So, the Democrats have paid the price for a cowardly, half hearted, inept campaign, and they didn't even see it coming. The party used to be handy with campaign mechanics: good polling, energetic at the precinct level in getting out the vote. This time around they had nothing much at the base and at the top end of the Democratic Nation Committee, chairman Terry McAuliffe, flush with millions minted from Global Crossing, a prime symbol of the burst bubble of the Clinton years.
Look at Max Cleland in Georgia, a triple amputee, Vietnam vet, traditional liberal and a popular guy in the state. Yet the party let him get ambushed by Saxby Chambliss, a chickenhawk who managed to get away with impugning Cleland's loyalty to the flag and country because he voted against the Homeland Security bill on account of its anti-union provisions. But the Democrats' national political managers had no idea Cleland was in trouble until it was too late.
There are great slabs of the country where people have no idea what Democrats stand for, aside from the interest groups that dump the biggest donations into their campaign treasuries. It's blowback again from the remake of the Democratic Party after the Mondale and Dukakis debacles of the late 1980s, when Clinton, Babbitt, Lieberman, Breaux and the others advertised that the Democratic Leadership Council was open for business, anti-labor, hawkish and corporate friendly.
Having given up almost everything else the party was left only with its well worn scarecrow, hauled out of the barn every two years: judicial appointments. But how many people working their ballot forms really match up a senatorial candidate with what might happen in the US Supreme Court a few years down the road?
Social Security? Once it was the most reliable scarecrow in the cornfield. By now, given what's happened on Wall St, it should have been fearsome enough to scare off a pterodactyl. But the Democrats were unable to denounce in unison Republican plots to privatize the heritage of FDR, because so many of them agree with the Republicans. Go back to one of the first fights of Bush II's term, on bankruptcies. It was Tom Daschle, the Democrats' leader in the senate, who leaped to do the bidding of the banks and credit card companies.
At least when Clinton ran in 1992 he did fashion a populist message on the economy, and also on health care. Of course he and Mrs C did drastically overdraw on their credibility account, particularly on health care. But this time the Democrats could even make a convincing case against Bush's economic management. Could the Democrats have hoped for more favorable terrain on which to fight a midterm election?
The markets? Down, down, down. During Bush's term the Dow has gone from 10578.20 on Jan. 22, 2001, to 8397.03 on Oct.31, 2002, a decline of 20.6 percent. Unemployment? Up, up, up. January 2001 to October 2002, non-farm payrolls have fallen by 1.49 million, as the jobless rate has jumped in Bush's term from 4.2 percent to 5.7
Basic economic indicators? Teetering between indifferent and terrifying. Gross domestic product, averaged a 3.1 percent annual growth rate in the first seven quarters under Clinton, compared with a 1.4 percent average in the same period under Bush.
In the second quarter alone pension wealth fell by over $469 billion or 5.3 per cent. Housing prices cushioned the blow a little but still left a net decline in wealth of 3.4 per cent in one quarter, with its successor shaping up to be just as bad. It look as though the boom in house prices has topped out. Oil prices are up 40 per cent since the start of the year. The telecommunication industry is on its ass, and it will take a very long time to crawl back from over-capacity in the 90 per cent range. The airline industry is on life support.
The official rate of profit on capital stock in the non-financial corporate sector as a whole is now at its lowest level of the postwar period (except for 1980 and 1982).
A recession? Most assuredly. Prospects of long-term economic doldrums? Near certain. You want us to go on?
Okay. So not only do we have an economy slowly flapping its way to the bottom of the fish tank, we have two men in the White House who, a scant two months ago, were hiding out in some subterranean war room in the Appalachians, hoping to dodge subpoenas on account of their shady business conduct, even as all their buddies at Enron were striking to make deals with the Justice Department.
It's true. Bush's Harken antics make the Clintons' involvement in Whitewater look like the pitiful little failed real estate deal that it was. Here we have a rich mine of corruption and insider dealing featuring such highlights as the Harvard endowment bailing out Junior at the behest of a Texas oilman. We have officials of in the administration of Bush Sr. tearing up SEC rules to save the ass of the president's son. We have, well you know the story.
And Cheney? As bad if not worse, in terms of self-enrichment at the expense of the public investors in Halliburton.
This was the economic and scandal-stained backdrop to the midterm campaign only two short months ago.
So what happened? The public said, "Sure, the economy doesn't look good, but we're not stupid. The economy's sagging, but you can't blame the whole of the 90s on George Bush. Gives us till 2004, and we'll tell you what we think then."
The problem is, the Democrats have no credibility, because they haven't earned any. No one believes they have an economic strategy and as we hunker down amid the rubble of the bubble, we can ask, what were the Democrats doing as that same 90s bubble swelled. Led by Senator Joe Lieberman they destroyed the regulatory apparatus put in place in the 30s, after the 20s bubble, and burst into ecstatic applause every time the federal watchdog of the markets, Alan Greenspan, ambled along to the Hill to tell everyone what a fine job he'd been doing.
On top of all that we've had the war whoop against Saddam Hussein. It's not been popular. A majority of Americans appear to believe that it's not a particularly good idea to trash Iraq, even though it would be fun to see Saddam Hussein swinging from a lamp post. Aside from Tony Blair the world is against it. Closer to home, the Joint Chiefs are against it.
All the same, the whooping worked. It changed the subject from the economy and Harken and Halliburton. It got the Democrats rearing and plunging till Gephardt panicked, and rushed to the White House to enlist in the great Crusade.
The Democrats are a party of ghosts and revenants, not the most convincing battalion to put against the party of property and oil, of fundamentalist Christians now in coalition with warmongering neocons ranging from Wolfowitz to Hitchens. The most articulate voice against the war fever has been an octogenarian, Bobby Byrd.
Final verdict? We agree entirely with this assessment by Mark Donham, an Illinois environmentalist who sent it along to us the morning after:
"If the democrats do not see this as a serious repudiation of their strategy of trying to 'out republican' the Republicans, then I think we will continue to see the Democrats become more and more irrelevant. Only if the Democrats embrace a new vision based upon real change, change that will mean taking on the status quo in real ways, not just pandering to the status quo, will they return to power.
"An interesting article ran in yesterday's USA Today regarding the lack of voting by people in the age group of 18-24. In non-presidential elections, the percentage of this age group that are voting is only about 25%. That is because no one is providing them with a vision that makes sense, and the smaller parties that might be providing that vision, like the Green Party, don't have the resources to reach them in adequate numbers.
"Therein lies the untapped political resource to revitalize the Democratic Party, but they will not be fooled or interested by milktoast ideas. It's time for Daschle and Gephardt to step down, admit that their strategy failed, and let some new, progressive leadership re-excite the party. If the party leadership looks at this and concludes that the they weren't conservative enough and tries to push their positions even more to the right, then I see the Democrats disintegrating into near irrelevancy."
So, can the Democrats reinvent themselves out of the cement overcoat of its DLC years? We doubt it, and furthermore we reckon that for the people who control the Democratic Party, it's far more important to beat off radical ideas and drive the McKinneys out of the Party than to win elections or to lose elections on matters of principle like civil rights and economic justice.
One last thought: the Democrats don't have Nader to blame for this one. Ralph even went out and campaigned for some of them.
Alexander Cockburn and Jeffrey St. Clair are the authors of 5 Days that Shook the World: Seattle and Beyond (Verso, 2000), and the editors of Counterpunch, the nation's best muckraking newsletter: www.counterpunch.org