Wednesday, November 06, 2002

The Day After

The scope of the GOP's triumph is now clear. There are, it seems to me, three questions regarding what happened. (1) What enabled it? (2) What's the downside risk for the GOP? (3) What's the upside for the Democratic Party?

1. National Security is a Huge Issue. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, the "salience" of national security issues dropped dramatically, enabling an inexperienced and largely clueless Arkansas Governor to defeat an incumbent president with an extraordinary record on national security issues. After September 11th, national security regained its salience as a voting issue. Incredibly, Democrats avoided the issue, instead of addressing it directly. They said nothing of value with regards to chemical and biological warfare. They whined about alleged "unilateralism." They embraced the UN. In short, they reinforced every stereotype of Democratic fecklessness on national security issues and, in so doing, alienated huge swaths of the electorate.

The almost perfect metaphor for this came on Monday, when news broke that a Predator-delivered missile had killed a key Al Qaeda operative and his posse. At roughly the same time, Walter Mondale was on television debating Norm Coleman. Mondale whined about US unilateralism and fretted about war with Iraq destabilizing the War on Terror. In the video translation, one party was waging war on terror, the other was second-guessing and back-pedaling and basically acting bothered that it was a "bad" political issue. Mondale thought he won the debate with Coleman on Monday. The next day, he lost the election.

Here's the thing. If voters feel that the Democrats will be every bit as relentless as President Bush has been in pursuing a global war against terror, then the other "big" issues (the economy and the culture) will be decisive in determining election outcomes. But if voters feel that the Democrats aren't with the program, well then, they're not going to be trusted with national governance. It's as simple as that.

2. Mandates and Hubris. The 2002 result is a strong vote of confidence for the Bush Administration. It is not a mandate. The great danger that now looms for the GOP is that it will mistake the vote of confidence for a mandate. This over-reach happened in 1994, leading directly to the re-election of President Clinton in 1996. It is very important that the GOP this time view the results dispassionately and that they keep their key constituencies in check. The feeding at the trough that occurred in 1995 overshadowed everything else (thanks, in no small measure, to the news media). Republicans can ill-afford a repeat of that.

3. Think. The coming Democratic purge will be helpful. Getting rid of Terry Mac and Gephardt and eventually Daschle would, in an ideal Democratic scenario, happen sooner rather than later. More important, 2002 ends the whole 2000-we-won-even-though-we-lost dementia. Last night, the country essentially ratified Bush's victory in 2000.

The upside of being completely out of power in Washington is that it requires Democrats to think much more imaginatively about the most important issues facing the country. They've been cast out into the wilderness. The wilderness is where parties are reinvented, reimagined and reengineered. Standing for nothing except political advantage leads, inevitably, to defeat. Standing for something is the road back.