What really happened?

Nov 13, 2002 at 12:00 am

For the first time in many years, the Democrats last week won governorships in Michigan, Illinois, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Tennessee and even Dick Cheney’s overwhelmingly Republican home state of Wyoming.

They nearly held their own in both the House and even the Senate, where Democrats knocked off a Republican incumbent in Arkansas. George Bush openly sought to make the Senate contest in South Dakota a test between Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle and himself, and the president spent much time campaigning there, a state that has far fewer people than Macomb County. Though the race was very close, the Democrat won — in a state that gave Bush one of his biggest margins two years ago.

What does this all mean? Well, according to the national media, it means a tremendous landslide for the Republicans, and is evidence that the people are overwhelmingly in favor of our leader and his war policies.

Thank heavens they set me straight on that one. Naturally, we’re talking about the expectations game here. The party out of power is supposed to make big gains in off-year elections, and since the Democrats didn’t do as well as expected, they “lost.”

The truth is, as often happens, somewhat different than media perceptions. The Democrats “lost” in one sense all right — nationally and especially in Michigan. That’s because they had no message and richly deserved to lose.

Their wad-in-chief was the notorious Dick Gephardt, House minority leader. The best thing that can be said about him is that every morning an empty limousine pulled up in front of his office and he got out. Daschle was only slightly better.

Thanks in large part to both those bozos and their brilliant strategists, the Democrats managed to convey that they had no vision whatsoever. Essentially, the Republicans ran as the party that would protect us from Osama bin Laden, Saddam Hussein, and terrorists and murderers of all kinds.

The Democrats’ message was, “Uh, could we maybe talk about whether to help seniors pay for their pills?” It’s a wonder they won anything.

Nevertheless, some of their candidates did pretty well. Democrats would still have the U.S. Senate except for the plane-crash states. They narrowly lost Missouri, where Jean Carnahan had been appointed to the job after her husband was killed. Why? Democrats never do as well in turning out their voters in an off-year election.

Minnesota provided a story that ought to have been on “The Twilight Zone.” Consider this: Eighteen years ago, Walter Mondale ran for president and lost every state in the nation, except for his native Minnesota. His efforts to make Ronald Reagan seem old and out of touch (which he was) were ignored by the voters.

Mondale then went into cold storage until Paul Wellstone’s plane crashed 11 days before the election. The lid was pried off the crypt, Mondale was wrenched out and placed back in harness. Days later, there was a single debate. Now almost the same age Reagan was back then, the voters decided — Mondale looked old. Shazam! They whacked poor Fritz, whose 50-state humiliation was at last complete.

There is a lesson in all this: You can’t beat something with nothing. Republicans know this. Many years ago, in 1964, they ran Barry Goldwater for president. He got smeared, but there was never any doubt what he stood for.

Not too many years later, his legions captured their party and then the nation. What happened last week could be the best thing that ever happened to the Democrats, if they learn from it. The replacement of the wispy Gephardt as Democratic house leader by California’s Nancy Pelosi, a charismatic (it is politically incorrect to say attractive?), passionate and committed liberal, is a very welcome step in the right direction.

Some people ought to get excited about the very real possibility of the first-ever woman speaker of the House. Nor is it necessarily a bad thing that Republicans are now completely in control of Congress. They now have no excuse if their plans and programs fall flat on their face, and if both the economy and the war Bush craves go badly.

That doesn’t mean the Democrats need to roll over and play dead. They need to prepare to fight hard for the right things, and to block anti-choice, neo-fascist Supreme Court nominees — and we all know some are coming.

Two years from now, it is entirely conceivable that we could watch an election night when most of the map lights up again in blue, and the smirk is wiped off the face of Crawford County’s favorite simian. It will take discipline, hard work, some guts and some intelligence. Imagine what might have happened if ol’ James “It’s the economy, stupid” Carville had been running this last campaign.

Imagine the — totally legitimate — ads he might have produced showing seniors and the middle-aged scared out of their wits at the thought of $7 trillion in their retirement savings going up in smoke, thanks largely to Bush pals like Ken Lay. The election returns might have been very different.


Michigan Footnote: Lost in the triumphant coverage of Jennifer Granholm’s historic victory was one small detail: She almost lost. Headlines days before had her up by 13 points. The (as usual) wildly inaccurate local exit polls had her winning by 9. But when the actual votes were counted, she squeaked in with a mere 51.4 percent. Outside Wayne County, Dick “Dead Man Running” Posthumus carried the rest of the state by 82,000.

Against all predictions, Democrats lost seats in the Legislature, lost seats on state education boards, and lost the attorney general’s post for the first time since 1952. And, oh, yes — Granholm’s handpicked candidate for secretary of state was annihilated.

Welcome to the big leagues.

Jack Lessenberry opines weekly for Metro Times. E-mail comments to [email protected]