The Bush Breakthrough

In numerical terms, the losses Democrats suffered in last week's election were not that large. But psychologically they could hardly have been more devastating.

The unexpected reversals instantly set off a crisis of confidence among Democrats in Washington. In the usual manner of the capital, groups from every point on the ideological spectrum interpreted the results as new justification for what they wanted to do anyway. The liberal Americans for Democratic Action saw the losses as proof the party had lost its edge in a fruitless search for "the mushy middle." Not surprisingly, the Democratic Leadership Council took home exactly the opposite message: "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 . . . to bury it once and for all."

About the only thing all factions could agree on was that party chairman Terry McAuliffe was either disingenuous or deluded when he insisted on the morning after the debacle: "If the Republicans had an edge over us yesterday, it was tactical rather than ideological."

In fact, the results were disappointing for Democrats on so many different fronts that, McAuliffe apart, they provide evidence for all these explanations. Surely, the Democratic failure to develop a systematic critique of President Bush's economic policy contributed to their inability to benefit from the electorate's anxiety about the economy (a point on which the DLC agrees with the ADA).

In most competitive races, Democrats made a devil's bargain by endorsing the 10-year $1.3 trillion Bush tax cut. (Of the seven leading Democratic challengers for a Republican-held Senate seat, all but Erskine Bowles in North Carolina pledged to support the tax cut and oppose any effort to retrench it; Jeanne Shaheen in New Hampshire and Ron Kirk in Texas even ran ads touting their support.) That posture helped them blunt Republican efforts to paint them as tax-and-spend liberals. But as Democratic pollster Stanley Greenberg noted, that tactical advantage came at a high cost. "How could you make his economic policy the heart of the problem as to what is causing the slow economy if you endorse his principal economic policy?" Greenberg asked.

But just as in Al Gore's 2000 campaign, this election once again demonstrated that bribing seniors with an unrealistically expensive prescription drug plan is not nearly as powerful a magnet for votes as most Democrats believe. In political terms, prescription drugs is like a baseball prospect that looks great on paper, and even in practice, but simply cannot deliver when it counts.

The problem was more fundamental than the limits of that one program. Most Democratic candidates this year built their campaigns around targeted programs, not broad themes. Candidates talked about pension protection, or raising the minimum wage, or providing seniors with prescription drugs, or opposing individual investment accounts under Social Security. But hardly any Democratic candidates in serious races offered a broader vision for reviving the economy, and few offered an alternative to Bush's vision of what America must do to safeguard itself against the risk of terrorism. The result was to cede the field to the president on the two issues most important to voters -- national security and the economy -- in the hope of winning the election on secondary concerns where polls showed the electorate favored Democrats. That was a strategy eerily reminiscent of Democrats in the 1980s. It may have been appropriate that the campaign saw Walter Mondale briefly emerge from retirement, because many Democrats this year sounded more like Mondale than Bill Clinton -- trying to pick off individual constituencies with specific programmatic promises rather than offering a broader message of economic opportunity, personal responsibility, national strength and government reform (an idea that has almost completely vanished from the Democratic lexicon).

The Democratic Congressional leadership is understandably taking heat for this failure; but the similarity to the party's troubles in the 1980s point to a larger explanation. It simply may not be possible for Congressional Democrats, with all their regional and ideological differences, to agree on an overarching national message. In part, Democrats were left with such a threadbare agenda for this campaign because these were the only points that all elements of the party could accept. As party strategists never tired of insisting through the fall, Democrats could not make opposition to Bush's tax cut a centerpiece of their national message because so many Congressional Democrats (28 in the House, 12 in the Senate) had supported it, and many challengers were embracing it too.

The geography of this election also contributed to the Democratic caution. Most of the key races were fought on Bush-leaning turf in culturally conservative places. Of the 11 Senate races considered the most competitive, nine were in "red" states that Bush won in 2000; a disproportionate number of the competitive House seats were in rural or small-town districts that favored Bush. (Indeed almost all of the Republican House gains came in seats that Bush carried in 2000.) Through the fall, as grumbling over the mushiness of the Democratic message mounted in Washington, the universal response from top party strategists was that no candidate in any of these races would benefit from a more confrontational national posture on the tax cut or the war in Iraq; if anything they wanted national Democrats to hug Bush even more.

This problem for Congressional Democrats isn't going away any time soon. Al Gore may have won more votes than Bush in 2000, but Bush won more states -- 30 in all. The House is divided almost exactly in half between seats in the red (218) and blue (217) states. But the Senate's small-state bias gives the red states disproportionate influence there: Sixty of the 100 Senators are elected from red states. Democrats now hold just 18 of those 60 seats (19 if Mary Landrieu wins her run-off in Louisiana next month).

Over the past two years, the Senate leadership has been repeatedly hamstrung by the reluctance of the surviving red-state Democratic senators to vote against Bush (on issues from the tax cut to fuel economy standards). In 2004, nine of the 19 Democratic senators up for reelection will be running in states Bush won -- six of them in states he carried by double digits. With Bush actually on the ballot, they will probably be even more reluctant to oppose him. That may help explain why even after all of the election-night criticism, Tom Daschle, transitioning from Senate majority to Senate minority leader, still told reporters he saw no reason for Democrats to attempt to roll back Bush's tax cut --even just to clarify the party differences -- in the upcoming session.

Which suggests that an agenda of sharper opposition to Bush is much more likely to come from the Democrats' 2004 presidential candidates than from Congress. Overshadowed by the debate over Iraq, and then the mid-term election itself, that process has already begun; likely Democratic contenders such as Senators John Kerry, John Edwards and Joe Lieberman (who will run only if Al Gore doesn't) already have called for rescinding later stages of the Bush tax cut, and using the money either for short-term rebates, new investments or reducing the deficit. Kerry and Lieberman, in particular, have also begun articulating a critique of Bush's approach to foreign policy, not so much from the left as a muscular center that insists on American engagement abroad but affirms the value of working through alliances. If anything, the widespread frustration over the party's anemic 2002 performance will increase pressure on the 2004 contenders to be bolder both in articulating their own ideas and critiquing Bush's.

Yet no Democrat should underestimate the challenge for 2004 that last week's results present. It's true that mid-term elections don't always provide a reliable signal about the presidential elections that follow two years later. Sometimes big gains in the mid-term have foreshadowed a presidential victory two years later (as it did for Democrats, say in 1930 or 1958, and Republicans in 1950 and 1966), but often it doesn't: After Republicans cleaned Clinton's clock in 1994, he returned to win the White House two years later -- only to see the GOP retake the Oval Office in 2000, just two years after Clinton defied history by winning five House seats during his second mid-term. Too many idiosyncratic factors -- local controversies, a talent gap between candidates -- produce a mid-term result for it to provide a precise gauge of the party's national strengths.

But even with those caveats, these results have to be sobering for Democrats. The best evidence suggests that the key to the GOP success wasn't a vast realignment of swing voters; Democrats last week held on to many of the gains with moderate voters they have made over the past decade. Instead the key was that the central elements of the Republican coalition surged to the polls to support George W. Bush. Which suggests that, absent a major change in the environment, Democrats will face enormous challenges in 2004 peeling away almost any of the states that Bush won last time.

Under Clinton in the 1990s, the biggest Democratic advance came in socially-liberal affluent suburbs outside of the South. These leafy communities -- like Oakland County outside Detroit or Bergen County in New Jersey -- had voted reliably Republican while the GOP dominated the White House from 1968 through 1988. But Clinton's combination of social liberalism (on issues like the environment, abortion and gun control) and fiscal moderation realigned those voters to the Democratic Party; in their new book, John Judis and Ruy Teixeira see the well-educated professionals who live in these places as a cornerstone of what they predict will be "The Emerging Democratic Majority."

For the most part, Democrats held on to these places in the most hotly contested races last week. In some instances, their margins may have slipped a bit from Clinton-era levels. But Democrat Frank Lautenberg still won big victories in Passaic, Bergen and Middlesex counties as he captured a New Jersey Senate seat. Democrat Jennifer Granholm held onto Oakland County as she won the Michigan governorship. Ed Rendell, en route to an easy victory in the Pennsylvania governor's race, piled up massive margins in the suburban Philadelphia counties that were once reliably Republican. And Gray Davis held the socially-liberal coastal counties in California, routing Republican Bill Simon, for instance, among the techies in Santa Clara County.

But Democrats lost the election because Republicans turned out so strongly in the red states, and the red counties of the blue states. In Georgia, Democratic Gov. Roy Barnes ran up a larger margin in Atlanta than he did in his victorious 1998 race; overall, he won just 9,000 fewer votes in losing this time than he captured in winning last time. But his Republican opponent, Sonny Perdue, polled nearly 250,000 more votes than the 1998 GOP nominee. In the far distant suburbs of Atlanta -- culturally conservative exurban counties like Douglas, Hall, Henry, Coweta and Forsyth -- the Republican margin doubled, tripled or quadrupled from 1998. Following Bush's pattern in 2000, the GOP scored big gains in rural areas, too.

The same trends were apparent in Republican Norm Coleman's solid win over Walter Mondale in the Minnesota Senate race. Mondale held the twin cities and their immediate suburbs (though his margin slipped a bit from Paul Wellstone's showing in 1996). But Mondale gave ground across the broad expanses of rural Minnesota: say in Otter Tail, which gave the GOP a 1,300 vote margin in 1996 and a nearly 4,100 vote advantage this time, or Beltrami where a 2,200 Democratic margin in 1996 slipped to just 200 votes this time. He lost even more ground in the exurban counties at the suburban fringe around Minneapolis and St. Paul. In these rapidly growing places -- bursting with young parents eager to raise families far from the temptations of city life -- Coleman ran up crushing margins: almost 12,000 votes in Carver, nearly 21,000 in Anoka, 28,000 in Dakota and 11,000 in Wright.

In many states, the Republican surge overwhelmed entirely respectable turnouts for Democrats. In losing the North Carolina Senate race last week, for instance, Democrat Erskine Bowles won 214 more votes than John Edwards did in winning a seat there in 1998. In Missouri, Jean Carnahan won more votes than her Republican colleague Christopher (Kit) Bond did in the 1998 mid-term election there. In Georgia, Democratic Sen. Max Cleland was crushed by more than 100,000 votes, but captured less than 4,000 fewer votes than the late Republican Sen. Paul Coverdell did when he won his seat in 1998. Bill McBride was flattened in the Florida governor's race, but in losing, he polled only 60,000 fewer votes than Jeb Bush did when he was initially elected four years ago.

It's hard to avoid the message that the Republican base, especially in the red states, feels an electric personal connection to George W. Bush sufficient to march them off the couch into the voting booth. Unless the bottom falls out off the economy, or the likely war in Iraq proves a fiasco -- in other words, in anything approaching current circumstances -- that will make it very difficult to challenge Bush in almost any of the states he won last time. Before Tuesday's election, Democratic strategists may have dreamed of adding Colorado (where the late Republican surge carried bland GOP Sen. Wayne Allard Tuesday to a stunningly easy win over Democrat Tom Strickland) or Georgia or North Carolina to the list of states they might hope to contest in 2004. After the results, it's difficult to see how any realistic evaluation would give the Democrats much chance in those places. Indeed, if the Tuesday results are to change the presidential playing field, it is to lengthen the list of possible targets for Bush: the results offered a virtual roadmap for how he might mobilize the culturally conservative voters most attuned to his national security message to challenge for 2000 Gore states like Minnesota, Wisconsin, Oregon and even, maybe, conceivably, California (where Davis collapsed in virtually every inland county from Sacramento to San Bernadino).

By themselves, Tuesday's results don't suggest a decisive break in the 50-50 split that has characterized American politics since the mid-1990s. An election day poll by the GOP firm Public Opinion Strategies -- the best numbers we have until (if ever) the exit polls are concluded -- showed that Democrats still narrowly carried independent and moderate voters, who loom larger in a presidential election than they do in an off-year vote. And, despite all the tumult, the Republican gains, by the numbers, will be relatively modest: five to seven House seats when the last races are decided, two seats in the Senate (three if they can unseat Landrieu next month).

But within this broad parity, the election does hint at a tilt toward the GOP, especially as long as national security and terrorism issues loom so large for voters. Because redistricting so dramatically reduced the number of competitive House races, Democrats will face a formidable challenge in the next few years winning enough seats to recapture the lower chamber; to win back the House, Democrats will have to do what they almost completely failed to do this time, which is unseat Republicans districts that voted for Bush in 2000. The disproportionate representation of the red states looms as a similar barrier to a Democratic majority in the Senate: To take back the Senate, Democrats will have to capture seats in states that supported Bush, not an easy challenge when a popular president is asking voters to send him a cooperative Congress. Finally, the depth of Bush's hold on the red states should give him a significant tactical advantage in 2004. With so much of his base locked down before the race even begins, Bush will be free to focus enormous resources on the few states in his coalition where Democrats can compete -- a list realistically not much longer than Florida, Nevada and, maybe, at the margin, Missouri, New Hampshire, Tennessee, Arkansas and Arizona -- as well as the shakiest states on the Democratic side, like Minnesota, Wisconsin and Oregon.

Sentiments change so fast in the modern media age that nothing is guaranteed anymore in politics. Bush's success Tuesday doesn't settle the 2004 race any more than Clinton's unexpected gains in 1998 guaranteed a Democratic victory in 2000. But in this election, Bush has shown enormous assets -- an intense appeal to his base, an improving standing among swing voters and a disciplined capacity to shape the campaign dialogue around the issues most favorable to him. As Bush himself might say, after this performance it wouldn't be wise for anyone to misunderestimate him again.

Ronald Brownstein is a national political correspondent and columnist for the Los Angeles Times.

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