No Fault

By

Democrats are gradually coalescing around an interpretation of why
their party did so poorly. The party, the argument goes, failed to
get out its base; and the reason it failed to do so was because it
didn't draw a clear enough distinction between its policies and the
Republicans'. As former political consultant Paul Begala argued on
CNN, "The Democrats didn't fight Bush hard enough on the tax cut,
and they didn't campaign on it. They didn't fight him hard enough
on the war. That means that base Democrats are very depressed on
this Election Day." The party's rank and file, said California
Representative Nancy Pelosi, faulted party leadership for its
timidity in presenting an alternative to the GOP.This seems like a plausible explanation for the Democrats'
defeats--until you actually look at what happened on the ground. In
most of the crucial Senate races that the Democrats lost, the
Democratic candidate did proportionately as well as ever among the
Democratic base. Turnout did go down from 2000, but it wasn't
unusually low compared to the last off-year election in 1998. In
Missouri, for instance, losing Democratic Senate candidate Jean
Carnahan garnered the same percentage of the vote in St. Louis and
Kansas City that her late husband had gotten in 2000 when he
defeated incumbent Republican John Ashcroft. What made the
difference in her race--and in others around the country-- was that
the GOP did so much better at turning out voters in
Republican-leaning areas and in the mostly white suburbs where
Independents and swing voters predominate. The Democrats didn't
lose the election in the cities but in the suburbs.

Would the Democrats have done better in the suburbs had they been
less timid about defining their differences with the GOP? Probably
not. If you look closely at the political context in which these
races occurred--in particular, the overwhelming popularity of
George W. Bush as a war president and the overriding importance of
national security as a campaign issue--it is far from apparent that
more strident attacks from the Democrats would have reversed any of
the outcomes. Indeed, while such an approach might have improved
Democrats' standing among their base, it would likely have eroded
their position among swing voters still further.

Take Georgia, where Republican Saxby Chambliss defeated Democratic
incumbent Max Cleland. Cleland won Atlanta's highly Democratic
Fulton County by 58 percent to 40 percent, while successful Senate
candidate Zell Miller won it by a somewhat better 66 percent to 31
percent in 2000 when he ran against Republican Matt Mattingly. But
the real turnaround came in white, upscale Cobb County, north of
Atlanta. Chambliss defeated Cleland there by 59 percent to 39
percent, whereas Miller had defeated Mattingly by 52 percent to 44
percent. That's a swing of 28 points. Similarly, in white suburban
Gwinett County, northeast of Atlanta, Chambliss bested Cleland by a
whopping 64 percent to 34 percent; in 2000, by contrast, Miller
edged out Mattingly by 50 percent to 46 percent. These suburban
counties are where Cleland lost the race. Likewise, in Missouri,
Carnahan won her urban base but did significantly worse than her
late husband in places like predominately white suburban St. Louis
County and Osage County, outside of Jefferson.

Commentators on Tuesday night made much of New Hampshire Democrat
Jeanne Shaheen's failure to carry the city of Manchester against
Republican John Sununu. But Manchester has long ceased to be a
Democratic stronghold. Even as she coasted to reelection in her
2000 governor's race, Shaheen barely defeated far-right Republican
Gordon Humphrey in Manchester, 48 percent to 47 percent. Where
Shaheen really lost votes to Sununu was in suburban towns, where
Sununu did even better than Bush had done in 2000. In that
election, Bush carried Merrimack by 50 percent to 45 percent, while
Shaheen's gubernatorial challenger, Gordon Humphrey, beat her 48
percent to 47 percent. This week, Sununu carried Merrimack by 55
percent to 43 percent over Shaheen. She, like Carnahan, Cleland,
and Mondale, lost the election in the suburbs.

In Minnesota, where Walter Mondale was defeated by Republican Norm
Coleman, Mondale--following on the heels of the late Paul
Wellstone--got out the Democratic vote. Turnout was up in
Minnesota, but Mondale still didn't do as well in key suburban
areas as victorious Democratic candidate Mark Dayton had done in
2000 against Republican Rod Grams. Dayton had won Hennepin County,
which includes Democratic Minneapolis, but which also includes
suburban areas that have swung between Democrats and Republicans,
by 53 percent to 37 percent in 2000; yet Mondale only won it by 51
percent to 46 percent this year. And Coleman easily defeated
Mondale in rural counties where Dayton had been competitive.
Coleman won Cass County in central Minnesota by 54 percent to 40
percent, while Grams had won it by only 47 percent to 46 percent.

What explains the Republicans' success in the suburbs? Primarily,
Bush's popularity as the leader of the war against terrorism, which
carried over to the Republican Party and to Republican candidates.
Prior to September 11, 2001, Bush's job-approval ratings hovered at
51 percent in the Gallup poll, and more people viewed the
Republican Party unfavorably than favorably. After September 11,
however, Bush's popularity soared and has never fallen back to its
pre- September 11 levels. On the eve of this year's election,
Gallup found that 63 percent of Americans approved of the
president's handling of his job and only 29 percent disapproved,
while 53 percent viewed the Republicans favorably and only 35
percent viewed them unfavorably. And, while Bush's popularity has
fallen among self-identified Democrats, it remains high among
Independents. In a CBS/New York Times poll conducted at the end of
October, Independents approved of Bush's job as president by 60
percent to 27 percent and of his job on foreign policy by 54
percent to 33 percent; they also viewed Republicans favorably by 54
percent to 35 percent.

Bush's popularity as a war leader translated into voter support for
Republican candidates in general. According to the CBS/New York
Times poll, 31 percent of voters, including 28 percent of
Independents and 15 percent of Democrats, thought of their vote for
Congress as "a vote for George Bush." Bush crystallized that
support during his five-day campaign on behalf of Republican
candidates in the key battleground states.

Republican candidates capitalized on their party's reputation among
Independents, as well as among their own followers, by painting
their Democratic opponents as weak on defense. Republican Senate
candidates in Georgia, South Carolina, New Hampshire, South Dakota,
Missouri, Colorado, and Texas, to name a few, challenged their
Democratic opponents' support for the war against terror. In
Georgia, Chambliss attacked Cleland for opposing Bush's version of
the homeland security bill and for questioning the need for a
national missile defense. Likewise, in New Hampshire, Sununu
attacked Shaheen for accepting contributions from the Council for a
Livable World--which has been critical of the administration's
missile defense plans--and for opposing the administration's
homeland security bill.

Democrats hoped that by quickly passing the president's resolution
on Iraq they could put national security issues behind them and
focus the electorate on Social Security and prescription drugs.
Many political analysts, including myself, thought this ploy would
work and preserve the Democrats' Senate majority. It didn't. Not
only did voters accord more importance to fighting the war against
terrorism than to reducing prescription-drug prices, but their view
of the war on terrorism--and of Bush's leadership in fighting
it--colored their perception of the nation's economic problems.
Most Americans did not blame Bush and the Republicans for the
economic downturn that began last year. Asked last month by
pollsters Fabrizio, McLaughlin and Associates who was "most
responsible for the economy," 23 percent of Americans blamed the
business cycle, 21 percent the September 11 attacks, 15 percent
former President Clinton, and 14 percent Bush. Given the nation's
economic doldrums, it is remarkable that the preelection Ipsos-Reid
survey found 54 percent of Americans approving of Bush's handling
of the economy. Meanwhile, the CBS/New York Times survey found that
the public, by 41 percent to 37 percent, believed that Republicans
were "more likely to make sure the country is prosperous."

Democrats did do well in governors' races, where they took over
Republican statehouses in Pennsylvania, Illinois, Wisconsin,
Wyoming, Oklahoma, Arizona, Tennessee, and Kansas. But these
exceptions prove the rule. Gubernatorial candidates were least
likely to be judged on national security issues. In these races,
the Democrats' advantage on economic and social issues came to the
fore. Bush's popularity as a war president--except, perhaps, in
Florida and Texas-- was not an important factor. Suburban voters
were more likely to care what a Democrat thought about social
spending or abortion or gun control. But, in judging House and
Senate candidates in the same states, swing voters and Independents
paid more attention to national security than to Social Security.

So what if Democrats had followed Begala and Pelosi's advice and
come out strong against the tax cut and war with Iraq? It's hard to
imagine the outcome would have been any different. If Shaheen had
come out against the president's tax cut in taxophobic New
Hampshire, she would have likely suffered the same fate as
Democratic gubernatorial candidate Mark Fernald, who, because he
advocated an income tax, was routed by 21 points. Cleland's campaign
would have been a lot more coherent if he had opposed Bush's tax
cut, but he would have lost even more votes in Cobb County. And
opposition to the war would have doomed Democratic Senate
candidates in the South--and probably in South Dakota and Colorado
as well. In Minnesota, Mondale did draw the lines very clearly on
taxes and the war in his November 4 debate with Coleman--and he
subsequently lost the election.

The country might have been better off had Democrats tried to
develop a coherent foreign policy and advocated the repeal of
Bush's disastrous tax cut. Even as a party, the Democrats might be
better off now if they had articulated clearer positions in
opposition to the Bush administration. But, if they had, they would
have still lost the Senate-- possibly by an even larger margin than
they did. Although it wasn't apparent until the final days of the
election, the Republicans were borne to victory this fall by Bush's
energetic response to Osama bin Laden. And there was probably
nothing that the Democrats could have done to stop them.

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