The Democrats are starting to come out of the funk they've been in since the Nov. 5 election. The firing of the White House economic team and the victories of Mary Landrieu and Rodney Alexander in Louisiana have given them the boost they needed to start believing in themselves again and get their economic message out.
House Democrats, led by California Rep. Nancy Pelosi, are holding a two-day summit meeting to focus on the economy and try to formulate some strategies and policies for the next Congress. This meeting was also designed to let the Democrats "vent" about what went wrong in the last election. It coincides with a forum of governors where the issue of the economy and budget shortfalls is front and center. The shake-up of the Bush economic team – not just Paul O'Neill and Larry Lindsay but SEC Chair Harvey Pitt, too – is a reminder of just how bad off the economy is: unemployment numbers are up, the stock market continues to struggle. Every political guru came out of the 1990's saying voters' main concern was their pocketbook. "It's the economy, stupid," was the mantra of the successful 1992 Clinton campaign.
So how come the Republicans broke historical records and dominated the midterm elections while saying little about the economy?
In the days leading up to the election it became clear that the Democrats were playing it safe and playing by the old rules. They refused to alter their message despite the fact that Sept. 11 had changed the political environment; they kept pointing to their 2001 victories in Virginia and New Jersey as example of why Sept. 11 wouldn't matter in 2002. On the other hand, the White House used the tremendous political capital President Bush had accrued on behalf of Republican candidates. The president made homeland security and Iraq campaign issues while the Democrats kept ducking them and trying to change the subject.
The results of the election stunned the Democrats. As they try to figure out what went wrong and how to fix it in the future, they will be tempted to blame it on the media and their inability to get their old message out. One very savvy Democratic political consultant said this week that Democrats thought they had a formula for victory. They had decided that the issues that worked in 1996 and 2000 – education, Medicare, prescription drugs and Social Security – were their silver bullets, and with a little tweaking here and there they'd be fine.
The most savvy Democrat of them all had words of advice last week for those still in the trenches. Former President Bill Clinton delivered a 54-minute riff to the Democratic Leadership Council meeting in New York and blamed the defeat on weakness and irrelevancy, on avoiding national security issues and on the lack of a unified Democratic policy agenda. His words were not universally embraced by Democrats; some resent his meddling and others think they'll never get on with things until he recedes. But listening to the former president last week reminded me how very shrewd he is and how very much the Democrats need leadership and big ideas.
Mr. Clinton's main thrust was that the Democrats lacked a security strategy, had no positive domestic agenda and, beyond that, lacked the conviction to nationalize their ideas or to defend them and "those who are brave enough to stick their necks out." He cited South Dakota as an example of a place where the election was nationalized, in part, because Democrats couldn't avoid it, and where despite five visits by President Bush, a very good GOP candidate and a big Republican edge in registration, Democrats prevailed. In Louisiana, some of the same principles held. Sen. Mary Landrieu fought back. She was engaged on the issue of national security and attacked the president on the issue of sugar imports after his visit to the state rather than cowering in his wake. She also pushed her opponent so far to the right that she became a real threat to the Democratic base.
Mr. Clinton's core message, beyond the need for good ideas, was that of strength. "When we look weak in a time where people feel insecure, we lose. When people feel uncertain, they'd rather have somebody who's strong and wrong than somebody who's weak and right." That statement could set off hours of debate in college classrooms, but it's an intriguing notion and underscores the moxie of both the Clinton and Bush White Houses.
As Democrats prepare to seize once again on the economy, they should keep in mind Mr. Clinton's other warning. "If we don't have a security strategy, as long as the American people are in their present frame of mind, they will not hear us on other issues."
With the continuing threat of terrorism and the looming war in Iraq, the American people are looking for leadership on the defense and foreign policy front as well as on pocketbook issues. More than anything, they are looking for people who are confident enough to stand up for what they believe.