Time For Dems To Clean House

As I watched the election results roll in last night and it became clear that Republicans were on their way to an historic win, it occurred to me that America was joining a worldwide political trend. From Israel to Palestine to Russia to Turkey, voters are casting their ballots for candidates who talk loudly and carry big sticks. While electing such leaders makes them feel more secure in the short term, history teaches us that such nationalistic trends usually end badly -- very badly.

But clearly, such a trend is underway and Democrats must now figure out how to move their agenda back to mainstream acceptance. I don't believe anyone in the Democratic Party is going to argue this election was anything but a massive defeat. Some will try to rationalize it by saying the races were close, but politics isn't horseshoes and close just doesn't cut it.

When Jack Kennedy narrowly defeated Richard Nixon, an aide asked if he thought they could govern without a strong mandate from the voters. Karl Rove would agree with Kennedy's reply: "We don't need a mandate. We have the White House." Rove can add, "And we have the House, the Senate, and a growing chunk of the federal judiciary."

So, where do we go from here? First, it might be useful to consider whether the traditional two-party lock on politics is going to continue. So far, third parties have failed. They lack money, a national infrastructure and seem to attract more colorful wingnuts per capita than the two main parties.

Even in those rare cases when third-party candidates prevail, it's not clear what it means. When voters turn to third-party candidates like Ross Perot and Jesse Ventura I suspect they are not saying "That's my kind of candidate." Instead I believe they are simply sending a big "screw you" to Democrats for failing to offer them any real alternative. If Democrats continue to play policy pandering, eventually a viable third-party alternative will emerge because politics, like nature, abhors a vacuum.

What do Democrats need to do between now and 2004 to convince voters they are worthy of their support? They can begin by cleaning house at the top of the party. DNC Chairman Terry McAuliffe needs to be shown the door. Besides failing to deliver in this election, McAuliffe is the DNC's own Harvey Pitt, having come from the same corporate swamp that produced Kenneth Lay, Andy Fastow and Gary Winnick. Like Pitt, McAuliffe is the wrong man in the wrong job at the wrong time.

McAuliffe's defense on Wednesday? "We raised a record amount of money for this election." Voters sent a different message: "It's not about the money, Terry, it's about the message."

After a house cleaning the party needs to clearly define what it stands for. To justify its existence, a political party must first articulate a set of principles and policies its candidates are willing to die for, politically speaking. What did Democrats fight for in this election? Well, I can't say; and that's the problem, neither could anyone else.

How about the Bush tax cuts? Well, Democrats could have made real hay on that issue, but they didn't. Why? Because some Democrats got tangled in their own Machiavellian maneuvering. Some Democrats voted for the Bush tax cuts hoping that doing so would prove to voters back home that they were not one of those "tax and spend liberals."

After those tax cuts began ballooning the federal deficit, Democrats -- even those who voted against the cuts -- were too timid to suggest postponing some of those cuts, at least until the national checkbook is back in balance. Again, they were terrified that Republicans would use their comments to paint them as old-fashioned "tax and spend liberals."

Well, there's always the war, right? Forget about it. Historically polls have shown that voters consider Republicans stronger on defense than Democrats. So Democrats transfixed by Bush's poll numbers rushed to enlist. The more Bush rattled his saber, the higher his poll numbers went. Instead of engaging the nation in a lively dialogue about war, Democrats instead straddled the fence. They insinuated that, while they personally might have some misgivings about an unprovoked attack on another country, they felt it was important the nation be unified behind the President.

Who needs principles when you can have it both ways. Right?

Well, voters didn't see it that way.

Agree with them or not, at least Republicans had a message. Republicans were saying, "When you vote for me you are voting for this, this and this." Democrats were saying only, "Vote for me."

This is not to say that the Democrat party is devoid of strong honorable men and women. They're around but they were muzzled by those within their party who believed they could prevail with realpolitik -- a cautious strategy of delay, avoidance and harassment rather than direct confrontation.

I hope this election helps those real Democrats rediscover their voices. America is always at its best when public policy is first subjected to the white-hot cauldron of partisan debate.

Stephen Pizzo is a freelance writer and Democratic political analyst.

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