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a citizen’s journal by Thomas Nephew

But for a ballot

Posted by Thomas Nephew on November 8th, 2002

Tony Adragna makes an excellent point:

[Democrats] allowed themselves to be portrayed as soft on National Security at the same time that folks like Cleland, Carnahan, and Johnson — two of whom lost their seats — were voting with Mr. Bush on going to war against Iraq. […]

Now, you’ll hear it said & read it written that September 11th & all that’s transpired since are responsible for a swing in votes. I’m not buying that notion, the most facile form of which suggests [Democratic losses were due to] that voters took into account a politician’s position on Iraq. If that were true, then Durbin, Levin and Reed should have lost. Instead, they won their races by overwhelming majorities — 60 – 38, 61 – 38, and 78 – 22 respectively. Of the three Democrat senate seats that changed hands, two of the incumbents — Cleland & Carnahan — voted for the resolution authorizing force against Iraq. Something else is going on.

Being one of those 9/11 theorists, I feel compelled to reply.

First, I don’t claim “rallying round” could have overcome a Democratic blowout when that rare event happened (Durbin, Levin, Reed). I just think those Gallup numbers about “most important problem” being are so remarkably different from past years that they just about have to have had an impact on the election; they were at minimum a very important distraction from issues like the environment, privatizing Social Security or moderating Bush’s court picks that Democrats were far more united on.

As for Cleland, as Adragna points out himself, he was tarred as being not committed enough to defense — specifically homeland and missile defense, which isn’t a huge stretch from what I was talking about. The issue here isn’t the patent unfairness of that charge; it’s that the charge worked so well that even a Democrat like Cleland could be ousted. We’ll be sifting through the Georgia and Minnesota wreckage for weeks, but the political framework of a looming war simply can not have helped the opposition party in a close race.

This is not about scoring points in a debate with Adragna — luckily for me, I imagine many of you are thinking. It’s about the direction the Democratic Party should take after a disappointing election. I submit that it was mainly disappointing if you counted on the midterm boost as an automatic given, that should have at least maintained the Democrats’ hold — their razor-thin, Jeffords-given hold — on half a branch of government. The real disappointment is two years old: Gore letting the supposed automatic advantages of incumbency go to waste — but only to the point where a notoriously divisive election process could wrest the presidency from his grasp. And that despite winning the popular vote and — by at least one analysis— even the electoral vote, had a full and fair accounting of all Florida’s ballots been undertaken.

Rephrasing: if some Palm Beach county official had had a second cup of coffee and decided to order better ballots, I think that Gore would be the one basking in the mid-term glory Bush is enjoying right now.

Now Gore, whatever Republicans choose to think of him now, was and is no dove. Kenneth Pollack’s book “The Threatening Storm” portrays Gore as one of the Clinton administration hawks when it came to Iraq. And lest Republicans among my readers think “so what”: the Clinton administration took repeated military action to oppose Iraq, in the aftermath of Bush the First’s fumbled Gulf War opportunity to oust Hussein. Andrew Sullivan’s foamings notwithstanding, the Clinton administration’s internal divisions and hesitations about Iraq were no more than those plainly shown in Bush the Second’s administration as late as mid-summer this year — well after the mind-focusing events of 9/11.

Rephrasing: if some Palm Beach county official had had a second cup of coffee and decided to order better ballots, I argue that Hussein would be worrying about very nearly the same U.N. resolution that’s coming down the pike today or tomorrow. (And I argue that Bin Laden and his evil — yes, evil — cohorts would be just as much on the run.) Republicans have no monopoly whatsoever on being willing to fight to preserve this country and its legitimate interests.

This is speculation, of course, but it’s reasonably grounded in fact, and it has a bearing on the course of the Democratic Party. I submit it would be extremely unwise, as a matter of self-definition (but I also have come to think on the merits) for the Democratic Party to tie itself to an anti-Iraq-war strategy. But for a ballot it might well be Democrats, not Republicans, preparing to wage that war.

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