WASHINGTON—Did war fever, Republican conniving, supine media, bad luck, or just plain Democratic fecklessness spawn the catastrophe? Two weeks after Black Tuesday—the first popular election to give a sitting president's party a new Senate majority—senators and House members were struggling to pass an appropriation resolution so they could head home for a long holiday and lick their wounds or savor their triumphs. Just before evacuating the deceptive calm of their D.C. offices, Washington Sens. Patty Murray and Maria Cantwell took a little time to muse on the questions that would-be Democratic supporters across the land were so noisily chewing over: What went wrong, and how can the party (and the country) ever get back on track?
MURRAY: 'WE CAN YELL'
Republicans are partying like it was 1982 all over again, only more so. Then, as now, they were "the party of ideas," however wacky and wasteful those ideas (Star Wars, the Laffer curve, a 600-ship Navy, commies besieging Harlingen, Texas) might be. Dems were spurned as the me-too party, bereft of ideas. Now, in a perfect reprise, The New York Times' Frank Rich bemoans the Dems' "intellectual vacuity." The Nation laments the vision-free "Democrat lite" approach, a "minimalist strategy, even emptier than their presidential campaign of 2000." And so on and on.
But Patty Murray, who as this year's Democratic Senate campaign chair raised record funds and presided over record setbacks, is either defiant or in denial. Before she can credit Republicans with the "I" word, her tongue ties up: "This was not a huge, overwhelming landslide victory for Republican, conservative, uh, um . . . " The word ideas screams to be uttered, but Murray instead settles on "pieces of legislation or movements." A moment later, she avows hopefully, "There's still a strong group of people who support Democratic ideas and values and want us to create equal opportunities for them."
So where were those people in this election? After Sen. Fred Harris, the Oklahoma populist who sought to represent "the little people" in the 1972 Democratic presidential campaign, got trounced in New Hampshire, a reporter asked him, "What happened to the little people?" Harris shrugged: "They couldn't reach the levers in the polls." That's sort of what happened this November. Time was that turnout worked in the Democrats' favor; the Republicans always had more money, but more voters would mean more Democratic votes. Not this year; turnout was up, but it was Republican turnout.
Rather than blaming Dems for failing to inspire supporters to get out and vote, Murray credits Bush's nonstop campaigning for Republican candidates, after the White House personally selected several of them. "Is the lesson that history changed or that what this president did changed history?" she asks. "This was a historic use of time and money by a president. He raised $170 million. He was in states five to seven times in the last week and a half before the election. We've never seen anything like that. If we're going to learn a lesson from this, it's that if the White House uses its power and bully pulpit and its resources, they can affect elections."
So if fighting the White House is like fighting City Hall, what's a poor Democrat to do? "We can squeak or we can yell," Murray replies—and laughs. She says she's just come from a caucus lunch with renewed optimism: "I'm beginning to sense a very cohesive force building within our caucus that I think is a very healthy outcome of what we've been through. We're recognizing that we are in the minority and that, in the Senate, being only one or two votes different from the Republicans means we're still the one thing between a completely Republican-controlled Congress and White House and a lot of bad things happening. We're trying to work our way through the next few months while we determine what battles need to be and how we pick those wisely." The question is, "How do we effectively communicate that message to voters when we are up against a megaphone that really is pretty hard to beat?"
For a moment, it seems Murray will blame Bush for exploiting terror phobia and war fever to sneak through an otherwise-unpopular domestic agenda. "We've been through a lot in this country," she begins. "Nine-eleven traumatized us all in a way I don't think we can dismiss in any way, shape, or form. The president spends all his time and capital focusing us on that"—and then she pauses and backs off—"as he probably rightly should, to make sure our country is secure in the future." Was that a yell?
Washington's junior senator also dwells on the "extraordinary" way Bush and company intervened in congressional races, handpicking candidates and stage-managing campaigns. But Maria Cantwell seems almost to envy such iron-fisted central party control. "I'm not necessarily advocating that we do that per se," says Cantwell. Still, she sighs, "the Republicans have been more disciplined about taking their right wing and putting them into a closet and telling them to be quiet" than the Dems have with their left, and "talking about issues of concern to the general public," even if they don't solve any. But where's the counterpart, or counterpunch, to Bush's "compassionate conservatism" shtick?
Cantwell is less shy than Murray about noting "the degree to which the president wants to keep focusing on terrorism"—now that "compassionate conservatism" has served its purpose—"but doesn't want to address the other aspect of his job, as head of our economic livelihood." And there lies the crucial issue for Cantwell: It's still the economy, stupid. Not that she believes the Dems have performed or fared much better on that score of late. They didn't lose because the GOP seized the high ground on war and foreign affairs. They lost because they didn't have "a fiscal and economic policy that the public trusts. Guess what? They already trust us on everything else—on education, social policy, the environment, accountability of government." She doesn't mention security issues.
Two weeks later, Bush's coattails would get trimmed in Louisiana. He would dump his economic team, and Cantwell would attack him for having no plan to resuscitate the economy. For now she dwells on her party's lapses, such as not proposing an alternative to Bush's deficit-building budget. And she suggests that Al Gore failed to triumph as he should have in 2000 because "he didn't articulate a message about the [economic] future." But she sees a shining model of that future—in the past, the recent but oh-so-distant prosperity and optimism of the Clinton years. "The issue is about crystallizing a message that galvanizes the principles of the Democratic Party but creates a future vision of where we need to go. I think Bill Clinton did that perfectly."
Cantwell says "crystallize" and "galvanize" a lot and invokes Clinton just as often—seven times in an hour: "Bill Clinton came up with the right strategy, the right balance of paying down the debt and having some stimulus." "Clinton created a vision about the economy that transcended" factions. "He updated the Democratic ideals."
But Clinton left a divided and rueful party. His appointed successor, Al Gore, fled his legacy. Clinton's biggest and most hard-fought triumphs—NAFTA, GATT, and the WTO, the underpinnings of a new world-trade regime—fueled the anti-globalization backlash and Green Party/ Ralph Nader challenge that sank Gore. And "triangulation"—Clinton's strategy to co-opt and pre-empt the opposition's agenda, or at least its rhetoric—has been thoroughly, and much more cynically, co-opted by Bush and his strategist Karl Rove.
Clinton lately has re-emerged on the op-ed pages and lecture circuits in full-blown elder-statesman mode. Does he embody the Democrats' future hopes? Cantwell clings to a faith that seems as distant now as the tech boom that, for a while, made her rich and sent her to the Senate.
Still, in times like these, you gotta cling to something.