Terry McAuliffe, chairman of the Democratic National Committee, was barely into his post-Election Day press conference when he smiled and said, “I know I cost the Bush family a little money.” Spoken like a true fundraiser. He meant that the Democrats, by mounting what seemed to be a competitive campaign in Florida against Governor Jeb Bush, had forced the Republicans to spend more money and time than they had planned to defend the President’s brother. On a bad-news morning, McAuliffe cited this as an accomplishment.
What a straw to grasp! Fellow Democrats, feel good today, we caused a bout of indigestion at the House of Bush. No doubt, the election results–with the Senate swinging Republican–was one giant roll of Tums for the Bushies. McAuliffe then went on to proudly describe how the party in 2002, under his guidance, spent three times as much as it ever has on midterm elections. Again, spoken like a fundraiser. McAuliffe hailed the grassroots structure he developed, and the record amount of small-donor money the party bagged.
McAuliffe also talked up Democratic pickups in gubernatorial contests. But what he didn’t mention was message. In fact, he argued that message was not the issue. The Republicans’ edge, he insisted was “tactical, not ideological.” What had turned the election, in his estimation, was George W. Bush’s relentless campaigning on behalf of GOP candidates. Worse, those sly Republicans had used hundreds of millions of dollars in special interest money to blur the differences between Republicans and Democrats on prescription drugs and Social Security. McAuliffe maintained the election results “do not reflect an ideological shift” and that the nation is in the “same place” as it was after the 2000 election: “50-50 parity.”
McAuliffe has spinned himself into delusion. It’s true that that the Republicans achieved their macro win in the Senate by squeaking by in a few close contests (while adding to their majority in the House). But what happened to McAuliffe’s old line that the Ninny-in-Chief and his fellow Republicans were going to be routed by a combination of Democrats outraged over Florida (including still pissed-off African-Americans) and voters upset over their most recent 401(k) statements? The United States may remain a 50-50 nation–though it feels more like 52-48 at the moment–but within that split culture, Bush has proven he is a political power, and the Democrats have demonstrated they have no juice. This is not the “same place” as post-2000. Bush has been affirmed–as has his agenda.
Message matters. Bush had one: support me, the war, and tax cuts. That was pretty straightforward. The Democrats offered, we’re not Bush and vote for us if you’re anxious about the economy even though we don’t have a comprehensive plan for dealing with it. Not much of a bumper sticker there. Besides, we’re-not-Bush is not a great plan when the President is scoring approval ratings in the mid-60s. “Ultimately,” Senator Patty Murray, head of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee (who joined McAuliffe at the press conference), observed, “we could not compete with the bully pulpit and a wartime president.” Now she tells us.