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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.

 

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 fund-raising.

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 right-wing 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 right-wing, 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 fund-raiser 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 moneychangers from the party’s inner sanctum.

The second order of business 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 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 the 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 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 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.

A version of this piece has appeared on The American Prospect’s Web site at www.prospect.org.


Occupy the Valley!

THE DWINDLING OF THE DEMOCRATIC base in Tuesday’s election had a lamentable effect on two local ballot measures. In Santa Monica, the beachfront hotels managed to defeat a living-wage ordinance that would have applied to the low-income workers of large employers in the city’s coastal zone. After waging a multimillion-dollar campaign prophesying pestilence and famine should the measure pass, the hotels prevailed by a 51 percent to 49 percent margin. On Election Day, they also offered their workers $26 an hour to walk precincts against the ordinance — suggesting that if only such an election were held every day, Santa Monica’s poverty-wage hotel workers could attain a middle-class lifestyle.

 

In Los Angeles, Valley secession failed by just over a 2-1 margin, but narrowly carried, again by 51 percent to 49 percent, in the Valley itself. The city now faces the dilemma of how best to live with a core of defeated yet unreconciled secessionists. The only other time in U.S. history when a government confronted such a dilemma, of course, was in the years following the Civil War — and the policy the North adopted then seems the most prudent and equitable course for Los Angeles today. Accordingly, the Weekly favors a reconstruction policy of armed occupation for the Valley. Troops would enforce voting rights for illegal immigrant day laborers and gardeners, while secessionist leaders would be allowed to vote in future city elections provided they take loyalty oaths pledging never to attempt again to secede. The occupation would end when the ratio of secession stories to all other stories in the Daily News falls beneath 3-to-1.

Harold Meyerson

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