Failed Midterms. (Comment)

Article excerpt

George W. Bush may have lost the 2000 election, but he won the 2002 election--with a good deal of help from Democrats, who took a dream scenario and turned it into a political nightmare. Only in battles for statehouses did Democrats post gains, and even there the victories were fewer and farther between than had been anticipated.

Bush made himself the critical player in this year's election races. After his political team recruited the candidates, raised the money and ginned up a war vote in order to redefine the fall debate, Bush became the Campaigner in Chief. In visits to fifteen states in the five days before the election, he promised voters permanent tax cuts, conservative judges, a Department of Homeland Security and an ousted Saddam Hussein. And at the close of a relentlessly negative campaign season, Bush offered an oddly optimistic and conciliatory message--shapeshifting into a proponent of prescription drug benefits, a defender of Social Security and, in Minnesota, a friend of the late Senator Paul Wellstone.

Democrats countered with an agenda that was so anemic that candidates were forced to fend for themselves. Some, like Maryland's Christopher Van Hollen, who defeated moderate Republican incumbent Constance Morella by making an issue of the extreme conservative bent of House Republican leaders like Tom DeLay, succeeded in nationalizing local contests. Most did not, however, and the list of narrow defeats in House contests that Democrats should have won in Arizona, Iowa, Georgia, Kentucky, Alabama and South Dakota was depressingly long. The Democratic leadership's fits-and-starts approach to the question of whether the Bush tax cuts should be canceled left the party's candidates woefully unprepared to capitalize on economic developments--rising unemployment rates and declining consumer confidence--that in the past would have been tailor-made for Democrats running in a new Republican President's midterm. "The big story is that the Republicans had more of an economic plan than the Democrats," said Roger Hickey of the Campaign for America's Future.

Where the failure of the Democrats to offer that alternative hurt the most was with their own base. "Bush was out there maximizing Republican turnout while the Democratic leadership was running around saying, `Look, we agree with the President on the war and we might agree with him on tax cuts and, hey, vote for us anyway,'" says Steve Cobble, a veteran aide to the Rev. Jesse Jackson who noted reports of lower-than-expected minority voter turnout in such states as Florida, where First Brother Jeb Bush coasted to victory in the race for governor. "The Democratic message was not enough even to get Democrats excited. …