Democrats are undone by their own blind denial

Published November 3, 2004

Over the past four years, many Democrats comforted themselves with these twin beliefs:

(1) Democrats were the true winners of the 2000 election. The Republicans stole it and have been governing without legitimacy.

(2) When Americans heard the "truth" about George W. Bush, they would fire him. That truth usually involved some combination of Halliburton, the Saudis, lying about Iraq, losing jobs at home, deficits and helping rich guys and corporations.

Tuesday's election rendered the first of these two Democratic beliefs obsolete and it disproved the second. The campaign to defeat Bush was energized and clear. Americans made the conscious and deliberate decision to re-elect him anyway.

On top of that, Americans drove home their verdict by electing an even more Republican Congress.

True, it wasn't a "mandate," not in the sense of a landslide verdict from the voters. Bush defeated John F. Kerry by fewer than 4-million votes out of 114-million cast.

Neither was Tuesday's result a clear referendum on anything except Iraq and, maybe, the issue of same-sex marriage, which was newly banned in 11 state elections.

But the most important thing about Tuesday's election was that it moved America off the dime.

We've been talking about "deadlock" for four years. Well, we aren't deadlocked any more. The Republican Party possesses a clear governing majority, newly legitimized.

Historians like to look to the past for comparison. Here's my suggestion: the 1936 re-election of Democratic hero Franklin D. Roosevelt. Lots of Republicans that year were living in denial. They hated the New Deal and convinced each other that the voters did, too. The Literary Digest reassured them with a poll saying the nation would return to its senses and elect Alf Landon.

The voters did not cooperate.

In 2004, similarly, Americans were given a full and abundant opportunity to undo the results of the previous election - and they declined. They sized up Kerry and Bush and decided to stick with the incumbent, no matter what shortcomings he might possess.

Does this means Americans suddenly love Halliburton and believe it's okay to beat prisoners, flout the Constitution and pollute the environment? Doubtful. But it does mean they were willing to accept a mixed bag in Bush instead of the Democrats.

The Democratic Party would be better off now if it shook off its denial and operated as a true opposition minority, vigorously challenging the Republicans on policy issues across the spectrum - without reading polls and worrying about giving offense.

Not for nothing was the Democrats' own Prufrock, Tom Daschle, deposed in the Dakotas. Wouldn't America be better served by aggressive questioning of ill-founded wars, unwise environmental policy and disastrous debt?

It will be tempting for Democrats to stick to the old pretenses. Once again the voters didn't really mean it, see. The sun got in their eyes. Once they see how wicked the Republicans are, they'll come around.

One almost wonders how soon party chairman Terry McAuliffe will start predicting a sure-fire Democratic victory in 2008.

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Assuming that Bush picks up the final states of New Mexico and Iowa, he will have 286 electoral votes to Kerry's 252.

Not to delve too deeply again into the Electoral College debate, but Democrats should consider that the College kept their candidate in the hunt until the end.

In a direct popular election, Bush would have won easily, racking up a lead of more than 3.5-million votes. But because Bush had to win states, not just votes, the switch of only, say, 65,000 or 70,000 votes in Ohio would have thrown the White House to Kerry.

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There were 46 bold readers who offered challenges to my prediction of a 278-260 split in the Electoral College for Bush. My effort was not so bad, being only six votes off, but two readers nailed it exactly (again, assuming New Mexico and Iowa go to Bush). Congratulations to Jim Nannen and Charles Prout!