In recapturing control of the Senate and increasing their majority in the House, Republicans both defied midterm election history and threw the Democratic Party into a soul-searching tailspin. President George W. Bush, who campaigned strenuously in key states in an effort to "nationalize" what are typically local elections, has been given credit for this triumph. Assigning blame among the Democrats is more difficult, although House Majority Leader Richard Gephardt has resigned and called on his party to reassess its political strategy. The Democrats lack a national spokesperson of real stature as well as a cogent alternative to Republican positions on taxes, national defense, or cultural values. There are many things wrong with the Democratic Party, but whatever its faults, the nation can’t afford an opposition party in disarray at a time of war and economic uncertainty. The sooner it is back on its feet, the better.
Bush’s political genius can be exaggerated. To be sure, he took risks in so visibly championing Republicans in close races, but he had a strong hand to play. In the aftermath of September 11, 2001, the president’s popularity has soared as the American people have remained insecure and uncertain about the nature of the threat we face. In this context, the White House’s relentless campaign to turn the election into a referendum on the "war against terror" and the threatened war against Iraq appears to have galvanized the Republican base and won over enough independent voters to tip close elections from Minnesota to Georgia into the Republican column. The Democrats failed to enunciate a clear message and to state forthrightly their differences with the president. Not hearing a resounding call for action, Democratic voters did not turn out; not hearing a clear alternative to Bush’s policies, independents voted for the commander-in-chief in a time of national emergency.
Democrats clearly need new leadership and a more compelling message. Neither seems to be anywhere on the horizon. Economic issues that should play to the Democrats’ strengths, such as the growing disparity in incomes, corporate corruption, the steep decline of the stock market, and the return to federal deficits, have been squandered by the support of many Democrats for Bush’s irresponsible tax cuts. Similarly, principled opposition to Bush’s unilateralism in foreign policy has been muted by Democratic support for war with Iraq. Representative Nancy Pelosi’s ascendancy as Gephardt’s replacement may signal the emergence of a more disciplined Democratic voice. Pelosi voted against Bush’s tax cuts and war with Iraq. She does not back down from a fight. Whether this outspoken liberal, whose commitment to abortion "rights" is absolute, can help the Democrats shape a message that will attract nonliberal voters remains to be seen.
Election results, of course, can rarely be reduced to a single cause. To be fair, the Democrats faced a daunting challenge. Their hold on the Senate was precarious to begin with. It was only the defection of Vermont’s James Jeffords that had turned the Senate over to the Democrats in the first place. Money also made a difference. The Republican advantage in fundraising was evident across the country. Most important, however, was the fact that the nation naturally united behind the president after the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington. Democrats, as much as Republicans, were eager to hunt down Al Qaeda and to take every reasonable measure to improve the nation’s security. It is not surprising that there was broad consensus on these issues in Congress. Nor, sadly, was it surprising that the Republicans would exploit national security concerns for political advantage, even questioning the patriotism of Democrats who dared to offer criticism of dubious administration policy. Republicans succeeded, for example, in convincing voters that Georgia Democratic Senator Max Cleland, a man who lost three limbs in Vietnam, was soft on "homeland security."
In time of "war," the opposition party inevitably faces a disadvantage. Political opposition is all too easily cast as disloyalty, as undermining the solidarity needed to defeat a common enemy. It requires a politician of rare talent to negotiate this challenge, and the Democrats have yet to produce one. Osama bin Laden and Saddam Hussein both help explain Bush’s "triumph." But whatever the reasons for the Republicans’ current popularity, the consequences of Republican control of the White House and Congress may alarm independents and galvanize the Democratic base by 2004.
Republicans, of course, controlled both houses of Congress for a few months in 2001 before Jeffords’s defection. Despite the disputed 2000 presidential election, Bush’s initiatives during that time reflected an extreme right-wing agenda, not an effort at building bridges. What the president’s intentions are now will soon become clear. Will he nominate unqualified ideologues to the federal bench, weaken environmental regulation and standards, push to make the tax cuts "permanent," and adopt an even more unilateralist (if that is possible) foreign policy? Fortunately, some compromise with the Democrats will be necessary, especially in the Senate, where sixty votes are needed to end a filibuster. Still, it seems unlikely that the Republicans, who are much more ideological than the "compassionate conservative" face Bush has pasted on the party, will seek much common ground with the Democrats. Despite the presence of idiosyncratic voices like Senator John McCain (R-Ariz.) and moderates like Lincoln Chaffee (R-R.I.), Republicans are much more likely to escalate their demands. After all, the Republicans see themselves as "conviction," rather than consensus, politicians. Cutting taxes is a question of faith, not prudential judgment. Especially daunting, in that light, is the prospect that the administration’s maladroit handling of monetary and fiscal policy, combined with its absolutist position on tax cuts, will push the federal deficit toward $400 billion and the economy to a standstill.
Politically, the nation remains deeply and evenly divided. Little more than twenty thousand votes determined control of the Senate. Republicans would be foolhardy to think that their slim majority in Congress represents a rightwing mandate for change. Having convinced the American voter of the fiction that moderation is the soul of their party, however, it is a good bet that Republicans will now find the temptations of ideology irresistible.
November 22, 2002