George W. Bush may have lost the 2000 election, but he won the 2002 election--with a good deal of help from Democrats, who took a dream scenario and turned it into a political nightmare. Only in battles for statehouses did Democrats post gains, and even there the victories were fewer and farther between than had been anticipated.
Bush made himself the critical player in this year's election races. After his political team recruited the candidates, raised the money and ginned up a war vote in order to redefine the fall debate, Bush became the Campaigner in Chief. In visits to fifteen states in the five days before the election, he promised voters permanent tax cuts, conservative judges, a Department of Homeland Security and an ousted Saddam Hussein. And at the close of a relentlessly negative campaign season, Bush offered an oddly optimistic and conciliatory message--shapeshifting into a proponent of prescription drug benefits, a defender of Social Security and, in Minnesota, a friend of the late Senator Paul Wellstone.
Democrats countered with an agenda that was so anemic that candidates were forced to fend for themselves. Some, like Maryland's Christopher Van Hollen, who defeated moderate Republican incumbent Constance Morella by making an issue of the extreme conservative bent of House Republican leaders like Tom DeLay, succeeded in nationalizing local contests. Most did not, however, and the list of narrow defeats in House contests that Democrats should have won in Arizona, Iowa, Georgia, Kentucky, Alabama and South Dakota was depressingly long. The Democratic leadership's fits-and-starts approach to the question of whether the Bush tax cuts should be canceled left the party's candidates woefully unprepared to capitalize on economic developments--rising unemployment rates and declining consumer confidence--that in the past would have been tailor-made for Democrats running in a new Republican President's midterm. "The big story is that the Republicans had more of an economic plan than the Democrats," said Roger Hickey of the Campaign for America's Future.
Where the failure of the Democrats to offer that alternative hurt the most was with their own base. "Bush was out there maximizing Republican turnout while the Democratic leadership was running around saying, 'Look, we agree with the President on the war and we might agree with him on tax cuts and, hey, vote for us anyway,'" says Steve Cobble, a veteran aide to the Rev. Jesse Jackson who noted reports of lower-than-expected minority voter turnout in such states as Florida, where First Brother Jeb Bush coasted to victory in the race for governor. "The Democratic message was not enough even to get Democrats excited."
It is notable that Democrats who lost key Senate races Tuesday were not the party's profiles in courage: Jean Carnahan and Max Cleland were centrists who voted for Bush's tax plan and Bush's war. Courageous contenders--people like Indiana Representative Julia Carson and New Jersey's Rush Holt, who were attacked for their votes against authorizing Bush to wage a unilateral war against Iraq--won handily. Most Democratic representatives and senators who voted against the war resolution won overwhelmingly. Illinois Senator Dick Durbin told a reporter that while campaigning at suburban train stations before the election, "I must have seen 4,000 people, and exactly two came up and disagreed with me on Iraq. I can't tell you how many people stopped in the rain and took off their glove and said, 'I want to thank you for that vote on Iraq.'" Durbin was re-elected by a margin of 750,000 votes. The highest-profile antiwar Senator, Minnesota's Paul Wellstone, would, had he lived, almost certainly have won as well.
No doubt Wellstone would say now, as he did after another bad result: "We don't have time for despair. The fight doesn't change. It just gets harder. But it's the same fight." That's true. But progressives must be realistic about why Democrats lost. That will require them to look beyond spin about how victories in gubernatorial races in Illinois, Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin, as well as several Western states, put the Democrats back into a leadership position in the states. (Losses of competitive gubernatorial races in Massachusetts, Maryland, Vermont, Rhode Island, Georgia, Florida and Texas undermine that argument.) They must also resist the inclination to believe, now that the face of the federal government is conservative from top to bottom, that it will be hard for Republicans to run against government.
The election of 2002 has taught two lessons that should not be lost as the 2004 presidential contest begins: Bush is a relentless and effective campaigner; and the only way to beat him and his party will be for Democrats to distinguish themselves as a relentless and effective party of opposition. "This Republican-lite Democratic Leadership Council approach is a loser," says Senator Russ Feingold. Millions of Americans want a clear alternative to the Republican agenda, but in too many contests, Feingold says, Democrats aren't offering one. "If the results of these midterm elections tell us anything, it's that."
(To read about the outcome of initiative fights around the country, see Nichols's "Online Beat" at www.thenation.com/thebeat).