Why They Lost
They lost because they were mean and let it show. They lost because they were bullies and kicked sand in too many faces. They lost because they said their opponents were godless criminals who wanted Osama to win. They lost because of Iraq. They lost because they kept saying the economy was great to people with bills and pink slips crumpled on the kitchen table. They lost because voters wanted to let the other team screw up for a change. They lost because fourteen months after Katrina, New Orleans is still a wasteland. They lost because of Mark Foley, Macaca, Jack Abramoff and Ted Haggard, the evangelical preacher with the male prostitute and the meth. They lost because Katherine Harris just wouldn't go away. They lost because people thought it over and decided they liked the Constitution the way it was. They lost because of that weird coin scandal in Ohio. They lost because there are limits. They lost because Bush thought it made a difference if he stopped saying we had to "stay the course." They lost because women don't want to be forced to bear their rapists' babies, even in South Dakota, and they don't want the attorney general investigating their abortions, even in Kansas. They lost because Bob Sherwood's mistress called 911 saying she had locked herself in a bathroom because he was trying to strangle her. They lost because they lied so much and stole so much, the other side started to look honest. They lost because you can only outlaw gay marriage once, and they'd already done that in most places. They lost because they couldn't explain why the mission wasn't accomplished and all those people were dead. They lost because torture is not just wrong, it's embarrassing. They lost because Jesus didn't want them for a sunbeam after all.
You've probably had enough election analysis by now. To sum up: The Democrats won because they ran conservative candidates in conservative places--unless they won because people aren't all that conservative. They won because Rahm Emanuel and Charles Schumer raised a ton of money and targeted it to key races. But wait--maybe they won because the much-mocked, rarely credited Howard Dean was right: His 50 state strategy, building actually functioning parties in every state and conceding no race, however doubtful, forced the Republicans to spend money and energy and political capital defending races they had taken for granted. Early pundits like David Brooks said they won in some places because they courted the evangelicals with smiles for God and guns and frowns about abortion and gay marriage. Actually, probably not: The polls I've seen show the white born-again vote staying with the Republicans, 71 percent, only a smidgen less than 2004.
The gender gap, on the other hand, was back, with 56 percent of women going for the Dems versus 52 percent of men. But what's the matter with white people? White women still favor Republicans (51 percent) down from 56 percent in 2004, and white men still like Republicans a lot (54 percent). Come on, ladies, wise up! These are the pols who want you to quit your jobs, home-school your kids and get your groceries at the church food pantry. Thank God for black people (89 percent Democratic, America's smartest voters) and, woo-hoo, Hispanics--who went from 55 percent pro-Dem to 70 percent in just two short years. English-only that, Karl Rove. And then there were the young, ah, the young!--only 24 percent managed to drag themselves away from Facebook and beer pong long enough to cast a ballot. But at least the ones who voted went 60 percent for Democrats.
So it was a good day. Bipartisanship fared poorly. Goodbye, NARAL-endorsed Republicans Lincoln Chafee and, in Connecticut, Nancy Johnson and (by 91 votes) Rob Simmons. But the election matters as much for what it voted out as for what it voted in. (As if to prove my point, Senate majority leader Harry Reid has told the Washington Post that one of the Dems' first priorities will be to increase the military budget by $75 billion.) Some of our victories, moreover, are not as victorious as they look from a distance. The defeat of the abortion ban in South Dakota was terrific, but Healthy Families, Planned Parenthood, NARAL and the Democrats missed a huge chance to build an ongoing grassroots political prochoice movement. Their activism was low-key and limited to the ban itself, and their focus was on the most limited objection, the lack of an exception for rape and incest. Result: The ban went down, but out of twenty-two prochoice Democratic women running, only two won (a third is in a runoff). Every antichoice woman incumbent prevailed. The state legislature remains controlled by the same people who voted for the ban. No case has been made for abortion rights for women who have voluntary sex. No case has been made for expanding reproductive rights generally, in a state where the Catholic Church controls a lot of the healthcare system. If the antichoicers pass a ban that would exempt sex-crime victims, polls show it has strong support, even more among women than men.
It's always a bad idea to rely on your opponents being knaves and fools who go too far and appall the voters. This time it worked, in South Dakota and the nation. But what about next time?
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There are not many magazine writers who are also thinkers, and Ellen Willis, who died November 9 at the much too youthful age of 64, was one of the clearest, sharpest and deepest. In everything she wrote--for The New Yorker, the Village Voice, Salon and many other publications, including, all too rarely, The Nation--she was committed to liberation, to pleasure and to serious engagement with political ideas--ideas she might find anywhere, in a rock song or a movie or the way the tabloids covered Monica Lewinsky. The short-term tactics and positioning and voter-friendly sloganeering that obsess political junkies held little interest for her. Instead, she taught us how to think about what it means to be modern people. Her last long piece, "Escape From Freedom: What's the Matter With Tom Frank (and the Lefties Who Love Him)?," was a masterpiece of engaged analysis that, like much of her writing in recent years, should have received more attention than it did. I'll miss our all-too-infrequent conversations and the lift of the heart I felt whenever I saw her byline.