Course Correction Required

Democrats need to stop playing me-too politics and challenge the GOP on its weakest flank -- its subservience to its big corporate paymasters.

| Mon Nov. 18, 2002 4:00 AM EST

The Democratic Party experienced a historically unprecedented loss in the first mid-term elections since the Supreme Court installed President George W. Bush in the White House. In response, one might think that party leaders would be engaged in a bit of public soul-searching.

Instead, the party's national chairman, Terry McAuliffe, and his counterparts on the House and Senate campaign committees offered nothing but spin, while the skirmish to replace outgoing House Minority Leader Richard Gephardt ended barely before it began, so well-greased was the stealth campaign run by its winner, Nancy Pelosi.

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Citing the Democrats' net gain of four governorships, McAuliffe crowed during a press conference the day after the election that 52% of all Americans now lived under a Democratic state administration, actually claiming that "Democrats are in good shape."

Sure, the Dems gained control of the executive mansions in the big industrial states of Pennsylvania, Illinois and Michigan, but they failed to dent the Bush hold on Florida and Texas, lost crushingly in New York, and were held to under 50% in California by the worst Republican candidate in history (with a little help from the Greens). They gained in Wisconsin, Oklahoma, Wyoming, and Arizona, the latter three putting some blue in the midst of red America, but they lost hold of South Carolina and Georgia and failed to pick up predominantly Democratic states like Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Connecticut and Maryland. (And it's going to be a mixed blessing at best to be a governor facing record state budget gaps and forced to either cut programs or raise taxes.)

Far more importantly, Democrats lost ground in the House and lost control in the Senate. While McAuliffe celebrates a handful of gubernatorial victories, President Bush has a free hand to pursue his agenda to its ideological extreme. Despite McAuliffe's silver-lining spin, the Democrats lost in just about every close race decided on national issues. Democrats are decidedly not "in good shape."

Within hours of the polls closing, Democrats were being told they only had themselves to blame. They were told that they lacked a clear national message, that they lacked a clear plan of action. Faced with such charges, party leaders responded with yet more spin. Congresswoman Nita Lowey of New York, chair of the House Campaign Committee, insisted that all the House Democratic campaigns she and her counterparts raised money for emphasized issues like prescription drugs, education and Social Security. True, House Minority Leader Richard Gephardt did issue a big economy policy statement in the weeks before the election in an effort to draw voters' attention from the Bush administration's war talk back to the economy. But his biggest proposal was for an economic summit. You call that a program? Besides, the Republicans did a very good job of blurring the partisan differences on those domestic issues, while voicing muscular support for Bush's war plans.

As pollster Stanley Greenberg reported on the Friday after Election Day, while there wasn't a genuine shift to the right among the active electorate -- compared to 2000, only one percent of voters shifted from the D column to the R column -- voters had far less of an idea what Democrats stood for compared to Republicans. Forty-five percent said Republicans had clear plans for the future, while only 20% said the same of Democrats. And while a stunning 70% of those who voted said the economy was in fair or poor shape, two-thirds thought the candidates had no clear position on how to fix the problem. The non-partisan Voter News Service failed to deliver its highly touted exit polls last Tuesday, so we don't know for sure how this lack of clarity affected partisan turnout, but Republican pollster Bill Mcinturff claimed that an internal poll his company conducted election night showed Republican voters coming out at a significantly greater rate than Democrats, and comparisons of vote turnouts in selected urban and suburban counties tracked by analysts John Judis and Ruy Teixiera confirm that claim. Republicans came out in force, while Democratic base voters were more likely to stay home.

The Right Risks

The question now is what lessons will national Democrats take from the loss? What will the party learn from the defeat of incumbent Senators Max Cleland of Georgia and Jean Carnahan of Missouri? What will Democrats make of their inability to win the close Senate races in Colorado and New Hampshire? All of this matters because it will frame Democratic thinking as they approach the newly empowered Bush Administration.

Will Democrats continue to play the now-familiar game of me-too politics, so exemplified by House Minority Leader Richard Gephardt's embrace of Bush's Iraq resolution? Certainly, the Democratic Leadership Council wing of the party will argue that Democrats have to tack further right in search of the elusive political center. They will claim that the party must appear less obstructionist on issues ranging from judicial nominations to prescription drug reform, less beholden to labor, and less querulous about the president's foreign policy.

The alternative requires a level of risk-taking that many incumbents fear. To challenge the GOP on its weakest flank -- its subservience to its big corporate paymasters -- requires some courage, because in the short run it may mean more time in the political and financial wilderness. Democrats are already at a fundraising disadvantage, and the new campaign finance provision doubling the limit on contributions from individuals to $2000 will only widen that partisan gap. As a result, many incumbent Democrats may counsel caution, not so much for ideological reasons, but simply because they don't want to offend big sources of campaign cash.

Still, some Democrats have already shown you can fight on these issues and win. Progressives like Senator Russ Feingold and Congressman Jesse Jackson Jr. are already comfortable railing at the corruption inside the temple of democracy. There's good evidence that ads attacking incumbent Senator Tim Hutchinson -- the sole Republican to lose his seat last week -- on his ties to corporate campaign contributors and his opposition to campaign finance reform played a significant role in his defeat. Certainly Paul Wellstone, God bless him, proved in two elections that such tactics were not only good principle, but good politics. Wellstone won by mobilizing a huge grass-roots base and taking on the corporate bad guys by name. He was on his way to proving this strategy again when he was tragically killed two weeks ago in a plain crash. These same Democrats have also been the most outspoken critics of the Bush administration, attacking the president's bungling of domestic issues and his blind focus on war against Iraq.

The Good Fight

The fight to redefine the Democratic future had its first skirmish last week, when California congresswoman Nancy Pelosi handily won the contest to replace Richard Gephardt as House Minority leader. It's about time that the Democrats elevated a woman into a national leadership position, a mere three-quarters of a century after women won the right to vote. But while Pelosi is a California liberal, with strong positions in favor of choice, AIDS funding and human rights in China, she's scarcely the kind of prairie-fire populist the party needs to alter its bi-coastal elitist identity. Many liberals (and plenty of conservatives) are celebrating Pelosi's victory, suggesting it means the party has finally decided to move leftwards.

But, as Doug Ireland notes in his essential dissection of Pelosi in the current LA Weekly; "Pelosi got her new job as minority leader the old-fashioned way - she bought it, raising some $8 million for House Democrats in the last election cycle and crisscrossing the country handing out the checks." True, most of her campaign funds come from organized labor, along with significant sums from the American Medical Association, liberal Wall Street types and Democratic-tilting real estate interests -- a set of backers less conservative than the big business groups clustered behind Rep. Martin Frost, Pelosi's chief rival for the post. But will this new Queen of the Democrats, wife of a multimillionaire, lead a new charge against the money-changers in the temples of democracy? It's doubtful.

For an alternative to Pelosi's big money politics, one had only to consider longtime Ohio Congresswoman Marcy Kaptur, a late entry into the leadership battle. In a ringing statement that got little press coverage, Kaptur declared:

To win, our party must adopt a reform paradigm. We will never raise more money than the Republicans-never. We must elevate the non-money wing of the Democratic Party and create populist symbols to convey our message.
We should hold up key Republican fundraisers, such as Jack Welch and Kenneth Lay, as the 'poster boys' for the failed GOP economic strategy. We should hold the Republicans' feet to the fire on rising bank fees, skyrocketing insurance rates, tax breaks skewed to the richest Americans, and a failed deregulation strategy.
...
We should stand up not only for the steel industry, but also the textile workers in the Southeast, the auto parts industry in the Midwest, and the small businesses such as tool and die shop owner and the family farmer all around the country. They're all in trouble, and nobody's standing up for them because they're not giant multinational corporations pumping money into the political system."

Kaptur barely got a hearing for these sentiments, as Pelosi had clearly been preparing her ascension for months and the Democrats fell in line behind her with scarcely a dribble of debate. Of course, the contest for the Minority Leader's office is only a reflection of the larger battle, one for what's left of the Democratic Party's soul. The odds in that fight are long. But, if the Democrats walk away without a clear party identity -- and without a plan to attack the Republicans' big money foibles, then we'll just see more of the same every Election Day for the foreseeable future: right-wing victories and Democratic spin about what could have been.

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