Raise a Glass to the Stay-at-Home Voter?

Article excerpt

How dismal was election night 2002? At the party I attended, the mood was so glum that one young man stood up in the TV room and announced that he had just the thing to cheer us up: A five-minute compilation of commercials from Paul Wellstone's first campaign. He popped it into the VCR, and we all stared at the screen as the dead candidate ran for the Senate in 1990.

I know what I'm supposed to say about the Democratic losses: The Dems stood for nothing/were indistinguishable from Republicans, so why not vote for the real thing? The last part of that argument has never made much sense to me--why would you vote for the more intense version of something you supposedly don't like in the first place? True, overall the Dems fumbled just about every issue in hot pursuit of the ever-rightward-moving center. But may I play devil's advocate for a moment? As Nation readers were endlessly informed, there were a number of contests in which the differences between candidates were quite marked. In the Florida gubernatorial contest, could you really mistake labor-backed Bill McBride for Jeb Bush, the dark prince of election 2000? Walter Mondale may not have had Paul Wellstone's populist fire, but he was hardly a carbon copy of Norm Coleman; Rhode Island's liberal Myrth York blasted her conservative, business-backed opponent in the gubernatorial race for his retrograde positions on abortion and gun control. Chellie Pingree, the Democrat who challenged moderate GOP incumbent Susan Collins for the Senate in Maine, was a classic progressive with strong positions on corporate reform, education, the environment and healthcare, an attractive personality and a record of public service as a state legislator. Like other progressive-endorsed Democrats--Iowa's John Norris, Oregon's Bill Bradbury, South Dakota's Stephanie Herseth, Arizona's George Cordova and Illinois's Hank Perritt--they all went down to defeat.

And what about the referendums and ballot initiatives? Ohio voters could have said a modest, humane no to the insane drug war by requiring treatment for nonviolent drug offenders instead of jail; they voted to keep locking 'em up. (Voters in the District of Columbia went the other way.) In Oregon, voters had a chance to seize the holy grail of progressive politics, government-funded universal healthcare, something Americans famously tell pollsters they want. Seventy-nine percent of the voters said no thanks. A ban on gay marriage passed in Nevada; a living-wage proposal lost in Santa Monica; Massachusetts voted to abolish bilingual education; instant runoff voting was defeated in Alaska; and Colorado voters rejected same-day voter registration.

Of course, each of these contests had its own dynamic. In Oregon, the insurance industry spent a fortune on Harry and Louise-style ads; Mondale ran up against the mighty Republican spin machine's ridiculous attack on Paul Wellstone's memorial service (Omigod! They talked politics!); a Maine friend claims voters in her state just like to keep their incumbents unless they've totally screwed up. But isn't that the same as saying that the majority of Maine voters are satisfied with a moderate Republican? …