Democrats Face Dark Days

Democrats are still sorting through what happened in last month’s elections.

That’s simple: What happened is that American politics continued its inexorable, post-Reagan movement to the right.

Republicans strengthened their hold on the House, regained control of the Senate, and-though they lost some long-held GOP governorships-partially offset their losses with some improbable gains elsewhere.

More important than what the GOP won, is the agenda they ran on. This was something TV news anchors apparently failed to fully grasp on election night. They focused on the politicians but not on what they were selling and what the voters were buying.

Democratic National Committee Chairman Terry McAuliffe remained mired in denial after the election, saying that GOP victories were due entirely to President Bush’s popularity and the tens of millions he raised for his party, but "not to ideology."

Undeniably, Bush’s gutsy, high-risk strategy to campaign all out in the midterm elections was a pivotal factor in the election outcome. But Bush believes in some fundamental things, like lower tax rates. And part of the story of Tuesday’s elections was that many of the candidates who won were retailing what Bush believes in.

In Minnesota, hardly a hotbed of right-wing ideology, Republican Norm Coleman stoutly defended Bush tax cuts and said he would vote to make them permanent. He even suggested that deeper tax cuts were needed to stimulate long-term growth and investment.

Coleman, a charismatic former mayor of Saint Paul who is an up-and-coming GOP star, not only beat Walter Mondale convincingly, but showed his party how to blunt the Democrats’ scare tactics on Social Security.

The Democrats pounded him throughout the summer on Bush’s Social Security reform plan, saying that the idea of personal investment accounts would lead to benefit cuts, and worse. Contrary to cooked media stories that Republicans were running away from Bush’s plan, Coleman defended letting younger workers put part of their payroll taxes in stocks or bonds.

In two other Senate contests against Democratic incumbents, Jim Talent (R.) in Missouri and Saxby Chambliss (R.) in Georgia ran on maintaining the Bush tax cuts and won. Both even suggested that the tax cuts needed to be accelerated and have called for cutting or abolishing other taxes like the capital gains rate.

In the Minnesota governor’s race, Republican Tim Pawlenty ran and won handily on his pledge never to raise taxes in his term. Facing a huge deficit, he said he would balance the budget through spending cuts, layoffs and increased economic growth.

Certainly the Democrats had bragging rights for their big gubernatorial gains in Illinois, Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania. But those victories were partly offset by GOP gains in Democratic-held states that included Alaska, Georgia, Hawaii, Maryland, New Hampshire, South Carolina, Vermont and, of course, Minnesota.

The GOP won these and other governorships on very conservative issues like drilling for oil in Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Reserve (ANWR), no state income tax in New Hampshire, and getting tougher on spending and crime in Maryland where Bob Ehrlich became the first GOP governor in 34 years.

In South Carolina, Republican Mark Sanford defeated Democratic Gov. Jim Hodges by promoting school choice vouchers and getting rid of the state income tax.

If you think America’s politics isn’t changing, look at the unlikely places where the GOP won governorships last week: Businessman Donald Carcieri in Rhode Island, Mitt Romney in Massachusetts and Sonny Perdue in Georgia where a Republican has not been governor since 1872.

In the expanding age of the investor class, Senate Democratic leader Tom Daschle’s class warfare politics and his hatred for tax cuts is hurting his party and his country.

The Democrats need a new leader who understands the aspirations of upwardly mobile, middle-class voters who think there is nothing wrong with being rich-someone like John F. Kennedy who led his party back to the White House in 1960 by calling for tax cuts to get the U.S. economy "moving again." Are there any takers?