Analysis: Whither the Democrats? Part 1

By LAURA M. SEGAL  |  Nov. 7, 2002 at 8:10 PM
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WASHINGTON, Nov. 7 (UPI) -- For Democrats, this election was a lesson that it isn't always about the economy after all.

Finding meaning in the Clinton-era mantra let the Democrats down this time. The party faithful seemed to think that recession-level economic troubles meant that public would automatically blame the party with presidential power and reward them with votes. They were wrong.

This midyear election did not follow the typical playbook. The question of how Sept. 11 has altered politics looms large.

One immediate impact it had was that voters defied conventional wisdom and prioritized security over their pocketbooks. Bush and his team also seemed to understand the political capital they found in the wake of last September's tragedies, and this Election Day, they cashed it in.

For Democrats, however, the larger question may be how the Clinton epoch altered politics and if they can rebuild the party to regain majority status.

In 1992, the brilliantly devised marketing of Clinton as a "New Democrat" helped catapult him onto the national political scene. This agenda, developed by the Democratic Leadership Council, put forward a moderate image for the party, which Clinton came to personify. At the end of that year, Democrats found themselves holding the presidency and both bodies of Congress.

It was a bold step toward the center, away from the labels of "tax-and-spend," and "soft-on-crime" that had plagued Democrat presidential candidates for the previous 12 years. This new image of social responsibility combined with fiscal accountability helped attract a new stream of candidates and political professionals into the party.

While Clinton served as a winning face for the party, he also provided the Republicans with a target to run against. In this way the Democrats may have traded Congress for the presidency, as they lost control of the House in 1994 for the first time in 40 years.

A decade after 1992, the Democrats find themselves boxed out of control of the Senate, House, and White House. They are once again faced with the need to repurpose and repackage themselves, preferably before the 2004 elections arrive.

Pulling out the standard post-victory spin, the Republicans have been claiming that "better candidates" put them over the top this campaign cycle. Given the narrow margins of victory and the still closely divided nature of the Senate and the House, these congressional elections were far from a mandate for the Republican candidates or the Bush presidency, but rather were a good tactical win for the Republicans who were able to better mobilize and turn out their base of supporters on the day when it really mattered. In reality, very few seats changed hands, but these seats made a big difference in terms of control.

Delivered with his characteristic enthusiasm and zeal, Democratic Party Chairman Terry McAuliffe summarized in the party's post-election news conference, "So where do we find ourselves now? Basically the same place we were after the 2000 elections, at 50-50, parity. Not much has changed. ... The Republican advantage was a tactical advantage, not an issue advantage. Last night's results certainly don't reflect an ideological tip in favor of the Republicans."

He put his best face forward by concentrating on the high levels of money raised and what he termed an "extraordinary night for Democratic gubernatorial candidates."

Indeed, a number of the party's most painful losses can be attributed to those moments of fate that turn into political eternities, such as the untimely death of Minnesota Sen. Paul Wellstone and the hard-line debate questioning of Florida gubernatorial candidate Bill McBride by NBC's Tim Russert.

Nonetheless, it is impossible to mask the fact that this election was a disappointment for the Democrats. In the ashes, the Democrats find themselves once again in a state of transition. Furthermore, after the roller-coaster ride of the Clinton presidency and the heart-wrenching 2000 campaign, Democratic political activists seem in desperate need of regrouping, reinvigorating, and reenergizing.

Democrats must finally find a way to extend their base beyond the die-hard Liberals, labor unions, seniors, and minority groups that perennially support the party, without alienating them. Since President Franklin D. Roosevelt's 1936 reelection strategy, the Democratic Party has been about holding together this coalition of different constituencies, but it is no longer enough to win elections.

With the New Democrat's moderate economic policy and family-focused domestic agenda, the party was able to extend their popularity to mobilize women and younger voters -- pushing Clinton over the top in his two election wins and Vice President Gore to a popular vote majority in 2000. Democrats, however, have yet to figure out a strong message to galvanize and turn out these blocks in non-presidential year election cycles.

"We cannot think about it as a choice between appealing to the base and motivating swing voters, we need to do both," says Ed Kilgore, policy director of the Democratic Leadership Council. "We can't just go negative to take the base while alienating more moderate voters, we have to build a message that speaks to the spectrum."

In addition to lacking a clear message, the Democrats really lacked a public face, a strong leader, to rally the troops and stand in strong contrast to Bush. Rather, in the final two weeks before the election, the public was inundated with news about the returning old guard, capital "L" Liberals with the recruitment of Sen. Frank Lautenberg and Vice President Walter Mondale to fill the races vacated by the withdrawal of Sen. Bob Torricelli, D-N.J., and Wellstone's untimely death.

This vacuum meant that President Clinton became a key feature in a number of elections, particularly toward the end of the season as races were coming down to the wire. While former presidents are great for connecting with the base and generating fundraising dollars, Clinton's appearances, contrary to advice put forward in his campaign's Fleetwood Mac theme song, did stop voters from thinking about tomorrow, and instead was a reminder of yesterday.

But along with a fresh face, the party needs new ideas. The Democratic Leadership Council, in their New Dem Daily post-election newsletter pointed out, "After four straight election cycles of campaigning on an agenda pretty much limited to promising the moon on prescription drugs and attacking Republicans on Social Security, it's time for the congressional wing of the party and the political consultants who have relentlessly promoted this message as an electoral silver bullet, to bury it once and for all ... and it has never succeeded in securing a majority."

To grow their base, Democrats need to find a way of appealing to the Clinton-Gore coalition -- women and young people. By putting forth a domestic-centered, "daily life" oriented agenda, the party can begin to gain the loyalty of these blocks and translate their sympathy into feet on the street on election days.

Laura M. Segal is a communications consultant who has worked for the Clinton-Gore administration and the Democratic Party.


Part two will examine the policy building blocks of a new message designed to rebuild a Democratic majority.

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