THE DEMOCRATS could well hold onto the Senate next Tuesday. But if they do,
it will be the result of two bizarre twists that resulted in the late entry of
two septuagenarians - former Democratic senators Frank Lautenberg, 78, in New
Jersey, and Walter Mondale, a spry 74, in Minnesota.
Lautenberg, who retired in 2000, is the stand-in for the discredited incumbent
Robert Torricelli. Mondale, who last saw Senate service 22 years ago, will likely
hold the seat tragically vacated by the death of Paul Wellstone.
The rescue of the people's party by two people who came out of retirement is
not a bad metaphor for the Democrats' general plight. They are just not renewing
themselves as a progressive party, at the level of leaders, or themes, or voter
energy. Wellstone was the rare exception to this trend.
Historically, the first midterm election after the presidency changes hands
usually produces a huge swing to the opposition party. But this time the Democrats
will do well to cling to their one-seat margin in the Senate, and insiders have
all but written off Democratic recapture of the House.
It's too easy to blame the post-Sept. 11 mood and the incipient war with Iraq.
The country is not aflame with war fever, and Bush's support is shallow. The Democrats'
larger problem is lack of nerve, not just on the Iraq issue but across the board.
Democrats ought to be making traction on several fronts. The first is the economy.
Job creation has stalled. Retirees took a terrible bath in the stock market collapse.
Indicators suggest a softening economy - industrial production, retail sales,
and consumer confidence are all down.
Some of the weak economy can be laid to Republican policies, especially the
indulgence of corporate corruption, which in turn overstated corporate profits
and created stock market gyrations.
Bush took credit for the Democrats' Sarbanes Bill to toughen accounting standards,
but Bush's appointee, SEC chairman Harvey Pitt, is gutting the bill's implementation.
Corporate corruption ought to be an election issue, but it isn't. Likewise the
Bush tax cut. More than half of it goes to the richest 1 percent of Americans.
A consequence is that public services for the rest of us will be further slashed.
These misguided fiscal and budget priorities should also be election issues,
but they aren't. Democrats are divided on how to respond.
They criticize the Bush tax cut, but few have the nerve to campaign for its
repeal. Most Democrats are stressing the damage to budget balance rather than
to national priorities, a critique more reminiscent of Hoover than Roosevelt.
Democrats tend to fall back on the party's ''Greatest Hits,'' the fruits of
yesteryear's struggles: Defend Social Security! Protect and expand Medicare!
This is fine as far as it goes. But it doesn't deliver issues or rekindle politics
for voters under 60.
Ever since the 2000 campaign, the grand strategy of Bush's chief political
adviser, Karl Rove, has been to blur differences between Republicans and Democrats
wherever the Democrats had the popular issue. On Social Security, Republicans
now deny they ever were for privatization. On prescription drugs, the Republicans
have a bill, too.
The Rove strategy works only because Democrats have been reluctant to stake
out positions that Republicans can't blur, like a demand to repeal the tax cut,
or to have true universal health insurance, or to deal with Iraq only through
the United Nations.
Curiously, demographic trends are favoring Democrats. Immigrants, women, and
college-educated professionals are all trending Democratic.
But unless the Democrats offer credible leaders who stand for something and
rally voters, they won't catch the wave.
Part of the Democrats' problem is fragmentation. They are a party of divergent
liberal and centrist wings. But much of the trouble is lack of leadership. Former
Vice President Gore made one stirring speech criticizing Bush's Iraq policy, and
then abandoned the issue. This is not the behavior of a serious leader.
Great leaders across the spectrum, from Lincoln to FDR to Ronald Reagan, took
political risks for their principles. They generated excitement and won over skeptical
voters who respected their leadership.
The outpouring of tributes to Paul Wellstone, many of them hypocritical encomiums
by people who had no use for him when he was alive, noted that Wellstone fought
for his beliefs, that he couldn't be bought, that he did politics by rallying
ordinary people rather than playing it safe by relying on pollsters and canned
The Democrats will soon run out of 70-year-old issues and 70-year-old ex-senators.
They had better start generating more Wellstones.
Robert Kuttner is co-editor of The American Prospect. His column appears
regularly in the Globe.
© Copyright 2002 Globe Newspaper Company