BY JON BOOK
Published November 14, 2002
On election night 2000 when Florida was still listed as a Gore win and Republicans around the country were sulking into their beer mugs, the surest way to get stern looks and harsh retorts was to say "Look, we did our best and people just didn't see it our way this time. The inference most people made from such a statement was that if "we" had done our best, then surely this defeat meant the Republican Party was dying off in this country. George W. Bush went on to win that night, and if there was any doubt about the health of the Republican Party in this country, it was blown away over a week ago. Now, the shoe is on the other foot, and many in this country are wondering if it is the Democrats who are on the out. While this election was, in the end, something short of a catastrophe for the Democrats, the fact of the matter is this was just a defeat. The Democratic Party is in as much danger of extinction as is the KFC genetically altered chicken. However, the Democrats do have much to fear in the next election.
It is important to realize in retrospect that this election was as much a win for the Republicans as it was a defeat for the Democrats. Certainly, Democratic strategists made many tragic mistakes in this election. Tom Daschle dragged his feet on the Iraq resolution so long that Republicans were able to make political hay out of it much longer than they should have. Dick Gephardt avoided this misstep, and instead relied on the economy as his issue. However, he never articulated a cohesive Democratic counter-plan to Bush's economic program. Overall, Democratic "get out the vote" efforts were pretty lax, and failed to really mobilize key Democratic constituencies, such as the black community.
Nevertheless, Republicans deserve a fair bit of credit for the results too. Republicans masterfully played their advantage on issues such as domestic security. President George W. Bush put the presidency on a near hold in order to put his high approval ratings to good use in tight races. But, most of all, the Republicans deserve praise for their stellar recruitment efforts in this election. This time around the party eschewed ultra-conservative candidates i!n favor of well known and popular moderates. These recruitment efforts tell the real tale of why so few open seats vacated by Republicans failed to become viable Democratic targets. Moreover, good recruitment managed to threaten some of the more left-leaning Senators, such as with the Coleman-Wellstone (later Coleman-Mondale) race. The Republicans put forth a well planned effort from start to finish and it paid off.
The Democrats need not worry that their party is in decline over this mere loss. The bigger threat to the Democratic party right now lies in the Democratic response to this defeat. Already we have seen Dick Gephardt step down as the House Minority leader. In his place the heir apparent is Nancy Pelosi. If this sets the trend for the Democratic Party for the next few months, we may well witness the moderate establishment of the Democratic Party built by Clinton, and key to his popular appeal in this country, completely dismantled. Certainly, a shakeup is needed in the Democratic leadership. However, skewing the party even further to the left, and further away from the 35 percent of the electorate that identifies itself as independent and moderate, will do nothing but hurt the Democratic Party and make '02 seem gentle in comparison to '04.
The Democratic Party is at a crossroads right now, much as Republicans were in 1992. With the defeat of Bush Sr., Republicans faced a government completely controlled by Democrats. Rather than make a shift to the right and blame moderates for their failures, the Republicans decided to endorse a popular plan and stage a comeback. By 2000 Republicans were in control of Congress, the hard-liners of the party were satisfied with victory rather than ideological purity, and a Republican was entering the White House. It is time for the Democratic Party to follow suit. The Democrats must find a charismatic leader to keep the Naderites placated, a moderate who can relate with the public, and a clear set of issues on which to campaign. Nancy Pelosi is not that leader, and if Democrats fail to realize this, the Democratic Party may die of a self-inflicted wound rather than popular preference.
Book is an LSA senior.