- The Washington Times - Thursday, November 7, 2002

The almost across-the-board debacle on election night for the Democrats will inevitably push them into a fundamental reassessment of what they wish to stand for as a party.
Like the Republicans after FDR's and Lyndon Johnson's ascensions, and like the Democrats after Ronald Reagan's 1980 triumph, the Democrats must now struggle amongst themselves over whether to embrace a me-too agenda or go into stark philosophical opposition. The latter option is made more difficult by the Bush Republican Party's expansion from the right into the center of the political spectrum. Less ideologically pure than either the Reagan or the Gingrich Republican parties, the Bush party has staked out plausible centrist positions on prescription drugs, corporate ethics, education, HMO regulation, trade and bio-engineering (e.g. stem cell research). The Democrats can continue to oppose the GOP's tax-cutting and spending-restraint policies but that wouldn't appear to be a substantial enough agenda around which to build a stark philosophical opposition.
Even opposition to Mr. Bush's bold partial privatization of Social Security didn't seem to deliver much of an electoral punch on Tuesday. Senators-elect Elizabeth Dole and John Sununu both stood by the president's proposal and won election. Jeb Bush got 49 percent of the senior vote in Florida. Finally, we have seen the first election in 20 years in which scaring the seniors on Social Security didn't move many votes or change any election results. Shifting demographics and the growing public sense that something has to be done may explain that fact.
Medicare and health-care funding may provide a useful battleground for the Democrats but they aren't currently first-tier issues. Sometime in the next half-decade they probably will reappear. But the overwhelming defeat of a radical health-care initiative in liberal Oregon on Tuesday may suggest that single-payer-style reform may not be a winning position even when the issue becomes hot again. Republicans will inevitably put forward a mixed proposal with more funds subsidizing a more market-driven delivery system. There would appear to be slim pickings for the Democrats in rallying around alternative potentially popular domestic issues that are starkly different from the Republican positions.
Foreign and defense issues in a time of war pose an even riskier challenge to the Democrats. While some Democrats on election night argued that the Democratic leaders' support of Mr. Bush on Iraq was a tactical mistake, out-and-out Democratic Party opposition to the popular president's position would have been a strategic disaster for the party. That realization made Messrs. Gephardt, Daschle, et. al's decision exquisitely painful for them. While it is true that they would have turned out a higher percent of their liberal base with an anti-war stance, they would almost certainly have been slaughtered amongst moderate and independent voters the key to most close elections.
Me-tooism is going to look very sensible to many Democrats. Pick and chose fights. Argue for a little more money, a little more compassion. Propose slightly different tax-cut schemes. Try to push environmental issues more vigorously than the Republicans. It is not a glamorous or heroic strategy, but it allows most Democratic incumbents to survive. They could talk to Republicans who lived through 1953-1980 to find out how it will feel. Ultimately, though, a party must have passion and conviction. That is why, after many years of me-tooism, Republicans such as Barry Goldwater, Ronald Reagan and Newt Gingrich appeared on the scene to reinvigorate their party and educate the public to the wisdom of their visions. The Democrats must hope that the education process will not be a long one.

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