Bear Left! logo: a road sign with a left arrow

Bear Left!

Where else would you get your leftist bearings every week?

Volume II, Number 4918 December 2002

The Democrats Earned a D for Effort

Tim Francis-Wright

Taken out of context, the 2002 election results were not so bad for the Democratic party. It lost a net total of two seats in the Senate and seven seats in the House of Representatives, and won more gubernatorial races than it lost. In context, the election was much worse, because the Democrats lost their narrow majority in the Senate.

More importantly, the Democrats blew a golden opportunity to solidify their hold on the Senate and even to take control of the House. They failed to exploit Republican weaknesses on a host of policies. They failed to make the elections into a referendum on either President Bush or his allies in Congress. And they failed to present any sort of systematic alternative to the Republican status quo. Democrats have suffered too long from a misbegotten notion that they needed to be more like the Republicans in order to win.

President Bush is personally popular, but not dramatically more so than, say, Bill Clinton in 1998. His personal popularity outstrips the popularity of many of his professed policies. The Bush administration faces challenges that should have been easy pickings for the Democrats.

The economy is foundering, propped up only by historically low interest rates and a concomitant spate of mortgage refinancing. President Bush is worried enough about the shape of the economy that last week he demanded, and received, the resignations of his Secretary of the Treasury and his chief economic advisor. The huge tax cut that Bush proposed and Congress passed now stands to perpetuate the federal budget deficit for years into the future.

The "war on terror" has been an embarrassing failure. Osama bin Laden is quite possibly alive and in charge of al-Qaeda. Nonetheless, the administration is chomping at the bit to go to war against a different foe who threatens to destabilize much of Asia with its weapons of mass destruction. That country is not Pakistan, which definitely has nuclear weapons, which aided and abetted the Taliban, and which traded nuclear secrets to North Korea in exchange for missile technology. That country is Iraq, which may not have nuclear weapons, which had nothing to do with the Taliban, and which had nothing to do with North Korea.

The Bush administration's energy plan is a cruel joke on the American public. When Enron and other energy trading companies artificially inflated prices on electricity and natural gas, Dick Cheney and other administration officials scoffed at notions that anything was afoot. They claimed that solving the electric crisis in California required more power plants, not conservation, and certainly not restrictions on the energy traders who were among their largest campaign contributors. As it turns out, the critics were right and the administration was dead wrong.

Large American corporations and their advisors have endured a brutal biennium. Many of the darlings of Wall Street have shown themselves to be playthings for their plutocratic executives. Enron, Worldcom, and Global Crossing are all bankrupt. Tyco is selling arms of its business to satisfy creditors. The investment banking firms, many owned by the largest commercial banks, have had their legion conflicts of interest exposed for all to see. The large accounting firms have become little more than artificial inflators of their clients' bottom lines. Companies using bogus tax shelters or phony offshore shell corporations have done so through the tutelage of their accounting firms. Andersen, one of the world's five largest accounting firms, is doomed, a worthless shadow of its former self.

In foreign policy, the United States has managed to annoy most of our allies, not to mention our enemies. Decades of commitment, at least in theory, to multilateral action, are forgotten. The Bush administration has repudiated global efforts to reduce emissions of carbon dioxide. It has abrogated the anti-ballistic missile treaty with Russia. Its insistence on preempting possible threats flies in the face of centuries of international laws and norms.

The Democrats have failed to united themselves behind any of these themes. Furthermore, Democrats need to realize that they will not defeat the Republicans in 2004 or 2006 unless they can associate George Bush with the policies of his administration, many of which are unpopular. In 2002, Democratic party leaders believed that history was on their side. Historically, the president's party loses seats in the House and Senate during the midterm elections. In order to win those seats, however, the opposition party traditionally attacks the president and his policies, energizes its partisans, and wins in large part from getting its voters to the polls. In 2002, the Democratic leadership did a lousy job energizing its electorate. In many races, Democrats stayed home and Republicans got out the vote.

In addition to poor tactics, Democrats had poor strategies. From the opening days of the Bush presidency, Democrats in Congress fell over themselves trying to come up with a better "middle class tax cut" than the Republicans to solve the "problem" of huge budget surpluses. Those budget surpluses came from the capital gains taxes from the last stages of the Internet bubble. In the end, the Democrats were more concerned with the overall size of the tax cut measure than on whom it would benefit most.

With respect to terrorism, Democratic leaders were more concerned with standing "shoulder to shoulder" with the president than on trying to run the country. When Bush has overstepped or misstepped—on treatment of prisoners; on finding Osama bin Laden; on those ludicrous "terror alerts"—they have been mostly silent, afraid of criticizing a wartime president. It should hardly be necessary to point out that presidents have faced vigorous opposition during actual wars. Abraham Lincoln and Franklin Roosevelt faced strong opponents in 1864 and 1944, opponents who were critical and forceful. Why should an ersatz war stifle an opposition more effectively?

The Democrats even managed to mute what should have been a winning issues for them, the Republican failures in energy policy and corporate oversight. Neither issue is a particularly easy concept, but they are important. Everyone who owns a car or uses the electrical grid is affected by the government's energy policy. And everyone with a 401(k) should care about financial transparency. The Democrats failed to make clear to voters how corporate influence in Republican Washington helped companies like Enron manipulate electric and gas markets at the expense of the public. They also failed to tie President Bush to the failures of his top financial and economic men.

Among the Democratic losers on 5 November were two conservative Democrats, Senators Carnahan of Missouri and Cleland of Georgia. Each lost a close election, in spite of key votes in support of President Bush. Both voted to authorize the use of force in Iraq, and both were among the 15 Democrats who voted for the Bush tax cuts. The Republican Party campaigned heavily against these two in spite of their helpful votes on key issues and overall moderate to conservative voting records. The Republicans ran hard campaigns against them because they were Democrats.

Democrats need to start taking the advice of the conservative Democratic Leadership Conference with a shaker of salt. The DLC, architects of the rightward tilt of the Democratic Party in the 1990s, has led the party to defeat in the name of moderation. The 2002 election showed that moderation in the name of saving one's seat was no panacea.

In Louisiana, Mary Landrieu learned from the losses of her colleagues in Missouri and Georgia. Between the 5 November election and the 7 December runoff, she made three vital changes to her campaign. First, she openly and fervently sought the votes from African- Americans. Second, she promised not to be a rubber stamp for the President in Washington. Third, she promised to represent the poor members of her state in Washington. She knew that the Republican party would not ease up on its campaign because she was more conservative than the average Democrat. Her December victory was quite an ironic one. If she had won a mahjority of votes in November, her victory would have been merely a Democratic victory on a night when the Republicans regained control of the Senate. But because she stood alone a month later, her victory was a significant setback for the Republicans.

Democrats can seize a number of issues in the next campaign that will simultaneously differentiate them from Republicans and broaden their appeal. None of these issues requires a hard leftward turn for the party; none mandates embracing of the labor theory of value. But each does require a step back from the losing copycat strategy of the 1990s.

The Republican party has wedded itself to large corporations, and for all that they stand for. It does not represent the interest of the poor or the working class. The Bush cabinet is full of millionaires, and its economic programs reflect that fact. The tax cuts passed last year, which President Bush wants to make permanent, have minimal effect on the poorest taxpayers but provide windfalls to the richest Americans, the one percent of taxpayers earning over $300,000 per year. The Bush energy plan calls for more oil drilling and more nuclear plants, not for even modest regulation of energy markets so crooked corporations like Enron and Dynegy cannot gouge consumers again. Even the farm subsidy package from this administration benefits the largest farms and stiffs the smallest ones.

Democrats need to start describing the leaders of the Republicans in Congress as the extreme conservatives that they really are. No one should have been surprised at Trent Lott's remarks at Strom Thurmond's centenary earlier this month:

I want to say this about my state [Mississippi]: When Strom Thurmond ran for president, we voted for him. We're proud of it. And if the rest of the country had followed our lead, we wouldn't have had all these problems over all these years, either.

Lott implied that his home state was right—or, rather, the white voters of his state were right— to vote for a candidate who campaigned against federal efforts to stop lynching, to end the poll tax, and to end segregation. He explicitly claimed that Thurmond's loss in 1948 was a loss for the nation.

Trent Lott got himself into a bit of trouble a few years ago for his close association with the racists at the Council of Conservative Citizens. Calling him a neo-Confederate is hardly a stretch. Not only did he ensure the restoration of the citizenship of Jefferson Davis, he even made sure that the Senare's rules would set aside Jefferson Davis's old desk for the senior senator from Mississippi. Lott is not some fringe candidate whose association with the Republican party is a loose bond of convenience. He is the former majority leader in the Senate, the man who controls the flow and pace of legislation. Unless his fellow Republicans decide that he is damaged goods, he will become the new majority leader in early January. There really should be no place in the Senate leadership for someone who has a romantic fondness for one of the truly noxious campaigns in American history. Lott has a personal connection to the Thurmond campaign. His political mentor, the man who hired him as his key congressional aide, and the man who endorsed Lott to run for his seat upon his retirement in 1972, was William Colmer, a segregationist Democrat who ran on the Dixiecrat ticket and platform in 1948 with Strom Thurmond. Colmer foreshadowed the Southern turn to the Republican party as early as 1960, when he supported Richard Nixon's first campaign for president. Endorsing his Republican protégé made the turn official.

In general, the trouble with the Republican party goes far beyond Trent Lott. The "Southern strategy" used by every Republican presidential candidate since 1980 has aimed at the voters who supported George Wallace in 1968. Every kind word that Republicans have for "states rights," every effort to keep the Confederate battle emblem on a state flag, every act of Congress with kind words for Jefferson Davis, every mention of "traditional Southern values" is a clear message that the Republican party is still the unofficial Party for White People Who Hate Black People. I do not mean to single out the South, or even the 11 states of the Confederacy; racism is not confined by geography. But the racist subculture in many southern states is more pervasive and more overt than it is in much of the rest of the company.

For years, the Democrats were the favored party of the racists. Most Republicans, whether they were progressives or conservatives, favored civil rights that were not confined to white people. In 1948, the Democrats began to abandon the racists in the South with the party's adoption of a civil rights plank. Strom Thurmond ran for president in opposition to that plank; in four states—Alabama, Louisiana, Mississippi, and South Carolina—Thurmond won a majority of votes. Twenty years later, George Wallace ran for president in a campaign reminiscent of Thurmond's from twenty years prior. He won five states in the South—Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Louisiana, and Mississippi. In 1972, Richard Nixon succeeded in winning all those states for the Republicans. Since then, the states of the Confederacy have generally been Republican states in presidential election, and Republicans have dramatically increased their representation from those states in the House and Senate.

In the early 1980s, when Republicans controlled the Senate, many of the policy initiatives of Lott and his compatriots in what was then called the New Right went nowhere. Not only did Democrats oppose the conservative wing of the Republican Party, but liberal Republicans thwarted the worst ideas of their own party. In The Transformation of the U. S. Senate (Johns Hopkins University Press, 1989, p. 170-171), Barbara Sinclair wrote that:

liberal Republican Lowell Weicker regularly employed all the procedural tools available to him to block New Right initiatives on so-called social issues. He waged, sometimes alone and sometimes with allies, a series of filibusters aimed at blocking passage of legislation or constitutional amendments on school busing, school prayer, and abortion. His filibuster against antibusing legislation in 1982 and 1983 stretched over eight months.... A six-week filibuster waged with [Republican] Robert Packwood and [Democrat] Max Baucus killed anti-abortion and school prayer provisions in 1982. Weicker took a lead role in the successful effort to defeat a proposed school prayer amendment in 1984. During six years of Republican control of the Senate and presidency, none of the New Right's major legislative goals in the area of social sisues became law.

Lowell Weicker is long gone from the Senate; his successor, Democrat Joe Lieberman, defeated Weicker by running to his right and has proven to be more conservative in practice. No current Senate Republican has the combination of liberalism and tenacity that Weicker showed in those years. Voting nowadays for a Republican, any Republican, for Senate means voting for the Senate Republican leadership and their pet "social issues."

By catering to Southerners who long for the candidacies of Thurmond and Wallace, Republicans walk a fine line. When they say things like Lott said, they risk facing ridicule and fierce objection. But other actions are much safer because they are much subtler. In Georgia, Republican statewide candidates supported restoring the state flag to its historic glory—as long as "historic" meant "first flown in 1956"—dominated by the traitorous Confederate battle flag. When John Ashcroft accepted an honorary degree, or when he or George W. Bush gave speeches, at a university in South Carolina, they had had plenty of options. They chose the university that bars homosexual alumni from returning to campus, and the university that lost its tax exemption because of racial discrimination: Bob Jones University. Republicans gravitate to institutions like Bob Jones University because they know that their base in the South expects and demands obeisance. Whether or not Trent Lott is a racist, his party has relied on and catered to racists for years.

(The Republicans use similar messages when they talk about the "sanctity of marriage," or when they decry "special rights" for gays and lesbians. In this variant, the Republicans are the unofficial Party for People Who Hate Gay People.)

The Democrats can and must use the Republicans' own strategy against them. Most African-American voters abandoned the Republican party years ago, thanks in no small part to the Republican strategy in the South. And African-Americans are most prevalent in the South, where they constitute almost 20 percent of the population. In Georgia, Louisiana, Mississipi, and South Carolina, they represent 29 percent or more of the population. As long as Republicans keep pandering like Trent Lott has done to the segregationist throwbacks in the South, very few African-Americans will vote Republican. Democrats need to turn their demographic advantage in states like Mississippi and Louisiana into an electoral advantage. In Louisiana, candidates who have reached out to the African-American community (like Clinton in 1992 and 1996, and Mary Landrieu in 2002) have won, despite the historical record of white voters their supporting radicals like Thurmond and Wallace.

The Republicans are led by men who are neither bashful nor moderate. In 1994, these men provided an object lesson in how to energize voters and win control of Congress. Newt Gingrich led the Republicans to victory with his "Contract with America," a list of ten pieces of legislation that Republicans promised to pass. The Contract with America was a master stroke. It helped the party gain 54 seats in the 1994 elections, even though its provisions were more conservative than the public at large. Even though its architect later resigned in personal disgrace, the Republicans maintain the majority in the House that the Contract helped to win. Ultimately, President Clinton co-opted some of the provisions of the Contract, particularly on welfare reform. Regardless of who could take credit for some of its provisions, the Contract with America defined much of the agenda for the Clinton administration.

The Democrats could stand to have their own version of a Contract for Americans. Again, this hardly represents a hard turn leftwards for the party, although it provides a base on which progressive candidates can build. I suggest here some ideas for Democrats who want to win the 2004 campaign.

The Contract, or something like it, will not appeal to every voter: after all, the Republican contract did not. But it will appeal to core Democratic voters, those who vote Democratic all the time, as well as to large parts of the citizenry who are disaffected by the parties right now. Or the Democrats could roll out more of the same Grade D effort that they showed in the 2002 elections.