Democrats may have cried into their cereal on Wednesday morning, but they should realize four lessons that will determine whether or not the party can recover and seriously challenge the Republicans in 2004.
1) Control of the Senate ultimately came down to a few races where the Democrats simply did not run effective local campaigns. Assuming Democratic Sen. Tim Johnson maintains his paper-thin lead in South Dakota, it seems that the Republican majority can be attributed to two states where last-minute mistakes cost Democrats seats they needed to retain: Georgia and Minnesota.
In Minnesota, Democrats did nothing less than self-destruct in the aftermath of Sen. Paul Wellstone’s death. The self-righteousness of Gov. Jesse Ventura notwithstanding, Wellstone’s funeral — where Dick Cheney was rebuffed and both Republicans and Ventura were booed — gave Republicans an added excuse to come to the polls. Any sympathy Walter Mondale might have gained was lost because the Democrats failed to transcend politics.
And if you still believe that negative campaigning turns off voters, meet Sen.-elect Saxby Chambliss of Georgia. Chambliss’ campaign released one of the nastiest ads in recent memory, accusing incumbent Sen. Max Cleland of being unpatriotic for his votes on homeland security. Except Cleland, a moderate Democrat, lost two legs and an arm while fighting in Vietnam. The Democrats did not respond to Chambliss’ offensive, believing that Cleland’s seat was safe, and ignored polls that showed a race becoming much tighter as election day approached. Too aggressive in Minnesota and not aggressive enough in Georgia, national Democrats simply did not play the right cards to ensure control of the Senate.
2) Even if the Democrats ran local campaigns ineffectively, the conventional wisdom about midterm elections — that all politics is local — simply did not apply this year. On a national level the Democrats failed to make a case for their policies, and a lack of a coherent ideology — on Iraq, on the economy, on just about anything — meant voters didn’t find a good reason to show up at the polls and vote Democratic. Perhaps the most striking thing about this year’s election is that the Democrats opened their nationwide campaign with hopes and expectations of taking complete control of Congress, but even before Election Day, Democrats seemed resigned to another term with a Republican House.
Too often this year, Democrats merely reacted to the Republican agenda without creating their own platform. Whether or not Newt Gingrich’s agenda was successful or reasonable, the “Contract for America” he presented in the 1994 midterm elections was a coherent alternative to Clintonite policies — and it worked at the polls. The Democratic Party stands for something very different than the GOP, but in 2002, nobody made that case.
3) The White House succeeded in making this election a referendum on President Bush — and he won. Ever since Bush came to power amid questionable circumstances, Democrats have never fully recognized Bush’s popularity. But ask any GOP Senator or Congressman who won a close race on Tuesday why they prevailed, and they will almost invariably cite Dubya’s support. And the ghosts of Florida 2000 are not going to bring the Democrats redemption: just look at Jeb Bush’s surprisingly lopsided win and Rep.-elect Katherine Harris heading north to Capitol Hill.
The outcome of the campaign made it obvious that while Bush is the leader of the GOP, the Dems are a body without a head. If nothing else, the campaign may have pared down the contenders for the 2004 presidential race. Suddenly, many of the front-runners — Dick Gephardt, Tom Daschle, and Al Gore, to name a few — look overmatched by President Bush. The Democrats need new, charismatic leadership with a vision for the party, and they need it fast.
4) OK, so the Democrats are the minority party in both houses, and Republicans will, at least temporarily, succeed in putting forth their agenda — including the appointment of judges, Social Security privatization, permanent tax cuts, and a war on Iraq. But both houses of Congress are still very evenly divided, and pending recounts, Democrats picked up three or four governorships. Add in Congressional redistricting — which made the large majority of House incumbents safe — and Bush’s post-Sept. 11 popularity, and the Democrats can blame much of last Tuesday’s outcome on bad timing.
In a country where voters are increasingly disappointed with the options offered by both parties, the Democrats just didn’t make the case for their leadership this year despite a weak economy and the public’s uneasiness about an invasion of Iraq. For a party that prides itself on offering a better vision for America, that’s just not good enough.
Jacob Leibenluft is a freshman in Timothy Dwight College.