Respond to this Article December 2002

How Democrats Could Have Won

Three ideas that might have changed the election

By Paul Glastris

Hours after the polls closed last month, a rough consensus emerged on why the Democrats got shellacked: They had no message. They had tried to pin the blame for a weak economy on the GOP, but offered no alternative economic plan of their own. They had criticized the administration's fiscal irresponsibility, but didn't call for repeal of the president's tax cuts, for which many Democrats had voted. They had talked incessantly about their new prescription-drug plan for seniors, but found that voters couldn't distinguish between their plan and the Republicans'. The "no message" critique was neatly summed up by Frank Rich in The New York Times: "A unified vision composed of actual policies and principles, as opposed to knee-jerk liberal sloganeering, cynical political strategies and anti-Bush whining, is now required."

Well said. So, Frank, got any ideas? Apparently not, at least none that he chose to share with his readers. Pretty much every other pundit in America responded the same way: with contempt for the Democrats' message, but without saying precisely what a winning alternative message might have looked like. My colleague Jonathan Rowe once commented that we journalists have the moral courage of snipers: we take pot shots from a position in which we can't be hit back. Then we wonder why the American people hate us.

So, in the interests of full exposure, here are three ideas which, had the Democrats run on them, might have made a real difference at the polls.

Tax cuts for everybody now, rather than for the rich later.

The vast majority of Democratic lawmakers no doubt think last year's $1.35-trillion tax cut was an abomination--especially the elimination of the estate tax, a $740 billion gift to the idle children of billionaires. One suspects this to be true even of a number of the Democratic senators from conservative states who voted for it. But had the party campaigned on a platform of rescinding the tax cut, there would probably be 40 Democrats in the senate today rather than 48. This disconnect between what Democrats believe in their hearts on taxes and what they said--or didn't say--to survive politically is probably the single biggest reason why the party seems soulless and adrift.

But there was a way out of this dilemma, one tied to the only victory Democrats have won on taxes over the last two years. Recall that while Senate Democrats didn't have the votes to block the president's tax bill, those who ultimately did vote for it were able, by teaming up with moderate Republicans, to shift some of the cuts away from future rate reductions for the rich to immediate tax rebates for average Americans. It was that effort that resulted in the checks voters got from the IRS last fall.

Of course, the president took credit for those rebates; most voters don't know or remember that it was Democrats who delivered them. But Democrats would have had a chance to remind the voters of this, and at the same time put Republicans on the defensive on their signature issue, had they gotten behind one big idea: a massive, short-term payroll-based tax rebate, paid for, dollar for dollar, by rescinding last year's estate tax cut--in other words, tax cuts for everyone now rather than for the rich later.

As a matter of pure economic policy, giving every worker an immediate tax rebate makes far more sense than providing the same amount of tax relief to future inheritors. If the rebates are spaced out over several years so as not to be too large in any one year (otherwise you run the risk of significantly higher interest rates or even a currency crisis) the effect would be stimulatory. More cash in the hands of consumers now could boost economic growth, spark a return of business investment, and lift the stock market. In other words, such a proposal might have served as the economic plan the Democrats lacked.

With such a plan, Democrats might also have been better able to capitalize on this year's corporate corruption scandals. Voters were plenty steamed about Enron and the Bush administration's connection to it. But that anger never translated into support for Democrats, in part because the party's hands weren't clean (some Democrats had taken Enron money), but more importantly because, aside from stronger accounting rules, Democrats offered no new economic ideas that put average Americans first--ideas that would have provided a concrete alternative to the GOP's crony capitalism. Had they done so, every new twist in the corporate scandal drama would have given Democrats another opportunity to mention their egalitarian tax cut plan, thereby contrasting two visions of how to run the economy. At their best, Democrats are less about ideologies or abstractions than about getting the best deal for average Americans in any given set of conditions or circumstances. A payroll-based tax cut would have done exactly that. Without such a concrete policy, Democrats had no credibility with voters.

I know what you're thinking: Republicans would have had a field day by framing such a plan as a tax increase. But Democrats should have welcomed that debate, because they would have won it. Voters can do arithmetic, especially when it involves money that might or might not go into their pockets. Moving the tax cut from column A (the rich) to column B (everyone), is plainly not a tax increase. The more Republicans insisted otherwise, the more they would have been drawn into a discussion of why they believe a tax rebate for ordinary voters was less important that one for Bill Gates' kids.

We're the party of multilateral action against Saddam, they're not.

A guiding theory of the Democrats' campaign strategy seemed to be "pretend 9/11 never happened." Aside from some patriotic bromides, Democrats tried to talk almost exclusively about domestic issues, as if they could will away the fact that 9/11 has left citizens more deeply concerned about the security of the nation than they have been for decades. Democrats acted this way not just because polls show Republicans have an advantage on defense issues, but because, when it comes to matters of war, they just haven't adequately thought the issues through.

Case in point: Over the spring and summer, Washington debated the wisdom of the Bush administration's plan to invade Iraq unilaterally. Congressional Democrats were divided. Some, including those eying a White House run in 2004, took the administration's side. Most of the rest wanted nothing to do with any war in Iraq, but, afraid of sounding weak, confined themselves to asking "tough" questions about the president's plans without offering any persuasive alternative strategy to keep Saddam from getting nuclear weapons.

Of course, there was an alternative strategy. Instead of unilateral war, the United States could use the threat of force to get U.N. weapons inspectors back into Iraq--the position this magazine took in June. It is the position to which President Bush (after much pressure from Colin Powell and his father's former advisors) switched in September. It is one with which most Americans agree. And it is the position a majority of congressional Democrats endorsed when they voted for the Iraq war resolution.

The question is, why didn't Democrats come to this conclusion months earlier, when it might have done them some good? As Heather Hurlburt argued in these pages last month:

"The irony is that a policy of using the threat of U.S. military power to enforce U.N. mandates in Iraq is one that both the hawks and at least some of the doves in the Democratic Party could have agreed on. Had they taken that position last spring--or even during the summer--Democrats might have helped shift the debate in a more sensible direction earlier, and served the country by limiting the negative international fallout from the hawks' unilateralism. They also might have helped themselves politically: When the president shifted his positions in September, it would have been seen, rightly, as a victory for the Democrats."

Instead, Democrats looked like what they were: followers, rather than leaders, and craven ones at that.

We're the party of homeland security, they're not.

All over America, the lips of Democrats tighten when they think about the newly elected Republican Senator from Georgia, Saxby Chambliss. A draft-avoider (bum knee and three student deferments) Chambliss unseated Democratic Sen. Max Cleland, a wounded, decorated Vietnam vet, in part by accusing him of lacking the "courage to lead" because he voted against a bill to create a department of homeland security. In the history of political grudges, this is surely a good one to nurse. But Democrats should also remember that their own party leaders put Cleland in a position to lose.

Bush won the midterms for Republicans by barnstorming the country attacking Democrats for not passing his homeland security bill. Because most Democrats had voted for the war resolution, this was the president's main tool for whipping up his base and portraying Democrats like Cleland as soft on terrorism. The charge should have been preposterous. After all, Sen. Joe Lieberman, a Democrat, introduced the first homeland security bill in October, which the Bush administration opposed for seven months. Only when its man in charge of domestic security, Tom Ridge--who had little experience and zero budget authority--became a laughingstock, did the president reverse himself and get behind the idea. But he also insisted on expanding presidential powers to hire and fire employees of the proposed agency and dissolve their unions when he deemed it in the interest of national security. This pushed two congressional Democratic hot buttons: It threatened their civil-service union supporters and cut into congressional power. The Democratic leadership refused to yield.

This may have been the dumbest political mistake since Hillarycare. The resulting stalemate allowed Bush to appear the forceful advocate of national security, and to cast Democrats as obstructionists pandering to their union base.

Even if Democrats believed that worker protections were more important to the country than the flexibility the president requested--a debatable proposition--it was devastatingly shortsighted of them not to give into the president's demands in order to pass the homeland security bill. To have done so would have enabled them to legitimately claim leadership on an important national security matter. They could have spent the fall campaign season bashing the GOP for underfunding the new department.

"We're not going to roll over when it comes to principles and beliefs that we hold to be very, very important," said Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle in September. Now, of course, Daschle is the former majority leader, and there is no one in power to defend the principles on which he and his fellow Democrats refused to compromise.

In 1996, Bill Clinton found himself in a similar situation and took a different course. He was faced with a Republican version of a welfare-reform bill that contained language he and most Democrats abhorred, a provision stripping legal immigrants of their disability benefits, and signed it. Outraged liberals accused the president of selling out his principles. After winning reelection, partly on the grounds of having fulfilled his pledge to "end welfare as we know it," Clinton got those benefits reinstated (meanwhile, welfare rolls dropped 50 percent and public faith in government and the Democratic party rose). Similarly, Democrats could have fought to reimpose the union protections if they had won back the Senate (or could do so next time they gain the presidency). Instead, Democrats listened to their base, and allowed an issue that should have been a weapon to beat the GOP become a weapon with which the GOP beat them.

In hindsight, it's hard to understand why the Democrats took the path they did, of running without new ideas (or, in the case of homeland security, allowing their ideas to be co-opted by the opposition). It was probably some combination of liberal blindness, centrist caution, and simple lack of imagination. Whatever the cause, the result is exactly what this magazine warned about on its October cover: Republicans now control all three branches of the federal government for the first time since 1929. If there is any consolation--and there is not much--it is this: Because of their defeat, Democrats now understand, in a way they didn't before, that as risky as it may be to adopt new ideas, it is riskier not to.

Paul Glastris is the editor in chief of The Washington Monthly.


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