Don't Blame the Messengers

by Robert Butts | 11/11/02 6:00am

Anyone who turned on the TV last Tuesday night got a rare chance to watch history in the making. Even the cable news pundits -- who are not usually at a loss for words -- struggled to find precedent for the GOP's midterm electoral romp, which marked the first time that a first-term president's party gained seats in both houses of Congress in a midterm election since Teddy Roosevelt occupied the Oval Office.

The victory was stunning. Republicans, who only hours before had been steeling themselves for the traditional midterm beating, pulled off what MSNBC's Chris Matthews described as a political trifecta: holding control of the House, gaining control of the Senate and re-electing Florida Governor Jeb Bush (who had been publicly described by Democratic Party Chairman Terry McAuliffe as the Democratic National Committee's number-one target). The fact that Republicans won tight Senate races in Colorado, New Hampshire and North Carolina by comfortable margins and elected new governors in such Democratic strongholds as Massachusetts, Maryland and Vermont was icing on the cake.

Given the unprecedented nature of the GOP's midterm success, those on the left have been scrambling to explain away their loss in what has traditionally been a home game for the opposition party. One excuse that has currently found favor among the media elite -- and, I'm sad to say, the editorial page of The Dartmouth -- is this: the Democrats lost because they didn't have a clear message. (The unspoken implication here seems to be that, had the Democrats only enunciated their platform more clearly, voters would have made the right decision and pulled the lever next to the little "D.") But this explanation strikes me as rather curious. After all, rarely in modern history has an election revolved around such polarized issues " war abroad, terror at home and sluggish economic growth. And on all these major points of contention, the Democrats quite clearly differentiated their positions from those of President Bush and their Republican opponents.

Regarding foreign conflict, Democrats waffled on stopping Saddam Hussein and his lust for weapons of mass destruction. Congressional Democrats wrung their hands over international consensus, and Democratic figureheads Bill Clinton, Al Gore and Walter Mondale all gave very public speeches opposing U.S. intervention in Iraq. Admittedly, despite all this thunder and rhetoric, all but one of the Democratic Senators on the ballot last week voted for the President's resolution authorizing force against Iraq; obviously they read their polls that morning. Still, the Democrats were rather clear in their opposition to using military force in the Middle East.

The Democrat's position was as apparent when it came to national security " by the election, the Democrat-controlled Senate hadn't budged on the Homeland Security bill. They balked because the bill before them would give managers in the new Department of Homeland Security the power to fire incompetent workers. The need for such a provision seems clear, given that the Immigration and Naturalization Service employees who approved new visas for several dead Sept. 11 hijackers months after the terrorist attacks had already occurred are still gainfully employed at taxpayer expense, and those workers in the State Department who granted the temporary visas to let the terrorists into the United States in the first place have not even been reprimanded. But letting administrators sack such employees would require a relaxation of civil-service regulations, and Senate Democrats buckled under pressure from unions to oppose the Homeland Security bill.

There was little ambiguity about the Democratic stance on the economy. Democrats tried to blame the "Bush recession" on the Republicans. They tried ceaselessly to link the President to corporate malfeasance and the Enron scandal -- though, it should be noted, Enron gave money to both parties, and DNC Chairman McAuliffe made a nice little bundle himself from dealings with now-defunct Global Crossing. And multiple Democratic legislators -- such as the erstwhile Ted Kennedy -- called openly for rolling back or even repealing the Bush tax cut.

So, it seems difficult to blame Democrats for not clearly broadcasting their message, or for not sufficiently differentiating themselves from Bush and the Republican Party. Granted, no candidates went to the trouble of printing up bumper stickers that read: "Give Saddam Another Chance, Union Jobs Before Security, No More Tax Cuts," but I hardly think that would have improved their showing at the polls.

The problem wasn't with the Democratic messengers -- it was their message. They set themselves up as the anti-Bush party. Fueled by anger over Bush's victory in 2000, the DNC clamored for a new referendum on the President and his legislative agenda. The great irony is that last Tuesday, they finally got what they'd been asking for " just not the result they'd expected.

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