Whatever eventually happens in Louisiana, the Democrats have lost control of the Senate. The nation will return almost immediately to the Republican domination of the executive, legislative and judicial branches that existed before Vermont's Jim Jeffords turned independent last year. Now the Democratic voters who chose not to show up Tuesday are going to find out what their decision meant, in a country ruled by President Bush, Trent Lott and Tom DeLay. From drilling in Alaska to regressive taxation to unilateral war, the agenda of the corporate and religious right will shape our future.
In this historic election, Bush overcame his weaknesses as a statesman with his skills as a politician. While I dislike what he represents and what he does, I can't deny his determination and enterprise. Against a drifting, disorganized Democratic Party, he hustled the money, the issues and the voters. He saw the opportunity and embraced the risk, big time. He fully exploited the advantages of his office, including his ability as commander in chief to foment an atmosphere of war. In several contests he made an important difference, creating the conditions for his party's momentum. So the president's supporters will insist again, as they did in the wake of Sept. 11, that he has achieved the mandate that eluded him two years ago.
Unlike the debacle in 2000, the Democrats have no one but themselves to blame for this defeat. The Republicans had much more money, but they always do. Their schemes to intimidate voters were appalling, but didn't provide the margin of victory in places like Florida and Texas. The Green Party had a will to spoil, but lacked the capacity to make any real difference. Across the country, from California to New York, bland and compromised Democratic candidates were unable to motivate their own base, let alone attract the independents required to win close races. Only where the issues were predominantly local, as in the campaigns for governor, could the Democrats prevail consistently.
There were moments during the midterm campaign when it seemed that the Democrats were nothing greater than the prescription-drugs party. It was a safe issue, or so the party leaders in Washington believed, and therefore became the phrase that they and their candidates repeated like a mindless mantra. Medicare coverage of prescription drugs is a worthy goal, and the Democratic plan is far better than the Republican proposal. But that issue isn't enough to nationalize a midterm election, and certainly not enough to persuade voters uneasy about war and the economy. Those voters were listening for a powerful Democratic message about global security, the faltering economy, employment, education and healthcare. All they heard was "prescription drugs."
A party that will not criticize the incumbent president cannot defeat him, now or two years from now. A party that has nothing to say about unfair tax breaks, a vanishing surplus and a looted economy cannot expect anyone to listen when it asks for votes. A party without passion or vision is hardly a political party at all. Even in their righteous defense of Social Security, Democrats too often sounded as if their chief concern was to preserve their own institutional position. Today the future looks grim for them because they blurred the purposes of their partisanship.
As for the Republicans, they will exaggerate the meaning of this election in their usual triumphal style. Their gloating may not last long, however. Leading a one-party government, they will no longer be able to evade responsibility for whatever comes next. Their ideas and ideology are no more plausible than they were yesterday. They have divided rather than united the country, and their worst initiatives will still meet resistance from the many principled Democrats who were returned to office Tuesday night. Even at this low ebb, progressive revival remains a possibility, although much damage will be done during the next two years.
Moving forward onto this hostile political terrain, the Democrats would do well to recall the combative stance adopted by the Republicans after losing both houses of Congress and the presidency in 1992. They can begin by examining the real reasons for this narrow but awful defeat, without flinching.
[6:15 a.m. PST, Nov. 6, 2002]