The Agony of Defeat

David Moberg

It is hard to find even a tiny sliver of silver lining in the ominous political clouds conjured up by the midterm elections.

With the loss of minimal Democratic control over the Senate and a Republican gain in their margin of power in the House, the only thing slowing a Bush romp is the threat of a Senate filibuster—a feeble hurdle considering the number of Democrats cowed by Bush even when they had control. With the most pro-corporate administration since at least the ’20s, the Republican Party was not the only winner, as indicated by the Wall Street Journal headline: “GOP Sweep Gives a Boost to Bush—and Business.”

Despite the dramatic shift in power that will clearly produce a wave of regressive, pro-corporate legislation and judicial appointments, the elections did not signify a right-wing mandate. The vote breakdown was not dramatically different from the stalemate of two years ago, when Bush was installed by Supreme Court intervention after losing the popular tally, and Republicans briefly controlled Congress. But the shift was enough—like a small temperature dip, turning cold water to ice. And the freeze affected not just candidates, but progressive ballot initiatives, from a living wage in Santa Monica to public power in San Francisco to universal health care in Oregon, all of which were defeated.

Bush’s record-breaking fundraising and his intensive last-minute campaigning certainly helped tip the balance to the Republicans. Idiosyncratic local election features also made a difference. Paul Wellstone, for instance, likely would have won in Minnesota, but the overzealous politicization of his memorial service by understandably distraught supporters hurt his stand-in, Walter Mondale.

Yet Democrats should have had an advantage: The job market and consumer confidence have weakened, corporate scandals abound as public distrust of CEOs has climbed and, after decades of rising inequality, Bush’s main legislative achievement was granting massive, budget-busting tax cuts that primarily benefit the super-rich. How did the Democrats manage to lose?


There were two big factors. First was the long shadow of 9/11. Then there was the Democrats’ failure to offer a clear and persuasive vision of what they would do differently.

Bush’s war on terrorism largely accounts for his high approval ratings and obfuscates his other agendas, from busting unions to preparing for war against Iraq. Tackling a president on foreign policy in a time of anxiety and crisis isn’t easy. But Democrats could have presented an alternative vision, demanding that Bush focus on security against terrorism through better international cooperation and more effective police work, rather than initiate an unnecessary war against Iraq that risks dangerously backfiring and increasing the terrorist threat.

Democrats split on Iraq, but senators who opposed Bush did not suffer, with the possible exception of Max Cleland in Georgia, a paraplegic veteran subjected to nasty “soft on terrorism” ads for supporting the rights of federal homeland security workers. Public opinion, in any case, continues to move steadily away from the United States pursuing war on its own, even without much help from Democratic leaders.

It may be tough in parts of the country to challenge the president on foreign policy and terrorism, but if the Democrats can’t provide a clear alternative on domestic social and economic policy, they’re doomed. Polls showed that despite similar overall favorable ratings for both parties, 42 percent of voters thought Republicans had a clear plan for the country if they won control of Congress, and 39 percent thought they did not; but only 31 percent thought Democrats had a clear plan, while 49 percent said they did not. This was true even of the party’s base: Although some 68 percent of union members voted for Democrats, “they do not think either party has a plan to strengthen the economy,” says AFL-CIO President John Sweeney, “and that is a particularly strong indictment of the Democrats.”

Republicans also muddied the issues where there really are clear differences between the parties. Although the Democrats had a better prescription drug plan for retirees, Republicans had an alternative, blurring the contrast. And Republicans hid from—and lied about—their intentions to privatize Social Security. But Democrats were just as responsible for the lack of clarity. Many Democrats, including 12 senators, voted for Bush’s tax giveaway to the rich. While other Democrats were willing to criticize the tax cuts (putting undue emphasis on the way they unbalanced the budget), few were willing to call for their repeal and replacement with short-term rebates, tax cuts and spending programs aimed at working families.

There’s deep voter distrust and resentment of corporate executives and the rich, but, with all-too-few exceptions, the Democrats failed to make the case for corporate accountability or using the tax system to fund vital needs and to create a fairer society with more opportunity and security for the average citizen. They could have run ads showing wealthy people—readily available through groups like United for a Fair Economy—arguing against the abolition of the estate tax, but too many Democrats were afraid. Is there any wonder voters are confused?

Many Democratic strategists had simply hoped that a weakening economy would propel them into office, and there was a strong tendency—by design or default—to treat every race as a purely local affair. But while Bush provided a simple-minded national theme (“send me some allies”), the Democrats had none. The Democrats also lacked a clear leader, or at least the leaders they had—Dick Gephardt, Tom Daschle, even Al Gore—were so fixated on calibrating their presidential ambitions that they did not provide the hard-hitting opposition that House and Senate candidates needed.

Unions ran their effective get-out-the-vote operations, but lament that they were almost alone in the field for the Democrats. Meanwhile, Republicans—enlisting corporations to proselytize at work among their employees—have beefed up their operations, along with campaigns (as John B. Judis reported recently in The New Republic) to suppress the black vote partly by dishonestly fomenting distrust of white Democrats.


The consequences of the Democratic failure could be extreme. Republican leaders have already indicated that they intend to push through conservative judges bottled up in the Senate, making the federal judiciary even more solidly right-wing. Clearly, they intend to make the Bush tax cuts permanent, including elimination of the estate tax, and they are likely to cut taxes for investors and corporations (while “reforming” the system to make it more regressive, possibly by replacing the income tax with a national sales tax or value-added tax).

The new Congress will immediately approve homeland security legislation that denies workers civil service protections and the right to form a union, a prelude to an onslaught of legislative initiatives to make it even harder for unions to organize, undertake political action or even function. They almost certainly will promote legislation to limit business liability, pass Bush’s energy plan, and implement the president’s “faith-based initiative.” They are likely to extend an austere version of welfare reform, increase privatization of Medicare (while passing a limited prescription drug benefit that’s friendly to insurance companies), and push through a draconian bankruptcy law favored by the financial-services industry.

Despite some trepidation even in Republican quarters, it appears that they will also try to introduce so-called individual private savings accounts into Social Security, the first step in privatization that will necessarily require huge Social Security deficits, higher taxes, lower benefits or a higher retirement age (or some combination of all the above). But all of this will be sold as letting people keep more of their money to make their own choices while providing incentives to businesses to grow and create more jobs.

This isn’t even the full Republican agenda. These items are all part of stripped-down plans mentioned by strategists who caution that Republicans have to be careful not to overreach.

Of course, war on Iraq (followed by war against Iran, as Ariel Sharon advised) will face even fewer obstacles, providing a convenient distraction from the domestic agenda and political cover by boosting the president’s popularity—unless the war bogs down, too many body bags start coming home and global backlash, including increased terrorism, exacts its toll.


All of this will provide Democrats ample opportunities to play defense and attack the president for his initiatives, but it is unclear how willing they will be to do that. The leadership is discredited and in disarray, and congressional Democrats are divided. But resistance will not be enough. Unless the Democrats can articulate a progressive vision that addresses the needs of most Americans and challenges the corporate agenda, it will lose its theoretical advantage among an electorate that is moving in its direction demographically.

At this point, progressive constituency groups absolutely must develop a coherent alternative strategy and push it aggressively against both Democrats and Republicans. Without grassroots pressure, too many Democrats will cling to Bush, further befuddling any Democratic message. Too often in recent years progressive organizations have deferred to Democrats in Congress to define both the political issues and the policy options.

But it is also important that the varied groups with their own distinct constituencies forge a more coherent message among themselves. The lack of communication among progressive groups—labor, women, environmentalists, civil libertarians, peaceniks, civil rights groups, global justice activists and more—contributes to the confusion and failure of the Democrats. The only silver lining in the dark political clouds might be that the elections—and the consequences soon to follow—will stimulate that move to a more unified and effective progressive political voice.

David Moberg, a former senior editor of In These Times, was on staff with the magazine from when it began publishing in 1976 until his passing in July 2022. Before joining In These Times, he completed his work for a Ph.D. in anthropology at the University of Chicago and worked for Newsweek. He received fellowships from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation and the Nation Institute for research on the new global economy.

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