the Nov. 5 elections, many Democrats predicted that the results would
foreshadow the emerging Democratic majority, a political theory
from a book with that title by John B. Judis and Ruy Teixeira. The
theory holds that the Democrats progressive centrism is
gaining the allegiance of professionals, working women, blacks,
Asian-Americans and Hispanics with demographics transforming these
core constituencies into a new Democratic majority by 2010.
That Democratic optimism seems misplaced after
the electoral wipeout in the mid-term elections. Instead of giving a
glimpse of this emerging Democratic majority, the elections suggest
that the Democrats may be sliding toward years in the minority.
The Nov. 5 outcome also demonstrated the danger
of mechanical political theories, which can create false confidence of
inevitable success. Rather than addressing major reasons for the
Republican victories including the political imbalance created by
the conservatives' well-financed national media infrastructure
some Democrats act as if success will fall into their laps from a tilt
In winning on Nov. 5 thus holding the House
of Representatives for a fifth consecutive election and regaining the
Senate the Republicans proved they can mobilize electoral
majorities, even against what appear to be their personal economic
interests. The Republicans can flood the political system with both
positive and negative messages to rally their conservative
constituencies while dividing independents and depressing the
The Republicans have this power because they have
invested billions of dollars in a sophisticated media apparatus that
includes Fox News, talk radio, the Wall Street Journal's editorial
pages, the Washington Times, dozens of magazines and Internet
publications, and a large stable of conservative op-ed writers who
dominate the opinion pages of major newspapers, including supposedly
liberal ones like the Washington Post.
By comparison, liberals and Democrats have spent
almost nothing on a media infrastructure, leaving them struggling to
get out their political messages.
This media imbalance puts the Democrats in a
nearly impossible bind when trying to fashion a winning national
message that must mix progressive policies with a populist style. For
Democrats to win nationally, their message must offer tangible
solutions to social, economic, environmental and national security
problems in language that inspires and unites divergent subgroups
throughout the country.
Getting that message to the Democrats' diverse
"core constituencies" requires more than a few sound bites
in paid 30-second commercials. The Democrats also must protect the
viability of their messengers who can expect harsh scrutiny from both
the conservative media and mainstream journalists. [For a brief
history of how this pattern evolved, see "Democrats'
Dilemma" from the Consortiumnews.com Archive.]
While the Republicans have continued to refine
their successful media strategies, the Democrats have done little more
than close their eyes and hope the problem will solve itself.
An Electoral Debacle
The results speak for themselves. On Nov. 5,
Democrats lost seats in both houses of Congress and failed to pick up
a majority of the governors houses as they had been forecasting
going into the elections.
Arguably, more devastating is not just what they
lost, it is how they lost.
Credible, articulate, attractive Democratic candidates were defeated
across the country.
In Minnesota, following the death of Sen. Paul
Wellstone, his stand-in, former Vice President Walter Mondale, lost to
a less experienced Republican challenger. Republicans also swept
statewide races for governor, secretary of state, and auditor. The
normally sober Associated Press called the Minnesota Republican
victory a romp.
A big factor in the Democrats' Minnesota collapse
was the media firestorm that followed a memorial celebration for
Wellstone that Republicans complained turned into a political rally.
Most of the memorial gave voice to the personal grief caused by the
plane crash that killed Wellstone, his wife and his daughter. But some
eulogies were unusually political as they called for continuation of
the senator's commitment to social justice and a Democratic victory.
Given the way the national news media works these
days, the consequences were predictable. Republican pundits pounced on
the Democrats for an unseemly display of politics at a time of
mourning. Some conservative commentators even exaggerated the facts of
the memorial service.
The day after the service, for instance, CNN's
Tucker Carlson said, "The political world is still reeling
tonight from yesterday's nauseating display in Minnesota, where a
memorial service for the late Sen. Paul Wellstone was hijacked by
partisan zealots and turned into a political rally. Republican friends
of Sen. Wellstone were booed and shouted down as they tried to
Carlson's account may have succeeded in stirring
the fury of the Republican base around the country, but the reality of
the memorial was far less dramatic. No Republicans were shouted down
as they tried to speak. From the crowd of 20,000 people, Senate
Minority Leader Trent Lott was greeted with "scattered boos ...
as he entered the arena," wrote the Minneapolis Star Tribune.
"Lott smiled and waved." [For more on how conservatives
distorted the Wellstone memorial, see the account
in Bob Somerby's Daily Howler.]
For Democrats, the Minnesota election debacle
wasnt the worst of Election Night 2002, however.
In Georgia, a Republican won the governors
race for the first time since 1872. Sen. Max Cleland, a triple amputee
Vietnam War hero, lost after being labeled soft on national defense by
an opponent who never wore a uniform. In the House races, Democrats
lost in the 11th and 12th districts, which had been carved by the
Democratic-controlled state legislature to favor Democratic
In Maryland, Republican Bob Erlich defeated the
sitting Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend to become the first
Republican governor of Maryland since Spiro Agnew in the 1960s.
In Massachusetts, Republican Mitt Romney defeated
state Treasurer Shannon OBrien to become the fourth straight
Republican governor in a state where Democrats hold a 3-to-1 voter
In Missouri, Democratic Sen. Jean Carnahan, the
wife of the 2000 Democratic Senate candidate Mel Carnahan who died in
a plane crash weeks before the election, lost to a much younger
candidate, Jim Talent. Talent won after claiming Carnahan was part of
the Democratic Senate majority that was blocking George W. Bushs
In New Hampshire, Republican John Sununu defeated
a popular sitting governor, Jeanne Shaheen. The race, which had been
moving toward Shaheen one week before the election, turned toward
Sununu in large part because of the message that Sununu would stand
In race after race, Democrats struggled to get
their message out and Republicans successfully muted core Democratic
issues, such as prescription-drug legislation and environmental
protection, by offering weaker policy alternatives. On top of that,
Republicans gained by riding Bush's coattails as he stumped for
Republicans and questioned whether the Democratic-controlled Senate
cared about the security of the American people.
The 2004 Contests
It's too early to project what the 2004
presidential race will look like, but the Senate races in two years
give the Democrats little cause for cheer.
In 2004, 19 of the 34 Senate seats up for grabs
will be Democratic seats. Of those, eight seats were won by Democratic
candidates with less than 60 percent of the vote. Another three safe
Democrats Bob Graham of Florida, Daniel Inouye of Hawaii, and Tom
Daschle of South Dakota are rumored to be considering retirement.
(Sen. Hollings of South Carolina and Sen. Patty
Murray of Washington also have been mentioned as members considering
retirement, but they were included in the list of eight races won in
1998 with less than 60 percent of the vote. Zell Miller, who was named
to the Senate following the death of Republican Sen. Paul Coverdale,
would be considered a safe seat if he chooses to remain in the Senate.)
By contrast, Republicans would have to defend
only four seats which their incumbents won with less than 60 percent
of the vote in 1998. Given that they are back in the majority,
Republican members are less likely to consider retirement, though
Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania will be 74 and will have served 24 years
in the Senate by 2004. Also, the Alaska Senate seat now held by Frank
Murkowski, who left the Senate to become governor this year, will be a
competitive seat if the Democrats run popular out-going Gov. Tony
At best, Democrats can hope to compete for four
to six Senate seats now held by Republicans. Meanwhile, Democrats may
have to defend eight to 12 competitive seats.
On top of that disadvantage, Democrats likely
will face a national election against a president who enjoys approval
ratings of between 60 and 70 percent. Republicans find themselves in a
situation similar to a football team with a sizable halftime lead and
a good running game.
Media & Message
In the wake of 2002 elections, many political
pundits are blaming the Democrats for not having a national message
and an effective national messenger. Clearly, the congressional
leadership of Dick Gephardt and Tom Daschle had even less success
overcoming the Republican advantages in media and money than Bill
Clinton and Al Gore did during the 1990s.
Clinton and Gore were often blamed for the
Democratic failures to regain congressional majorities in 1996, 1998
and 2000. But without the much-maligned Clinton and Gore, the
Democrats did even worse in 2002, suffering their worst electoral
defeats since 1994.
Still, even with the perfect message and the most
articulate messenger, Democrats would face many disadvantages.
Republicans now control the White House bully pulpit and can dictate
the pace of many policy issues.
Republicans also possess a big fundraising
advantage. In the 2002 mid-term elections, the Republican Party raised
nearly $511 million compared to the Democratic Partys $327 million.
Of those totals, the Republicans collected almost $290 million in
so-called hard money, which is the only kind of campaign donation that
will be permitted by the McCain-Feingold campaign finance reform now
taking effect. For the 2002 election cycle, the Democrats raised only
$127.5 million in hard money. [For more details, see www.opensecrets.org.]
Based on those totals, the Republican fundraising
advantage over Democrats in the era of the soft-money ban is more than
2-to-1. Plus, that edge is almost certain to grow with Republican
control of all congressional committees and the White House.
On top of the campaign donations, the
conservatives also have a huge media advantage. While the myth of the
liberal media is kept alive in some quarters of American society
ironically because of repetition from the multitude of
conservative commentators the reality is that the Democrats are
increasingly the odd politicians out with both the corporate
mainstream media and the right-wing media.
Without addressing this media weakness, the
Democrats may find that it doesn't matter whom they nominate in 2004
or what the message is. The media concentration again will be on the
"character flaws" of the Democratic presidential candidate,
while both mainstream and conservative journalists will minimize or
ignore similar or worse problems on the Republican ticket. [For more
details on how this worked in 2000, see Consortiumnews.com's "Protecting
The real choice for Democrats and their
supporters is whether to undertake the hard work of building a media
infrastructure that can compete with what the Republicans now have on
the right or to face a future in which the Republicans keep
winning elections even though a majority of Americans may disagree
with GOP policies.
If the Democrats are to bounce back and
restore some balance to the American political system they will
have to recognize that the road ahead is not paved with demographic