- The Washington Times - Sunday, November 10, 2002

For whatever reason perhaps it's nothing more than pure arrogance there is a side of the Democratic Party that always seems to underestimate both the perspicacity and popularity of Republican presidents they feel are not up to the intellectual standards necessary for the job.
How in the world, the party's reigning liberals wondered aloud for eight years during Ronald Reagan's presidency, could a former movie actor be elected to the most important position on this planet?
In the same vein, most of them have ruminated over the astronomical approval ratings for George W. Bush, whom they regard as a crass MBA who is not only intellectually inferior but an interloper whose victory two years ago was the product of election fraud.
Well, if last Tuesday's historic overturning of the conventional wisdom about midterm elections doesn't shake up these notions, nothing will and Democrats will then be headed for a long, long stint as a minority party.
The fact is indisputable that Mr. Bush, through tireless campaigning and dint of personality, can take most of the credit for the extraordinary feat of not only not losing seats halfway through his first term, but also of expanding the Republican majority in the House and regaining control of the Senate, albeit narrowly.
The startling outcome also should dim the prospects of a rematch between former Vice President Al Gore and Mr. Bush, leaving Democrats who get the message looking for an alternative. It may even be possible that some of the party's hierarchy now will admit it wasn't Florida that cost Mr. Gore the election; it was his failure to win his home state. Just carrying Tennessee would have made Mr Gore president no matter what occurred in Florida.
One could expect the results of the voting might also raise serious doubts about the party's current leaders, especially in Congress, where misjudgments the last year truly call into question their political acumen. Senate Democratic leader Tom Daschle's opposition and then ultimate capitulation on the Iraq resolution played into White House hands and at the same time prevented attention to areas where the president was vulnerable the economy, education and Social Security. House Democratic leader Richard Gephardt saw the pitfalls early and tried to steer the party away from the confrontation, but to no avail.
Then, of course, there is Terry McAuliffe. As chairman of the Democratic National Committee, what responsibility must he assume for what went wrong? Apparently none, since the day after the election he was out spinning the defeat into a victory of sorts, ignoring history and arguing unabashedly that Mr. Bush's contribution was minimal. Considering the time and effort the president put into it, he said with a straight face, "I can just as well argue that he should have done better."
Well, one can understand the chagrin of someone whose political skills were so highly rated before this election. The opportunities and prospects for a major Democratic victory were everywhere, and yet they failed to materialize. In contest after contest, Democrats simply were outmaneuvered.
Aided by a friendly New Jersey Supreme Court, they were able to save Sen. Robert Torricelli's Senate seat by substituting former Sen. Frank Lautenberg. But a similar replacement effort in Minnesota involving former Vice President Walter Mondale failed substantially, largely because of miscues following the death of Sen. Paul Wellstone, including turning a "memorial" service for him into an unseemly campaign rally for Mr. Mondale.
But the final analysis reveals clearly it was Mr. Bush's ceaseless stumping in the last weeks before the election 15 states in a few days just before the voting that secured this remarkable victory and reaffirmed that his popularity was nowhere near as superficial nor is he, for that matter as Democrats would like to believe.
However, the president should not dwell too long in the euphoria of being one of the few Republican chief executives in modern history to have his party in total control of Congress. Daunting responsibilities and potentially serious pitfalls come with that status. Mr. Bush can no longer blame intransigent Democrats for the country's woes, as Harry Truman successfully blamed Republicans in 1948. He began this administration in a spirit of bipartisanship that increased dramatically after the horror of September 11, but now has faded as could be expected. He wisely did not gloat over the election and called Democrats as well as Republicans. That's a good decision.
As for the Democrats, their future success may depend on whether they can overcome their tendencies to underestimate. It is rooted in the kind of elitism they like to ascribe to Republicans, and it costs them every time.

Dan K. Thomasson is former editor of the Scripps Howard News Service.

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