One Person's Opinion
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Ernie the Attorney
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Talking Points Memo
Tuesday, November 05, 2002
Before saying anything about the election results, I have to start with the caveat. We all have a tendency to nationalize midterm congressional elections. This is really dumb, when you think about it. Contested congressional elections are decided by swing voters. Swing voters make up their minds at the last minute. And since they don't vote straight ticket, party affiliation, and specifically whether the President is of the same party as the candidate, isn't particularly important.
That said, everyone else is going to search for the meaning of the election results, and if I were to come up with a theory for this, it would be that something beats nothing every time. The modern Democratic party offers no alternative to the Republicans. Support for the Iraq war is a mile wide and an inch deep, yet few prominent Democrats oppose the war, and those who do don't trumpet it or run commercials on it or make it a part of their platform. As for tax cuts for the rich, when you bother to take 20 seconds to explain to a voter that the Bush tax cut is going in bulk to the richest 1 percent of the population, support evaporates quickly. But Tom Daschle can't whip up his troops to support cancelling future tax cuts-- quite the opposite, he encouraged those who opposed the cuts not to tell the public of their opposition, so as not to embarrass those Senators who voted for the tax cut.
The problem with the Daschle strategy should have been apparent long ago. If the opposition party brooks no serious opposition on the two major issues of the day, why should anyone vote for them. This election should be read as a repudiation of Dick Morris' triangulation strategy, which only worked when Republicans were openly supporting numerous extremist positions like abolishing the Department of Education and slashing Medicare benefits. Those days are gone. If the Democrats persist in being a second conservative party, they will continue to lose, over and over again, as befits an organization that offers no alternative to the voters.
I can't help but think of all those Democrats who bashed on Ralph Nader and his supporters for "costing" the incompetent right-winger Al Gore the presidency in 2000. Based on the Clinton record, Al Gore should have beaten Bush by 10 points (just as Bush 41 won in a landslide over Dukakis, running on the Reagan record), and Nader would have been a footnote. Gore lost because of his own incompetence, not because of Nader. And if the Democrats had nominated a candidate that actually stood for something, they would have carried the Nader voters in the first place.
I should note that despite running against the worst Republican candidate for anything I have ever seen in my life (Bill Simon), and despite a huge campaign warchest, Gov. Gray Davis, another member of the Al Gore wing of the Democratic Party, has only a 3 percent lead with 50 percent of the precincts reporting in the California Governor's race. Davis only has 46 percent of the vote, and a Green Party candidate, Peter Camejo, has 5 percent of the vote.
The Republican Party is a party of ideas. Tax cuts, building an empire, sacrificing of civil liberties to fight terrorism, privatizing social security and finding private sector solutions to the health care crisis, school choice, and less regulation of the private sector are all ideas. Many of them are wrong, but they are ideas. Except for school choice and social security, the national Democratic Party has no consistent and articulated position on any of these issues.
Taking strong positions on the issues will offend some swing voters. And it will certainly offend campaign contributors. But political tactics are only effective, in the long term, when they are engaged in the service of ideas. The fundamental problem with the Democratic Party, post-Clinton, is that tactics became the end, and not the means.
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