It's Iraq, Stupid!
This should have been the Democrats' year.
The country is still mired in recession. Polls consistently have shown that the Republicans' positions on such basic policy issues as the environment and the economy are decidedly unpopular. The connection of top administration officials with scandal-plagued corporations provided ample opportunities for a populist message against corruption and in support of economic justice.
Despite this, the Democrats became the first party out of office to lose one of the houses of Congress in an off-year election. It was the first time in a century that a Republican president saw his party gain seats in an off-year election and only the second time since 1934 that a sitting president's party did not lose seats in Congress
Instead of emulating the hugely successful 1994 Republican strategy of aggressively challenging the incumbent president and his party's Congressional leadership, the Democrats instead decided to work on a consensus-building approach with the Republican administration. They even went as far as supporting President George W. Bush's demand that he be granted the authority to invade Iraq without the legally-required mandate from the United Nations Security Council. In addition, the majority of Democrats went on record praising his support for last spring's attacks by Israel's right-wing government against civilian areas of the occupied West Bank. The Democrats went as far as supporting Republican calls authorizing the use of military force to free any citizen of the United States or an allied nation detained for war crimes by the United Nations' International Criminal Court in The Hague.
As a result, many thousands of rank-and-file Democrats, longtime supporters of peace and human rights issues, voted for the Green Party or simply did not vote. Thousands more voted reluctantly for the Democratic nominee but did not put in the volunteer time or campaign contributions they would have otherwise, angered that the Democrats had shifted so far to the right.
It is noteworthy that both incumbent Democratic senators and five out of the six Democratic House incumbents who were defeated supported the Iraq war resolution. By contrast, no incumbent who opposed the Democratic Congressional leadership's support of President Bush's war plans lost, with the exception of Rep. James Maloney of Connecticut, who was pitted against a popular moderate female Republican incumbent in a redrawn district.
It is difficult to shift public attention to domestic issues in times of international tension. Making a strong case against the Bush administration' s war plans, its support for repressive governments and its assaults on well-respected international institutions would have almost certainly resulted in a galvanizing of the Democratic Party faithful as well as large numbers of independents, insuring a Democratic victory.
The Democratic leadership should have recognized that calls for prescription drug benefits for seniors while the nation is concerned about an illegal, unnecessary and possibly devastating war simply did not catch the imagination of the voting public.
This was particularly problematic in that the Democrats were unable to explain how they intended to pay for such benefits while refusing to reverse recently-enacted tax cuts and in authorizing a military campaign that will cost up to $200 billion.
Hopefully, the Democrats will learn the lesson for Tuesday's devastating defeat and decide to replace their discredited leadership with those who have the integrity and political smarts to return them to majority status.
Stephen Zunes is an associate professor of politics at the University of San Francisco and the author of the recently-released Tinderbox: U.S. Middle East Policy and the Roots of Terrorism (Common Courage Press, 2002). He has also served as Middle East editor for the Foreign Policy in Focus Project