"The light has shown that the Democratic Party is alive and well and united,"Louisiana U.S. Sen. Mary Landrieu shouted over the weekend, as she celebratedher victory in the last Senate contest of 2002.
Well? No, but perhaps better diagnosed.
United? Get real.
Louisiana's unique election laws require that, if no contender in acongressional race wins 50 percent in initial voting, the two top vote gettersmust face one another in a runoff election. When Landrieu won just 46 percent ofthe vote on November 5, forcing her into a runoff with Republican Suzanne HaikTerrell, Republican strategists declared that an already battered DemocraticParty would lose another southern Senate seat.
It didn't turn out that way. Landrieu prevailed by a 52-48 margin, and inanother runoff election Democrat Rodney Alexander appears to have narrowly won aUS House seat that had previously been held by a conservative Republican.
Indeed, if November 5 was the worst day of the year for the Democrats, December7may well have been the best.
Of course, nothing has really changed. Republicans will still control theSenate by a margin of 51-49 (Independent Jim Jeffords, I-Vermont, caucuses with48 Democrats). And even if Alexander prevails in an expected recount, the Housewill still be solidly Republican.
But when the results of Louisiana's runoff elections were delivered Saturdaynight, Democrats gained a significant psychological victory. President Bush,Vice President Cheney and just about everyone else who has ever clipped on aWhite House pass showed up in Louisiana to stump for
Terrell. "You had anational parade of Republican all-stars coming into Louisiana for Terrell, ledby Bush himself," recalled veteran Louisiana political commentator Silas LeeIII. But the presidential coattails that supposedly pulled so many Republicansinto Congress in November proved to be slippery in December.
But a couple of wins in Louisiana do not a partisan comebeck make. Democratsstill have a tremendous amount of regrouping to do if they want to be seriousplayers in the presidential and congressional politics of 2004. There are stillthose in the party who push a Republican-lite line on economic issues -- anapproach that, had she adopted it in the runoff, would have guaranteedLandrieu's defeat.
Democrats who are interested in unlocking the secret to their party's future --if there is to be one -- would do well to study the race that led to Saturday's win for Landrieu.
How did Landrieu prevail? She started by firing the Washington-based campaignconsultants who had her bragging during the pre-November 5 campaign about votingwith the Republican president over 70 percent of the time. As oneAfrican-American minister in Louisiana explained, Landrieu's campaign actuallydepressed the Democratic vote becuase sincere Democrats have a hard timefiguring out why they should vote for someone who boasts about backing theRepublican president.
After she fired the consultants, Landrieu made a dramatic shift in her message.Instead of claiming to be 70 percent pro-Bush, she highlighted her differenceswith the president and Republicans in Congress -- especially on bread-and-buttereconomic issues. While Terrell did everything she could to wrap herself in theGOP label, Landrieu ripped the White House for secretly negotiating a trade dealthat would undercut Louisiana sugarcane growers. Sure Terrells is a goodRepublican soldier, Landrieu said, but the Democratic senator and her backersasked: "Do you want a label or a leader? Do you want a rubber stamp or a senator?"
"In the primary, Mary Landrieu ran as a friend of Bush. In the runoff, she hadto distance herself from him," says Lee, who noted that Landrieu's switch to amore skeptical stance regarding Bush administartion policies seems to havehelped her draw more African-American and white working-class voters to thepolls. That effort was aided tremendously when, apparently with a push fromformer President Bill Clinton, state Sen. Cleo Fields, a popularAfrican-American leader who has been at odds with Landrieu since she undercuthis 1995 gubernatorial campaign, endorsed the senator in a show of party unity.
Mary Landrieu was no progressive before December 5, and she is no progressivenow. But by putting some distance between herself and Bush, by reaching out tocore Democratic constituencies, and by focusing in on local economic issues, sheoffered an alternative not just to Terrell but to the Bush administration andRepublican policies.
"Many Democrats who ran close to Bush lost in November -- in Georgia, inMissouri and in other states," says Lee. "Landrieu gained an advantage bydistinguishing herself from the president."
For Democrats, that's a healthy lesson. Running scared and then running tooclose to the Bush administration in November cost opposition party candidatesdearly. Running in December on the argument that it is right to say "no" to Bushwhen he's wrong, especially on economics, paid off for the party -- or at leastfor one of its most embattled senators.