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How the Democrats Blew It 

The blame starts with Daschle and Gephardt

Wednesday, Nov 6 2002
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The Republican sweep of the midterm congressional elections -- in which the party in power in the White House increased its margins in both House and Senate for the first time since FDR managed the same grand slam in 1934 -- was the Democrats‘ own fault. Why? Because all year the spineless, poll-driven Democratic leadership -- mired in a craven caution to perpetuate its half of the incumbent-protection racket, shackled to Corporate America by campaign cash, and cowed by Bush’s poll numbers in the wake of 911 -- systematically offered voters an echo, not a choice. They had absolutely nothing to say that might have grabbed the attention of a sleepy and cynical electorate. And the Democrats were also strategically brain-dead, playing the game the Republicans had scripted for them.

When Tim Russert tried to organize a series of 11 Senate debates on Meet the Press in October, he harvested nine rejections from the Democrats (as opposed to just two GOP refusals). The Democrats were too afraid of being put in a position where they might have to say an unkind word about Dubya, viewed by the rest of the world as a ”dangerous man who can‘t manage to chew a pretzel and watch television at the same time“ (as the British daily The Guardian recently put it).

In the days before the polls closed came the perp walk by Enron’s multi-indicted CFO, new questions about Bush‘s Harken petroscandal, and the election-night firing of SEC Chairman Harvey Pitt -- all reminders of how the issue of corporate corruption could have been a powerful weapon in Democratic hands, if they’d chosen to use it. When the corporate scandals first broke with the collapse of Enron last fall, the Democrats should have been all over the issue. But they were remarkably lethargic, waiting until a whole series of boardroom crooks paraded before GOP-controlled House committees to take the Fifth before finally, in July, regurgitating a tepid corporate-reform program hardly distinguishable from Bush‘s. In fact, Bush unveiled his before the Democrats did, making it seem as if they were merely reacting to the president’s initiative.

Why were the Dems so slow on the uptake? Because they were just as much on the corporate payroll as the Republicans. Take Enron: Setting aside the $2 million it gave in the presidential year of 2000 -- when Ken Lay and his cronies tilted heavily to Bush -- in the years preceding its collapse, Enron had ladled out $4 million in corporate campaign cash evenly to the Democrats and Republicans. Global Crossing -- whose mad merger-mania was possible only because Bill Clinton‘s Justice Department pretended the nation’s antitrust laws simply didn‘t exist -- did even better: Since 1999, 55 percent of its $3.5 million in campaign cash went to Democrats (Terry McAuliffe, the Clinton bagman who chairs the DNC, got to buy pre-IPO shares in Global Crossing at an insider’s price of $100,000 -- then resold them before the company‘s collapse for an $18 million profit). WorldCom’s $1 million in the 2001-2002 election cycle was split evenly between the two major parties.

When the congressional Democrats in 2000 helped scuttle a ban on accountants‘ simultaneously acting as consultants to the same firms they audited -- the loophole that motored Arthur Andersen’s participation in the Enron crimes -- they did so because the accounting industry‘s puissant lobby, the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants, shelled out half of the $8.5 million it gave to candidates to Democrats. And the top boodler? Democratic Senator Chuck Schumer of New York, who sucked in $340,000 from AICPA and the Big 5 accounting firms -- and then lobbied against the reform proposal. No wonder the Democrats shut up on the issue.

Having blown the chance to score points on corporate crime, the Democrats also contented themselves with me-too-ism not just on Iraq, but also on the economy. The tone was set way back in February, when Dick Gephardt -- in his televised Democratic reply to Bush’s State of the Union speech -- called for ”policies based on our values“ and proclaimed, ”Our values call for tax cuts.“

So when Gephardt -- following his Rose Garden sellout to Bush that helped give Dubya the blank check for war on Iraq -- on October 15 launched the Democratic offensive on the economy (designed to take back the House) by attacking Bush‘s ”extremist ideology of trickle-down economics and ineffective gimmicks,“ it rang hollow. ”Gephardt Offers Tax Cut in Economic Plan,“ ran The New York Times headline about Gephardt’s so-called ”new economic agenda.“ Yawn. And when he shoveled out some rhetoric attacking the $100 billion in corporate welfare ladled out under Bush (up just 20 percent from the total under Clinton), Gephardt called not for eliminating the giveaway of taxpayers‘ money but for a commission to study the matter (an ”ineffective gimmick“ if ever there was one). Yawn again. So, is it any wonder that, in the bipartisan HartTeeter Wall Street Journal poll out October 22, just 12 percent blamed Bush for the country’s economic woes (with an equal number blaming Clinton)?

When Gephardt and Tom Daschle green-lighted the shredding of the Constitution‘s balance of power by agreeing to fast-track the Iraq-war resolution, they fell neatly once again into the trap laid for them by Karl Rove -- who told the Republican National Committee even before the State of the Union address that they’d win the fall elections by keeping attention focused on the war on terrorism. The public wasn‘t clamoring for a decision on Iraq before the elections -- in fact, the polls said folks wanted Congress to be the one to declare war, just as the Constitution says, not abdicate its responsibilities and give Bush alone the power to decide. Thanks to the Dem leaders’ capitulation, Iraq dominated the headlines just as voters were beginning to focus in on their choices for November -- precisely as Rove had plotted. And there simply wasn‘t enough time left after Congress passed the buck to Bush on war for the Democrats to get the national discussion back onto the economy -- even if they’d had something bold to say, which they of course did not. Bali, the sniper and other preoccupations drowned out the Democrats‘ feeble demurrers to Bush-think. Moreover, the surprising majority vote against war by House Democrats, after a tsunami of anti-war constituent pressure, showed that Gephardt had misread the mood not only in his party, but in the country. The Gephardt-Daschle sellout on Iraq was worse than a crime, to borrow Talleyrand’s famous phrase, it was a mistake.

Well, as Harry Truman once remarked, give the voters a choice between a Republican and a Republican, and they‘ll vote for a Republican every time.

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