Mixed Messages

Ana Marie Cox

The election results prove that those who said the reign of Bush the Younger resembles an early-’90s flashback to his father’s administration were almost right. It’s just that now, with the addition of a Sununu and a Dole to the cast of familiar characters installed in Washington, one needs to flip the time machine back another few years. Welcome to the Revenge of the Reagan Era, Episode Two.

But the Republicans aren’t the only ones nostalgic for the thrilling days of trickle-down economics, budget deficits and vengeful, Puritan attorneys general. The appearance of Walter Mondale and Frank Lautenberg as Senate candidates had some searching their closets for other well-worn and almost forgotten items that might also come back in style: leg warmers or Members Only jackets, maybe.

Of course, Mondale lost. Among all the defeats of Tuesday night, his was undoubtedly the bitterest and will be one of the most eagerly dissected. This, despite unusually good reasons to ignore the race entirely. The failure of Voter News Service to provide the exit-poll information that usually fuels the speculation of Wednesday-morning campaign managers is the most compelling justification to refrain from extrapolating too much from the Minnesota race (and by extension, the entire election).

Without it, we will never know what voters really meant by sending Republican Norm Coleman to Capitol Hill. Did Mondale himself lose to Coleman? Did the spirit of Paul Wellstone lose to Coleman? Or—as I suspect—did Mondale lose to the spirit of Wellstone? That is, Mondale lost because he was a stalwart party insider trying to replace a man who voted against his own party repeatedly and without remorse: Fritz paled in comparison. The few examples of partisan pettiness on display at Wellstone’s memorial service and the subsequent “backlash” against Mondale are probably less important than people realize.

But in all the “what went wrong” bloviating that’s spewing from the usual talking heads, no one has argued that Mondale lost because he wasn’t enough like Wellstone. Indeed, the Democratic Leadership Council is arguing, in effect, that Mondale lost because he wasn’t enough like Coleman. “The loss of Paul Wellstone’s Senate seat,” they said in a press release Wednesday, “represents a hard-to-miss rebuke to the base-mobilization strategy.”

“We agree with the many Democrats,” the release continued, “who are saying the party needs a bigger, bolder, clearer agenda and message. But we disagree with those who are saying that the party should achieve that clarity simply by moving to the left.”

One might ask, what’s left besides the left? Why, the center, of course: The very position that Democrats have fought the Republicans for since, well, Mondale lost everywhere except in Minnesota.

This call for, as the DLC puts it, a “positive, centrist” message suggests that liberals will squander the chance to respond to the second coming of the Reagan era just as they did the first: They will attempt to beat the enemy by joining him in a very crowded middle. The argument that this worked for Clinton fails to account for how his success is proving to be the exception, not the rule.

New Democrats lost big on Tuesday: Kathleen Kennedy Townsend (one of the DLC’s “100 to Watch” in 2000) lost the Maryland governorship to Bob Ehrlich, a man whose biggest campaign promise was to legalize slot-machine gambling. Jean Shaheen, who lost the New Hampshire Senate seat to John Sununu Jr., is a former member of the board of directors of the New Hampshire DLC. Bob Clement, a charter member of the House’s New Democrat Coalition, lost a Senate seat in Tennessee to a mid-’90s flashback, Lamar Alexander (of “Lamar!” fame).

A “bolder, clearer agenda and message” are certainly in order. The DLC and fellow New Democrats are noticeably vague about the specifics of their positions. And, to be fair, policy and ideology have never been high on their list of priorities. The New Democrats have moved to the center not because they want to enact specific legislation, but because they want to win elections. All statements and positions flow from that.

It is nothing less than a tragedy that Tuesday’s tremendous losses will not remind them of what is really lost when people run for office based on demographic trends and not ideas. Those that claim to want to honor the legacy of Paul Wellstone would do well to remember his observation that when one runs based on convictions, “there is, of course, no guarantee of success.” But, he continued, “politics is not about observations or predictions. Politics is what we create by what we do, what we hope for, and what we dare to imagine.”

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Ana Marie Cox is the brains behind Wonkette, one of the most popular political blogs on the web. She is also the former editor of the dearly departed suck​.com and has written for The Chronicle of Higher Education, Mother Jones, Wired and Spin.
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