By my count, eight Democratic members of the Senate have either run for president or are being mentioned (sometimes only by themselves) as candidates in 2004. Only one of them -- Edward M. Kennedy -- voted against the congressional resolution authorizing war with Iraq. Yet to hear some people tell it, it is Kennedy's one vote that represents the heart and soul of the Democratic Party.
What party are they talking about? It cannot be the party of politicians who have made it their business to attract voters outside of some small, safe district -- as with House members.
It cannot be the party that won the popular vote for the presidency in 2000 and for the previous eight years controlled the White House. It is, instead, a party that has panicked over the recent midterm elections and appears intent on beating a retreat -- all the way back to the comfy days of the New Deal.
What is the justification for such talk? It is this: A more pronounced, unalloyed, leftist message would have turned out the Democratic faithful. Maybe. But there is an even greater chance that such a message would have propelled even more conservatives and centrists to the polls. The results for the Democrats might have been the same or even worse -- much worse, in my own humble estimation.
The response from the party's left is to be expected -- although it hardly makes any sense. In the first place, it would have been impossible to take a hard antiwar position when, among others, such former and potentially future presidential candidates as Senators Joe Biden, John Edwards, Tom Harkin, Fritz Hollings, Tom Daschle, John Kerry, Joe Lieberman, and, yes, Hillary Clinton voted the other way. Over in the House, another potential presidential candidate, Dick Gephardt, took the same position. As for Al Gore, he questioned Bush's timing, not his reasoning.
What the Democrats should have done was embrace the war on terrorism and make it a nonissue. Then the party should have moved on and raised economic issues -- everything from the sick economy to corporate malfeasance to privatizing Social Security at a time when 401(k) accounts are shrinking before the eyes of the American investor.
As for the homeland security bill, Democrats should have forcefully made the case that antiterrorism has nothing to do with the unionization rights of federal workers.
The failure of the Democratic Party to nationalize the campaign and to field a spokesman with a taste for battle might have saved one, maybe two, Democratic seats -- Carnahan in Missouri for sure, maybe Shaheen in New Hampshire.
The Democrats sorely lacked two things -- their own issues and someone to advance them. That does not add up to an ideological drubbing but rather to missed opportunities. Last week's results do not mean that, suddenly, the country wants right-wing judges, privatized Social Security, government support of organized religion, or, for that matter, a foreign policy with a chip on its shoulder just spoiling for a fight.
For some reason, the media loathes saying "no big deal.'' Just as everything at CNN gets hyped as "breaking news,'' so every election is a "historic'' ideological realignment which will change the country forever (or maybe until the next election) and even alter the course of El Nino. This election was nothing of the sort, and it would be folly for the Democratic Party to think what the voters were really missing was a starker alternative.
November 5th was a triumph for George Bush and Karl Rove and a clear defeat for the Democrats. But the GOP won with money and tactics -- a great get-out-the-vote effort and, yes, the lift provided by Bush's personal popularity. The victory, though, was no knockout -- just a match won on points. For the Democrats, there's no reason to act woozy and stumble to the left. The party has been in that corner before. It's where it usually loses.
Richard Cohen is a member of the Washington Post Writers Group. His work frequently appears in the Flyer.