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Without vision, the party — well, a Senate majority — perishes

Wednesday, Nov 6 2002

It is the first sign of trouble in a play about nothing but trouble. Asked by her father in the first scene what she can say to demonstrate her love for him, Cordelia says, “Nothing.” To which Lear responds, “Nothing will come of nothing.”

Which is a pretty fair summation of the Democrats’ 2002 campaign. 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.

Nothing came of nothing. 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 and 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 re-focus 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 1,020 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. 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 right-wing, 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 Florida’s Jeb Bush, superattorney 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. A fabulously successful lawyer with an affable demeanor, McBride had neither held nor run for office; 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, he lost by 13 points.

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