spent the final two weeks dashing from state to state promoting a message — get tough on Saddam, get tough on liberals — that roused the GOP base. The Democratic base remained unroused. An election eve Gallup Poll found 64 percent of Republicans saying they were especially motivated to vote; just 51 percent of Democrats said the same.

The base stayed home. In Georgia, where Zell Miller, the Democrats’ most rightwing, Bushophilic Senator, counseled his fellow Georgia Democrats to run to the right lest the good-ol’-boy vote turn, the good-ol’-boy vote turned anyway, while African-American Atlanta didn’t come to the polls, dooming not only Cleland but heavily favored Democratic Governor Roy Barnes. In Maryland, working-class Baltimore voted light, and longtime favorite Democratic gubernatorial candidate Kathleen Kennedy Townsend went down to defeat. In state after state, the Democrats waged a futile campaign to win over their periphery, while failing to mobilize their core. And midterm elections, as they bewilderingly forgot, are all about mobilizing your core.

If the Democrats had a paradigmatic candidate in this debacle year, it was the guy they recruited to go up against Jeb Bush, super-attorney Bill McBride. Early on, it had looked like the Democratic candidate was going to be Janet Reno, Bill Clinton’s controversial attorney general, who seemed to have no chance whatever to win. The state’s teachers unions then recruited McBride into the race. A fabulously successful lawyer with an affable demeanor, McBride had neither held nor run for office previously; he had taken no positions that could damage him with voters. Nor did he take any in the course of the campaign. After narrowly defeating Reno in the primary, he went up against the governor by criticizing Jeb’s record on education. He offered no detailed education plan of his own, however, and declined to take positions on anything else. He needed to mobilize the state’s African-American, Haitian and non-Cuban Latino constituencies, yet he had nothing to say on economic-security or other issues that concerned them. McBride was simply the anti-Jeb, and on Tuesday, that wasn’t enough of an identity to pull much of the Democratic base. He lost to Bush by 13 points.

Or perhaps the Democrats’ paradigmatic candidate was Texas’ great Latino hope, gubernatorial candidate Tony Sanchez, an oil and banking gazillionaire who dropped about $60 million of his own money into his campaign, and who also failed to craft a message of his own. Like McBride, Sanchez assailed his opponent, Republican Governor Rick Perry, for the state of the schools, and also for being beholden to the state’s imploding insurance industry. He had nothing to say, however, to the hundreds of thousands of dirt-poor Latinos, who would have gained greatly from a living-wage law that the legislature had passed but that Perry had vetoed; the issue was not on Sanchez’s radar screen. Nor was he on Texas’; Latino turnout fell understandably short of the Democrats’ projections and the Republicans won both the gubernatorial and senatorial contests in Texas going away.

Or maybe the paradigmatic Democratic candidate was California’s own Gray Davis, who eked out a scant five-point victory over Republican Bill Simon, a candidate of industrial-strength ineptitude. Davis took office in 1998 with a stunning 20-point victory, but he spent the first three-and-a-half years of his term estranging the Democratic base by vetoing countless pieces of progressive legislation, and estranging almost the entire state by his relentless focus on fundraising. In the past couple of months, he was compelled to shore up his base by signing some groundbreaking liberal bills, but it was barely enough to pull him through. For the most part, though, Davis spent his $60 million campaign boodle on relentless attack ads against Simon, driving a disproportionate number of late-deciding voters to the Green Party’s candidate.

California is so Democratic that not even Davis could lose it. The Democrats ended up sweeping all eight statewide offices, though the turnout of the base was so depressed that some of statewide contests that should have been won handily were turned into squeakers. (Of the four incumbent Democrats running statewide, Davis had the smallest margin of victory.)

From one end of the country to the other, the Democrats had nothing to say. And the nation will suffer for their silence.

It will suffer in all the rightwing judicial appointments that will be ratified, for the Supreme Court on down, now that the Republicans control the Senate. It will suffer in the lack of scrutiny that the administration will receive now that the Democrats control no committees. Only the filibuster now stands between the nation and the unchecked rule of the most rightwing, xenophobic and belligerent administration in the nation’s history.

The first order of business for Democrats is clear: They must dump the utterly discredited masterminds of their disaster. Dick Gephardt, Tom Daschle, and Democratic National Committee Chairman Terry McAuliffe, a let’s-make-a-deal businessman and fundraiser of no discernible strategic savvy, went up against a popular president by crafting an indistinct message for undefined candidates. Labor leaders from AFL-CIO President John Sweeney on down should throw their considerable weight behind the efforts to drive these money changers from the party’s inner sanctum.

Were there extenuating circumstances that account for the Dems’ defeat? There are always extenuating circumstances. Corporate money poured in at the end to pay for commercials that vilified the Democrats; the drug companies alone spent enough money to cure cancer had the thought occurred to them. But the Democrats had a record level of money, too. Their problem was less the quantitative imbalance of the commercials than the qualitative one: The Republicans had a coherent theme (backing the president); the Dems didn’t.

The second order of business for the Democrats, then, is message. In a nation where economic insecurity is routine; where anxiety over jobs, retirement and health coverage is widespread; the failure of the Democrats to connect on any of these causes is astonishing. Unions can help Democrats to make those connections: Among union members, according to the AFL-CIO poll, awareness of the two parties’ differences on economic issues is such that 62 percent of white men and 65 percent of gun owners voted Democratic on Tuesday. But only 13 percent of the U.S. work force is unionized; for the rest of America, the party must look to itself to draw distinctions. It must now craft plausible policies that will restore some security to the economic lives of Americans — and that cannot be done without challenging the all-wealth-to-the-wealthy economics of the administration. The party must also move to restore some security to the social lives of Americans; in particular, to defend abortion rights now that administration may soon be able to nominate potential justices who’d create an anti-choice majority on the Supreme Court.

The Democratic Leadership Council and other center-right Democrats will doubtlessly argue that this election proves that Democrats dare not deviate from fiscal conservatism at home and hawkishness abroad. But the dwindling of the Democratic base this Tuesday argues precisely the opposite: that when Democratic candidates cease to be Democrats, Democratic voters cease to be voters. Republicans may have worked to depress Democratic turnout in this week’s election, but the real scandal is, so did the Democrats.

Harold Meyerson is editor-at-large of the Prospect.
©The American Prospect