- The Washington Times - Friday, November 8, 2002

"Can't anyone here play this game?" So mumbled legendary baseball manager Casey Stengel as his 1962 New York Mets bumbled their way from pop-ups to dropped balls. Given Tuesday's election returns, the same might be said of the Democratic Party.

Indeed, not since Stengel's Mets has a sitting president done so well in midterm elections. While President Bush clearly deserves credit for these accomplishments, just as surely the Democrats have themselves to blame.

If it was difficult to surmise what Democratic candidates stood for during this election cycle, it was clear what the party stood against. From Iraq to tax relief to judicial nominations, Democratic leaders defined themselves only in opposition to Mr. Bush. Vote for us, they said, because we'll vote against the opposition. That's not an agenda; it's a bland recipe for stalemate. And, as it turns out, it's also a recipe for failure.

Not even traditional party platforms, when employed, worked for Democrats, witness Maryland's incumbent Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend. Despite a dynastic political name and safe Democratic positions on abortion and guns, Mrs. Townsend fell to Robert Ehrlich, who becomes the first Maryland Republican to be elected governor since 1966.

Democratic leaders have tried to lessen the election's impact by pointing to their gubernatorial gains, but that's only half of the story. Thanks to worry-free spending and subsequent state deficits, Tuesday proved a bad day for governors regardless of party affiliation. It wasn't just that nine Democrats won seats from Republicans and seven Republicans took seats from Democrats, but that 16 of 36 governor's mansions fell to the opposition.

Democrats and Republicans can rightfully claim that they now have '04 strongholds in states historically antagonistic to their parties. Conventional wisdom holds that, through the power of incumbency and all the attendant political machinery, these will give their parties a leg-up in the presidential race. But that's hardly a fast rule. The gubernatorial machine wasn't particularly decisive in 2000 Mr. Bush lost eight states presided over by Republican governors and given the staggering problems these new governors face, voter frustration could once again come into play.

But it's in the Senate where Democrats are most besieged. Not only did they decisively lose that chamber, but their prospects for the next two cycles don't look promising. Republicans had 20 seats to defend in this cycle, compared to the Democrats' 14 a task made even more complicated by the retirements of two shoo-in senators (Texan Phil Gramm and Tennessean Fred Thompson) that diverted precious party resources. In the next election cycle, it's the Democrats who will have to protect 19 incumbents compared to the Republicans' 15. Again, in 2006, Democrats will have 18 seats in play (including that of Vermont's independent Jim Jeffords), with 16 for the Republicans.

This will be made all the more difficult due to the ban on unlimited soft-money donations, which went into effect Wednesday. Republicans have always had an edge in hard-money contributions, and now that the limits have been doubled (and the GOP holds the majority), this could translate into a significant GOP advantage.

But as this election showed, mechanics alone aren't sufficient. If Republicans intend to remain in control, they will need to earn it the old-fashioned way by producing. Playing and winning, after all, are two very different things.

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