WASHINGTON – Democrats are still sorting through what happened in last week's elections.
That's simple: What happened is that American politics continued its inexorable, post-Reagan movement to the right.
Republicans strengthened their hold on the House, regained control of the Senate, and – though they lost some long-held GOP governorships – partially offset their losses with some improbable gains elsewhere.
More important than what the GOP won, though, is the agenda they ran on. This was something TV news anchors apparently failed to fully grasp on election night. They focused on the politicians but not on what they were selling and what the voters were buying.
Democratic National Committee Chairman Terry McAuliffe remained mired in denial last week, saying the GOP victories resulted entirely from President Bush's popularity and the tens of millions he raised for his party, but "not to ideology."
Undeniably, Bush's gutsy, high-risk strategy to campaign all out in the midterm elections was a pivotal factor in Tuesday's outcomes. But Bush believes in some fundamental things, such as lower tax rates. And part of the story of Tuesday's elections was that many of the candidates who won were retailing what Bush believes in.
In fact, despite McAuliffe's spin, voters were very focused on policies driven by ideology. In many cases they chose candidates who ran on making Bush's tax cuts permanent, holding the line on future taxes and even eliminating some taxes altogether.
In Minnesota, hardly a hotbed of right wing ideology, Republican Norm Coleman stoutly defended Bush tax cuts and said he would vote to make them permanent. He even suggested that it will take deeper tax cuts to stimulate long-term growth and investment.
Coleman, a charismatic former mayor of Saint Paul who is an up-and-coming GOP star, not only beat Walter Mondale convincingly, but he also showed his party how to blunt the Democrats' scare tactics on Social Security.
The Democrats pounded him throughout the summer on Bush's Social Security reform plan, saying that the idea of personal investment accounts would lead to benefit cuts, and worse. Contrary to cooked media stories that Republicans were running away from Bush's plan, Coleman defended letting younger workers put part of their payroll taxes in stocks or bonds.
The Democrats need a new leader who understands the aspirations of upwardly mobile, middle-class voters who think there is nothing wrong with being rich – someone like John F. Kennedy who led his party back to the White House in 1960 by calling for tax cuts to get the U.S. economy "moving again." Are there any takers?
Copyright 2002, United Feature Syndicate, Inc.