The president's carefully modest performance at his postmortem press conference brought to mind his campaign slogan of "compassionate conservatism": a likable, unthreatening cover pasted onto an ambitious right-wing agenda. He didn't claim any mandate for his policies, and he emphasized the conciliatory conversations he had with Tom Daschle and the now irrelevant Richard Gephardt. Still, Bush did more than hint at the priorities he will push once the new Senate is seated in January.
Predictably, he will move to reinforce the regressive tax breaks that would otherwise expire in 2010, claiming that this special-interest legislation will somehow improve the economy. "If people believe in job creation, they ought to join with me in making the tax cut permanent." He went on to say that he will again seek to partially privatize Social Security, without explaining how the government can afford to pay for current and projected benefits while siphoning off revenues into private accounts.
If the Democrats intend to mobilize their base again, they will have to resist the extension of Bush's tax breaks to the wealthiest few and his irresponsible Social Security scheme. Having watched the White House crusade against several of the Democratic senators who supported his first tax bill -- including Tim Johnson, Jean Carnahan, Max Cleland and Mary Landrieu -- those who now remain ought to realize that there is no reason for them to support his next one. They should propose an alternative cut in the payroll tax, which would be far more progressive and put money into the pockets of those who need it most and would spend it fastest, stimulating the economy immediately rather than 10 years from now.
The fury expressed in hundreds of letters from voters over the past two days has already taken down Dick Gephardt, although there were earlier suggestions that he didn't want to serve another sentence as minority leader anyway. Nancy Pelosi would lead the House Democrats in a more principled direction, but her rival Martin Frost is scarcely a "conservative" as that term is understood in his home state of Texas. This report by the Nation's John Nichols provides useful distinctions.
Pelosi is likely to win, but what is the prize? As they try to reorganize their party, she and the rest of the Democratic leadership will confront an angry base as well as the usual hostile environment on Capitol Hill.
That leadership does deserve blame for this defeat. And there is an honorable tradition of demanding accountability from those who are responsible. Gephardt deserves credit for removing himself swiftly, and let us hope that he doesn't nourish too many illusions about his future. Tom Daschle should probably be next, having made the worst use of his best qualities during the past two years. He allowed himself and his members to be battered ideologically without fighting back until it was far too late; he resisted bad policy without vociferously arguing the Democratic case to the electorate. Quiet toughness is admirable, except when the other side is shouting every day.
[3:15 p.m. PST, Nov. 7, 2002]