It’s hard to beat something with nothing. That seems to be especially true when that something includes a quasi-wartime President (post-Afghanistan/pre-Iraq) whose approval rating is in the mid-60s. George W. Bush and Karl Rove took a gamble. At a moment when the economy was slacking, Al Qaeda was reviving, North Korea was going nuclear and Iraq (according to Bush) was threatening, Bush took time off to be a divide-not-unite campaigner for GOP candidates, several of whom his White House had handpicked.

What did the Democrats–under the leadership of Tom Daschle, Dick Gephardt and Terry McAuliffe–put up in response? Not much, in the eyes of many Americans. In a poll published by the New York Times two days before Election Day the pollsters asked, “Do the Republicans have a clear plan for the country if they gain control of the Congress?” “Yes” narrowly beat “no,” 42 percent to 39 percent. But when the same question was applied to the Democrats, only 31 percent said yes, and 49 percent answered no. So the Democrats failed to concoct a meta-message. The GOP is the party of war and tax cuts. The Democratic Party is the party of… well, war too (kind of) and, on tax cuts, not really, but some of us are for them, and in any case we’re not going to fight them, even though others of us think they’re tilted toward the rich and have caused a budget-strangling deficit. Without a clear position on the tax cuts, the Democrats had no clear-cut economic assault. Sure, Gephardt released an economic plan to help working families. But–quick–name one of its provisions.

The Democrats should be sued for malpractice–or nonpractice. A sluggish economy, corporate scandals, deteriorating 401(k)s–they took advantage of none of it. When was the last Senate hearing on Enron? (With the Senate in the hands of the Republicans, there won’t be many of those in the future.) Where was the frontal assault on Bush’s corporate cronyism? It would have benefited from the latest scandal at the Securities and Exchange Commission, which broke the week before the elections. Did the party decry the accelerating gap between wealthy and working-class Americans? Did they revive the call for healthcare for all? What was their slogan? “The economy sucks, so vote for us”? At the same time, national Democrats were praising Bush for performing outstandingly as Commander in Chief. They were saying he could be trusted on war and peace, but not on the economy. That’s a hard sell, while the war–or pseudo-war–is ongoing.

True, the media environment wasn’t favorable for the Dems. Coverage of the off-year election was down. War talk and the DC sniper overwhelmed the national discourse. And those crafty Republicans tried to blur differences and, in most cases, eschewed strategic ideological thrusts. They scurried away from the party’s previous embrace of Social Security privatization. Social Security? We’re for protecting it, too! Prescription drug benefits for seniors? We’re for that, too. In the aftermath of Paul Wellstone’s tragic death, Minnesota Democrat-turned-Republican Norman Coleman revamped his campaign, from attacking Wellstone to declaring his concern for the future. “We’re going to articulate our vision of why the future is now,” he bleated on his way to beating Walter Mondale. Yet Republicans were not shy in whacking Democrats for being weak on national security. The Democrats presented no equally potent blast concerning Bush/GOP economic policy. And they did not offer any initiatives for which the GOP could not produce cover-your-ass copycat versions.

Democrats shouldn’t waste time with excuses. The leaders who failed the party ought to be booted. And now the Republicans are ready to rumble. More tax cuts for the well-to-do. More loopholes for the corporate crowd. More deregulation. More conservative judges. A modest prescription drug benefit the GOP will hail as revolutionary. The path to war will be even easier. The tools left to Senate Democrats are the filibuster and the antidemocratic practice that permits one member to place a hold on a presidential appointment–weapons difficult to use consistently.

Before Election Day, political journalists and poli-sci scholars seemed to reach a consensus that in 50-50 America, neither party had much incentive to engage in breakout politics–politics based on big and bold ideas. Many of them dubbed campaign 2002 “the Seinfeld Election”–it was about nothing. (Elections can have little meaning, but still matter greatly.) But with the dust still in the air, it seems as if the GOP may not have to engage in breakout politics to maintain a significant edge. Resentment over the Florida recount fiasco did not work for the Democrats. Nor did economic anxiety. Nor did McAuliffe’s supersized fundraising. Nor did accommodating Bush. In the next two years, they may have to resort to ideas.