The Democratic Party made a cynical calculation in the months leading up to
the November election. Outgoing Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle and his party
made the decision to vie for white collar, white, male independent voters, at
the expense of their base -- blacks, suburban women, union and other blue collar
Their gambit for capturing the elusive indies: positioning the party of FDR
as a tepid but loyal friend of the White House -- offering a continual, low-grade
scolding the GOP for its excesses on tax cuts, but standing firmly against repealing
them, complaining about the coming war with Iraq but signing a blank check for
the president to wage it anyway, nattering away about social security and Medicare
but offering no plans of their own to fix them, and pouting while the stock market
crumbled under leadership that was as inept as it was apparently blameless in
They gambled wrong. Big time.
Instead of placating moderate, independent voters, the Democrats F.O.G. ("Friends
of George") gambit outraged the red-meat base that the Party machine needed to
turn out in large numbers on Nov. 5 in order to best Republicans in close races.
On the day before the election, a caller to National Public Radio's Diane
Rheem Show made the point with singular clarity to Rheem's guest at the time,
Democratic National Committee chair Terry McAuliffe. The female caller complained
bitterly that she and everyone she knew opposed war with Iraq, and she said they
had tried calling, writing, emailing and in every other way screaming as much
to their political leaders. But, said the caller, the Democratic establishment
ignored them, throwing their support behind the president. "You're going to have
to do something for us," the caller told McAuliffe ominously. "We feel like we've
been ignored and if you don't do something, I and a lot of other people are going
to vote for independents."
Even in Florida, where the Dems all but promised to rout the president's brother,
Gov. Jeb Bush, the effort fell short due to huge miscalculations on the part of
the local Party. First, their nominee, Tampa Lawyer Bill McBride, erred by gloating
too soon following his surprise victory over former Attorney General Janet Reno
in the botched September primary. Trouble was, most black voters -- who generally
loathe Jeb Bush -- supported Reno, and they bore the brunt of mistakes that led
to thousands of disenfranchised voters and a nasty rehash of the "stolen" 2000
McBride's failure to address the raw anger of blacks over the second shucking
at the hands of the voting machines cost him crucial early support, and forced
him to spend the closing weeks of the campaign singing hymns in black churches
and dragging Bill Clinton around Liberty City while the rest of the state quietly
accepted Jeb Bush's argument that McBride was a typical tax-and-spender. Bush's
last-minute negative ad blitz (supported by about a four-to-one fundraising advantage)
crippled McBride with moderate independents and helped Bush win counties Al Gore
had carried in 2000, including Duval and Miami-Dade. So instead of facing a referendum
on his policies, including eliminating affirmative action and instituting an onerous
school testing regime, not to mention the embarrassment of the state's feeble
child welfare system -- Jeb cruised to victory. So much for payback in the Sunshine
The same scenario seemed to play out nationwide.
Democrats failed to articulate a distinct vision from the Republicans on everything
from the war to national security to the economy, and so were left to fight localized
battles against a GOP that successfully nationalized the election for its base.
George W. Bush and Rudy Giuliani criss-crossed the country driving home the powerful
message that Bush needed "allies" on Capitol Hill in order to deliver the security
protections and economic treats supposedly favored by the electorate (or at least
by its corporate and right-wing elements). The GOP base responded. The Democratic
base stayed home.
The Dems also misfired in several key races -- putting on an unseemly Wellstone
memorial pep rally in Minnesota -- thus killing Walter Mondale's candidacy --
and overestimating their chances in Colorado and Georgia.
The result - a slight increase in turnout nationwide, but an overall figure
of less than 40 percent of the voting age population going to the polls. Nationally,
turnout was just 39 percent -- up just slightly from the 56-year low of 37.6 percent
in the 1998 midterm election, according to the nonpartisan Committee for the Study
of the American Electorate. Twenty-two states actually had lower turnout that
1998. And in the 28 states that had higher turnout, most of that was attributed
to the heavy campaigning of George W. Bush, not the vaunted Democratic get-out-the-vote
In Florida, voter turnout was just 53 percent (of registered voters) -- up
6 percent versus 1998 but nowhere near the increase needed by McBride -- and it
hardly rose at all in the heavily Democratic counties he was counting on to beat
Jeb Bush. In Miami-Dade County, which McBride managed to lose, turnout was just
over 50 percent. In Broward County, home to the largest concentration of Democrats
in the state (and more than 980,000 voters,) it was a dismal 45.1 percent -- the
fourth lowest turnout of any Florida county and the lowest showing in a gubernatorial
election since 1970.
Democrats needed to do far better than that in order to win in Florida or anywhere
else. And in order to inspire their base, they needed to appeal to it: by articulating
a vision for the country including specific proposals for fixing the nation's
problems (rather than mere complaints), by distinguishing themselves from the
Republicans and by standing up to the president. They did none of the above, and
so they deserved to lose on Tuesday night. American voters don't like timidity.
Message to Tom Daschle: Screw the base and it will screw you back.
Joy-Ann Lomena-Reid is the news editor of NBC6.net in South Florida.