The elections of 2002 represent just another in a series of battles between the major parties for majoritarian status in the country. This war began in the aftermath of the collapse of the Soviet Union and has been waged with an intensity which has come close to exhausting both sides.
Bill Clinton’s wins in 1992 and 1996 – assisted by Ross Perot – misled Democrats into overestimating their own strengths. It would be perilous if Republicans made that same error in the aftermath of Tuesday’s sweeping victories for the president, its campaign team and the candidates he recruited.
The Civil War provides all the analogies any American ever needs. The presidential contest of 2000 was our political version of Antietam – a vast and ghastly business, with casualties aplenty on both sides of the aisle, though with the Republicans in control of the field in the person of the president.
This week’s contests provide the Gettysburg moment – the high-water mark of the Daschle Democrats, and one they came close to carrying but for the president’s furious campaigning. The Republicans again control the field, but this time with clear momentum.
There are any number of Democratic senators who consulted their calendars last night – their date with the voters is only two years off – and had to conclude that this president likes to win. Hard lefties like Boxer of California, Wyden of Oregon, and Murray of Washington state – as well as out-of-steppers like Hollings of South Carolina and Reid of Nevada – have to reflect on the president’s success in recruitment of candidates. Even folks like Leahy of Vermont and Schumer of New York (can you spell Giuliani?) from reliably liberal states have to wonder to themselves about a president who broke every expectation for political success and set a new historical mark. If Roy Barnes wasn’t safe last night, who is?
So what are the Democrats to do? First, fire Terry McAuliffe, of course – and send a note to Bill Clinton and Al Gore disinviting them from the national stage. What these three did in Florida ought to make it blindingly clear – even to Howard Fineman – that Florida 2000 was not some watershed moment that would forever define the modern Democratic Party, but an embarrassing lurch for power by Gore and a thousand lawyers.
Then Daschle – or whoever the Democrats send to assist Trent Lott in running the Senate – should make it clear to Leahy, Byrd and the other embarrassments that their own private demons will no longer drive the national party’s agenda.
If the Democrats adopt the president’s (and obviously the country’s) views on homeland defense, the federal judiciary and the death tax, they may be able to recover fairly quickly. But if they continue to insist on abortion absolutism and on manipulation of the estate-tax sunset, surely more electoral fury will follow.
That is the debate for the Democrats. For my side, there is no debate but, rather, relief. The federal judiciary especially has narrowly escaped a perilous descent into harsh and permanent politicization. I hope Sen. Hatch will, with the president’s blessings, convene a group of scholars and lawmakers and move to the adoption of a new rule on hearings and votes that allows the Senate as a whole – under Republicans and Democrats – to exercise its constitutional role. The power of “holds” and “blue slips” should end. The federal judiciary governs an entire country and every senator ought to have a vote on every nominee.
Politically, beginning with Suzanne Terrell in Louisiana, I trust the GOP faithful will start pulling on the oars toward a more reliable majority than a couple of votes provide. There is much to be done and a war of long duration that has to be won. The fight for continued success in 2004 will be the most decisive political battle to date, and there is zero time to rest on the memory of Tuesday night.