Will heads roll?

Gephardt will step down -- and analysts speculate about who else may be punished after the Democratic catastrophe.

Published November 7, 2002 5:58PM (EST)

A day after Democrats suffered resounding congressional losses, one exasperated Democratic political consultant said he was going to put his displeasure into literary form. "I'm ready to write a book," said Democratic strategist Peter Fenn, whose proposed title would be: "Why Democrats Have No Balls."

That was the essence of much of the internal Democratic critique Wednesday, after their party suffered a convincing defeat that gave Republicans control of the Senate and widened their House majority. Democrats began the process of looking for whom to blame and why they lost, and in short order, came up with plenty of explanations and potential goats -- Al Gore, Richard Gephardt and Terry McAuliffe leading the list.

But late Wednesday, senior aides to Gephardt, the Missourian who has led the House Democrats as they've been outnumbered by Republicans for the last eight years, told the Associated Press Gephardt would not seek the top Democratic job again, and will likely focus on his 2004 presidential hopes. Democrats lost at least seven seats in a historic GOP victory, and Gephardt was feeling pressure to step aside. Among those who criticized Gephardt Wednesday was Rep. Harold Ford, D-Tenn., who likened him to a baseball manager. Though the players on the team may like him, Ford said, if the team keeps losing, management must be replaced.

The race to succeed Gephardt could well become a fight over the party's ideology. Rep. Martin Frost, D-Texas, the caucus chairman, is likely to be a candidate for the job, as is Rep. Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., the current Democratic whip. Whom House Democrats choose as their new leader -- the more moderate Frost, or Pelosi, a liberal Democrat from San Francisco -- may indicate whether House Democrats concur with many of the Monday-morning quarterbacks who called on Democrats to move toward a more aggressively progressive, or liberal, identity.

In a sign of the internal party struggle already underway, Ed Kilgore, policy director of the centrist Democratic Leadership Council, rejected the idea that moving left was the answer.

"That's just ridiculous," he said. "Folks who say that just don't want to adjust to reality. Does anyone really think if Max Cleland [the losing incumbent senator] had moved left in Georgia he would have won? If Erskine Bowles had just moved left, he would have won in North Carolina? No." Kilgore said the Democrats had to articulate more comprehensive economic and foreign-policy positions, and blamed "liberal political consultants" including former Clinton Svengali James Carville, who advocated a "narrow message" aimed at luring seniors, at the expense of offering a more comprehensive economic critique.

"It wasn't centrism that hurt us, it was liberal consultants telling leadership to get Iraq off the table, and change the subject to prescription drugs," he said.

This debate will continue to play out within the Democratic Party in the coming months, and among presidential candidates as they begin to emerge. But in the meantime, some changes may be in the offing among the Democratic Party leadership.

And not just Gephardt. Democrats blamed GOP successes Wednesday on their own failure to articulate a coherent alternative to Republican policies. "With this devastatingly poor economy, Republicans have been ranked ahead of the Democrats on the economy and jobs and keeping America prosperous," said Democratic strategist and pollster Celinda Lake. "Voters know what Republican economics is, it's 'cut taxes.' They do not know what Democratic economics is. That is the challenge we have to face head on, or we will be a minority party."

Among those Lake blamed for Tuesday's debacle was the former vice president and possible 2004 Democratic front-runner, Gore. "We came out of the 2000 election without a clear economic vision in the public's mind," she said. "Part of that came because, in trying to disassociate himself with Bill Clinton, Gore went too far and he disassociated himself with the successes of the Clinton years as well."

Speculation has also swirled about the job security of Democratic National Committee chairman McAuliffe, and some vented frustration at Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle. But many Democrats defended both Daschle and McAuliffe Wednesday, even in the face of Tuesday's losses. There is still strong support for Daschle within the caucus, according to aides to some Democratic senators who were mentioned as possible candidates to succeed him.

McAuliffe was in some combination of wild spin mode and post-election denial when he spoke to reporters Wednesday. "Not much has changed," he said. "Even with all the ammunition the Republicans and the White House threw at us, we proved that we are competitive and can more than hold our own."

Daschle pointed to the media's lack of coverage of economic issues. "Without a doubt, that is still the issue regardless of the coverage it got," Daschle said of the economy. When asked what he would change about the campaign, Daschle said, "I can't think of anything we would have done differently. I wouldn't change anything. We had wonderful candidates, good resources. It just wasn't our night."

Lake said dumping Daschle or McAuliffe might help Democrats vent frustration, but was not the answer to the party's problems. She pointed out that Democrats failed to win races in states that Bush carried in 2000, and that they were up against the fundraising advantages of a popular president, as well as the president's power to set the agenda. Issues like national security and possible war in Iraq, she says, simply dwarfed Democrats' efforts to focus on the economy.

"In the end, I think that our leadership did everything they could," she said. "I think that people really admire the job that was done by the people in the top."

But Fenn was not one of them. "Daschle blamed the media this morning for not covering the Democrats' economic plan, but we didn't push it that hard," he said. "It's our job to sell it."

Fenn says part of the problem was that Gephardt and Daschle appeared to be balancing their leadership responsibilities with presidential ambitions. "We can't have people with conflicted roles here," he said. "You're either the leader or you're running for president, but you can't do both."

Count Fenn among those who wouldn't mind if some heads started rolling. "I think the leadership, clearly they bear responsibility for it," Fenn said. "It's their show. Clearly 9/11 was a big constraint, and the Iraq debate, but your responsibility as a leader is to deal with that."

But Tuesday's result may cost Daschle and Gephardt more than support from their caucuses. Ron Faucheux, editor of Campaigns and Elections magazine, says Tuesday's results are sure to have repercussions in the fight for the 2004 Democratic presidential nomination. And, Faucheux says, the big losers Tuesday were Daschle, Gephardt and Gore.

"If they're going to blame their leadership for what happened, Gore is part and parcel of that," he said. "There was no sense that he was out there working hard for Democrats. If I was Al Gore, I'd think very hard about not moving forward on a presidential candidacy at this point."

As to whose presidential hopes may have been helped by Tuesday's result, besides Bush's of course, Faucheux says the outcome underscores the need for new blood in the Democratic Party. "It could enhance the possibility of someone like [Sen. John] Kerry, D-Mass., possibly a [Sen. John] Edwards, D-N.C., possibly [Vermont Gov.] Howard Dean. He's not well known, but he's a new face and he's stood on some principles." But Faucheux's boosterism of the three presidential wannabes had more to do with novelty than with ideology or political skills. "The Democratic Party is desperate for some fresh faces," he said. "And so, that might help those three candidates."

But Edwards may well want to proceed with care. Democrats lost big across the South Tuesday, including in Edwards' home state of North Carolina. While flirting with a possible presidential bid, Edwards must also consider his prospects for reelection in 2004.

With their new congressional majorities, Republicans now will be faced with the burden of governing. Democrats point out that the last time one party held control of the House, Senate and White House heading into an election, the public reacted violently. "Look at what happened to Democrats in 1994," Lake says. "Bush won't have the Democrats to blame, he won't have the Democrats to balance the right wing of his party. We couldn't get him to be held accountable on the economy in 2002, but he will be held accountable in 2004."

For now, that is a risk the White House is more than happy to take. Recapturing the Senate means Bush's nominees will have an easier time obtaining Senate approval, as will the White House's domestic agenda. That will undoubtedly include a drive to make the $1.3 trillion tax cut permanent. Creation of a new homeland security agency, and a bill to limit the liability of insurance companies in the event of future terrorist acts will also move to the front of the White House wish list.

By Anthony York

Anthony York is Salon's Washington correspondent.

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