A Choice Not an Echo

The election returns last Tuesday for the Republicans were statistically remarkable and they follow a statistically remarkable election in 2000. Given the state of the economy in 2000, models of election outcomes constructed by political scientists predicted that Vice-President Al Gore would win the election with 56 percent of the vote. Perhaps Gore was a particularly inept and unattractive presidential candidate. Perhaps Gore was just too burdened with the Clinton scandals. Nonetheless, the 2000 presidential election should not have even been close and Bush eked out a victory.

Traditionally, the president’s party looses in the Congressional elections two years after the presidential election. Sometimes they loose big, sometimes they loose small, but the president’s party rarely wins Congressional seats. Last week, the Republicans bucked this historical trend and gained a few seats in the House. Before this last election, no president flipped the Senate to his party. Last week, President George W. Bush and the Republicans did this. All this is even more remarkable given the fact the electorate is pretty well evenly split ideologically.

Perhaps Bush was just the fortunate recipient of the natural tendency of Americans to rally around the president in times of war. However, after a series of opportune elections that defy statistical tendencies, it is time to concede that the supposedly dim witted president has managed to outwit the politically sophisticated Democrats.

After the Republicans swept into control of the House of Representatives in the 1994 elections under Newt Gingrich, Republicans read too much into the results. There was not a major ideological shift. The electorate was just fed up with the Clinton Administration’s first two years. Republicans started talking about a new American Revolution, large reductions in the size of government, and started portraying themselves as radicals. Americans are too sated to be radicals and re-elected Clinton in 1996.

No matter how unprecedented and successful for Republicans, last Tuesday did not represent a sea change in ideology. It was the country saying that in times of war, it does not want divided ineffectual government. The country simply gave Bush a tentative free hand to see what he could accomplish.

To his credit, Bush sent out a memorandum to Republicans not to gloat. Bush has accumulated substantial political capital. He must be willing to use it, but use it wisely. Importantly he can get his judicial nominees to the floor of the Senate, but he would be wise to avoid ideological lightening rods, and push through a series of solidly Conservative nominees. He can push through tax cuts, but would be wise to do so in the context of fiscal spending discipline.

In some ways, the Democrats lost seats in the House and lost the Senate altogether, less because of ideology and more because they didn’t seem serious. Democrats managed to make a last minute substitution of Frank Lautenberg for the politically flagging Senator Robert Torricelli in apparent violation of the letter of election law in New Jersey. Democrats won the Senate seat handily, but for much of the country Democrats seem more interested in retaining power than playing by the rules. This view of Democrats was reinforced in Minnesota, when a memorial service for Senator Wellstone, who had died tragically in a plane crash, turned into a highly partisan political rally. Finally, Democratic Chairman Terry McAuliffe’s Ahab-like puerile efforts to unseat Jeb Bush in Florida diverted necessary resources from races that Democrats had a better chance of winning. The potential embarrassment of President George Bush was more important than helping other Democratic candidates in other states.

The Republican and Democratic Party web sites on November 9, 2002 provide a metaphor for the seriousness of the parties. The lead story at the Republican site was “Bush Hails Unanimous Passage of Security Council Resolution on Iraq.” The Democratic site’s lead story is that “SEC Chair Harvey Pitt Resigns in Wake of Scandals.” While the Republicans are concerned about war and peace, Democrats are worried about the chairmanship of the Securities and Exchange Commission. That issue surely has its place, but it seems rather anemic as a rallying cry.

When the Republicans faired poorly in the 1998 elections, I wrote:

“If anything, Republicans should learn that rather than just trying to slide to an election victory, they must articulate their vision. Sometimes, such forthrightness will lose, sometimes it will win, but half-hearted, timid Republicans will inevitably lose.”

The same advice applies to Democrats. They must have a vision beyond mere political victory. Democrats can now decide if they wish to tact to the Left, to be a “choice not an echo.” They will likely do so with Representative Nancy Pelosi as the House Minority Leader. If Pelosi leads the Democratic Party to the Left, particularly with regard to national security issues, they may be true to their principles, but the Democrats will spend some time in the political wilderness. That is not necessarilly a bad thing for Democrats in the long run.

Or Democrats could choose to follow the moderate Democratic route, the route outlined by the Democratic Leadership Council. After all, when Democrats Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton ran as moderates they won the presidency. Liberal candidates, George McGovern, Walter Mondale, and Michael Dukakis lost. Moderate Democrats are closer to sharing the mood and tempermant of the country.

Either choice is possible and defensible. The Democrats must decide who they are and what they stand for. Whatever they decide, Democrats need to be serious.

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