Why the Democrats will get trounced in 2002

Doug Ireland

Democrats have rallied around Bush's popularity ratings.

Five days before the bombing of Afghanistan beganin announcing the reopening of Washington to air trafficGeorge W. Bush declared, This Thursday, ticket counters and airplanes will fly out of Ronald Reagan airport.

It was of this president with the addled tongue whom Al Gore spoke when, deploying the drawl he turns on when trying to seem folksy, he hollered to Iowas Jefferson-Jackson Day dinner that George Bush is mah commander-in-chief! (If Gores beard gets any longer, Bush can infiltrate him into Afghanistan.) Gores frothy nationalism symbolized the degree to which the Democratic leadership has abdicated its responsibility as watchdog on a president who is, to much of the world, out of control.

As far as the miltarization of the campaign against terrorism is concerned, the Democrats are in the tank. Spineless fear of voter revenge at the polls next yearin the wake of the Afghanistan bombing, Bushs Gallup poll popularity at 92 percent broke yet another recordhas cowed the Democrats into silence on conduct of the war.

Oh, there has been rear-guard congressional action that has blunted some of the unconstitutionalities in Attorney General John Ashcrofts anti-terrorism legislation, but it still shreds civil liberties protections to an unprecedented degree. Democrats have been banking their hopes on inclusion of sunset provisions in the rights-reducing bills that would require Congress to review them in two years. But once these rights are voted away, we wont get them back. Not only will Democrats from marginal seats be even more reluctant than usual to stand up for civil liberties, but it will be almost certainly a Republican Congress, not a Democratic one, that reconsiders their evisceration.

The New York Times trotted out old Arthur Schlesinger Jr. to preach that the Democrats will win in 2002 because during our recent wars the party in opposition has always gained seats in mid-term congressional elections. But of the five examples cited by Schlesinger, in four of them it was a Democrat in the White House with Republicans acting like a real oppositionthe vicious attacks on Wilson, Roosevelt, Truman and Johnson are notoriousthat constantly criticized U.S. policy and conduct of those wars. Now, no negative word about Bush passes the lips of the Democratic leadership, the conduct of the war is taboo for all, and the few tepid criticisms of anti-terrorist policies here at home are left to safe-seaters like Vermont Sen. Patrick Leahy (unopposed by the GOP last time he ran) and Michigan Rep. John Conyers (who could rival Strom Thurmonds re-election longevity if he wished).

In the 1990 election Schlesinger mentions, when Bush pere was in power, Democrats gained only one Senate seat and just eight House seats, most due to GOP retirements and local factors, not the Gulf War. And just two years later, after redistricting, the Democrats hemorrhaged in both chambers. Schlesingers argument most certainly doesnt fit next years circumstances.

Heres why: Recruitment of heavyweight Democratic challengers to take on GOP incumbents, already lousy before September 11, has since become a disaster, says Russ Hemenway, veteran director of the National Committee for an Effective Congress (NCEC). No one wants to run unless theyre going to be in the majority, he reportsand that wont happen.

Only two Republican senators were rated seriously vulnerable by NCEC before the hijackings. But after September 11, Oregons popular Democratic governor, John Kitzhaber, decided not to make his expected Senate run, leaving incumbent Gordon Smith nearly certain of victory against the admirable but lackluster likely opponent, Rep. Peter DeFazio. And while New Hampshires conservative Democratic governor, Jeane Shaheen, is maintaining her Senate candidacy, Dubya is putting enormous personal pressure on Bush loyalist GOP Rep. John Sununu (son of Daddys chief of staff) to challenge Sen. Bob Smith in a primary. A not-too-bright nutcase with a ridiculous coiffure who alienated Republicans by briefly embarking on an independent presidential candidacy, Smith will be trounced by the popular young Sununuwholl go on to win handily over Shaheen.

Democrats havent a prayer of retaking the seats being vacated by Phil Gramm in Texas; by Strom Thurmond in South Carolina, where Rep. Lindsey Graham (the attractive young conservative who gained fame and statewide popularity in Clintons impeachment) will romp to victory; or by Jesse Helms in North Carolina, where Elizabeth Dole will have no trouble taking the seat against any of the Democratic challengers (especially the rich patrician stiff and ex-Clinton Chief of Staff Erskine Bowles). The war has also moved two GOP incumbents against whom Democrats might previously have had an outside shotColorados Wayne Allard, the weaker of the two, and Maines Susan Collinsinto the likely Republican column.

By contrast, there are at least seven highly vulnerable Democratic incumbents. And while Dick Cheney has been running Bushs war from his undisclosed bunker, Dubya has been spending hours on the phone recruiting GOPers. Besides New Hampshire, Bush has turned up the heat under New Jerseys extremely popular former governor, Tom Kean, a moderate, to take on scandal-plagued Robert Torricelli. Bush has already persuaded South Dakota Rep. John Thunethat states lone congressmanto abandon a planned gubernatorial race and challenge the invisible and unpopular incumbent Democratic junior senator, Tim Johnson. And it was Bush who persuaded St. Paul Mayor Norm Coleman to run against Minnesotas in-trouble Paul Wellstone.

Missouris Jean Carnahan (appointed to her seat after her dead husband won the election) stands a good chance of falling against ex-Rep. Jim Talent, who almost snatched the governorship two years ago. Iowas Tom Harkin is in the battle of his life against popular Rep. Greg Ganske, and Montanas Max Baucus and Lousianas Mary Landrieu are also in deep trouble. Barring a miracle, Democrats will lose their one-vote Senate majority.

Things are even worse on the House side, Hemenway says, where redistricting means that hardly a single Republican House incumbent will be defeated. At the same time, Democrats will sustain major losses from gerrymandering. In Texas, a Democratic judge just upheld a redistricting plan that will cost the Democrats at least seven seats, according to NCEC (but Texas Democrats fear the losses could rise to nine, including senior party figures like Rep. Martin Frost.)
In Michigan, the Democrats are in disarray because maps drawn in a process dominated by the Chamber of Commerce have put Democratic incumbents in districts where theyll be pitted in primaries against each otherlike veteran John Dingell, who might well lose his primary to Democratic Rep. Lynn Rivers. NCEC forecasts a loss of three seats in the state, but local Democrats think collateral damage from war and redistricting could cost them as many as five.

In Pennsylvania, the new congressional lines will mean a loss of at least four Democratic seats. It could get even dicier for other Democratic incumbents: Some of the final lines in other states are not known; others are already in court. By contrast, redistricting controlled by Democrats will at this point give them only one new seat in California and a likely pickup of four in Georgia. What all this means is that the Republicans will add at least nineand perhaps as many as 14to their House majority.

Democrats chances in 2002 are further undermined by the fact that the war has sucked the oxygen out of the partys attempts to get traction on other issues. Moreover, the Democrats have already caved in to the idea of further tax cuts$60 to $75 billion worth. Although the notion of cutting taxes in the middle of an open-ended war is pure follyeven an echt Reaganite like George Will has denounced the notion as economics as psychotherapy and doomed to failurethe Democrats have become supply-siders and are only squabbling about to whom the cuts should go, instead of opposing them altogether.

Another harbinger of the looming Democratic disaster in 2002 can be found in New Jerseys gubernatorial contest. There, the Republican nomineeJersey City Mayor Bret Schundler, an ideological conservative policy wonkhad been assumed to be a dead mackerel against Democrat Jim McGreevey. But since the war began, three different polls show Schundler picking up strengthanywhere from five to seven pointsdespite a gaffe-strewn performance. Schundlers sudden jump is directly attributable to the war, says Nick Acocella, the savvy editor of the insider electronic newsletter New Jersey Politifax. One of the Democrats major issues against Schundler was his pro-handgun positionhowever, gun stores all over the country have reported a dramatic increase in sales of 200 to 300 percent as paranoia about terrorism increases. While Schundler will still lose, the gun issue is off the table in New Jersey this year as it will be across the country in 2002, depriving Democrats of a key hot button against Republicans.

And what if theres another terrorist attack, either here or in Europe? Lets face it: Many of the homeland security measures put in placelike stationing National Guard troops in airportsare feel-better palliatives as ineffectual as those taken by the Hollywood studios, who have moved cop cars used in movies off their lots and parked thememptyin front of the studio gates. One more terrorist incident will only drive security hysteria here at home to a fever pitch, sharply accentuating the already-evident lurch to the right.

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Doug Ireland has been writing about power, politics and the media since 1977. A former columnist for the Village Voice, the New York Observer and the Paris daily Libération, among others, his articles have appeared everywhere from The Nation to Vanity Fair to POZ. Hes a contributing editor of In These Times. He can be reached through his blog, DIRELAND.
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