The Magazine

The Pelosi Democrats

Are they going to become the stupid party?

Nov 18, 2002, Vol. 8, No. 10 • By DAVID BROOKS
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ARE THE DEMOCRATS about to go insane? Are they about to decide that the reason they lost the 2002 election is that they didn't say what they really believe? Are they about to go into Paul Krugman-land, lambasting tax cuts, savaging Bush as a tool of the corporate bosses? Are they about to go off on a jag that will ensure them permanent minority status in every state from North Carolina to Arizona?

If you look at the Democrats' reaction to their debacle last Tuesday you can be forgiven for thinking so. The Democrats went through all the stages of grief simultaneously. There was denial: If only a few thousand votes had changed in a few key precincts, we would have kept the Senate. There was self-pity: The Republicans just have so much money, they bought the election. There was rage. Boy was there rage! And this time it was directed at the Democrats themselves, a furious barrage of hatred aimed at Daschle, Gephardt, McAuliffe, et al. Those guys should be glad the Left is no longer in its guillotine phase.

Then there was resolve. If you troll through the liberal commentariat and among the liberal political class, you find a pretty coherent story line emerging. The Democratic triangulators lost because they had no alternatives to Republican policies. They didn't oppose the Bush tax cut. They didn't oppose regime change in Iraq. If they had done so, they would have mobilized their base. Black and Hispanic voters would have turned out en masse and compensated for the Republican advantage in the outer suburbs. The Democrats, Harold Meyerson declared in the American Prospect online, "had no message. They were an opposition party that drew no lines of opposition. They had nothing to say. And on Tuesday, their base responded by staying home in droves."

Other liberals were less interested in a political strategy. They thought it was time to crush the centrists and utter the truth, damn the consequences. Paul Krugman, who helpfully headlined his column "Into the Wilderness," announced that the Democrats must declare class war on the plutocracy. Times will be hard, he warned. The corporate criminals in the White House will rape and pillage. Children will be denied porridge in their orphanages. But someday the middle classes will emerge from their false consciousness and vote for the one true church and its guiding angel, Al Gore! At this point many Democrats eagerly mention Barry Goldwater. Wasn't his crushing defeat the prelude to victories?

Well, Republicans can only hope. But the truth is that while Democrats are stupid, they are not that stupid. If you listen to intelligent members of the Democratic political class, you learn that the party hasn't totally lost its head. The smarter liberals say the last thing the party needs is another one of those DLC vs. populist intra-party fights.

Instead, the first thing the party has to do is get some credibility on national defense. So long as voters don't trust Democrats to be tough on terrorism, it doesn't matter what the party says on anything else. This is so patently obvious that surely some Democrats will come up with an ostentatiously hawkish homeland security agenda over the next few months.

Then, the smarter Democrats say, you can't fight the tax cut. The better strategy is to counter the Bush tax cut with an equally large Democratic tax cut, which might lean more heavily on payroll taxes. Pit tax cut against tax cut, just as Republicans pit one prescription drug plan against another.

Finally, remember that over the next two years, the congressional Democrats are going to be overshadowed by the Democratic presidential aspirants. Nancy Pelosi, the presumptive House minority leader, may be the most caricaturable politician since Newt Gingrich--it will be easy to paint her as a San Francisco Democrat, especially if she makes a gaffe or two. But the headline Democrats will be John Edwards, Joe Lieberman, Dick Gephardt, Al Gore, John Kerry, and the rest of the presidentials. All of them save Gore supported Bush on the war. None of them save Gore is foolish enough to challenge the Bush tax cuts. If you look at their early presidential campaign speeches, you find a lot of bold energy plans, some outflanking of Bush on the right when it comes to nation-building in the Middle East, and a lot of cultural conservative-sounding talk about individual responsibility.

This is not loony stuff. This is an attempt to be Tony Blair, Yankee style.