TCS Daily

How to Dominate in '04

By Nick Schulz - November 7, 2002 12:00 AM

Two obvious things have changed in American politics since the 2000 election. America is at war, and George W. Bush has been transformed into a popular wartime President. It's rare that when there are a dozen or so close races, almost all of them would break to one party. Clearly Bush's popularity helped Republicans take the Senate and win key races in Florida and elsewhere.

But beyond that, not much changed. In fact, this year's election made it seem in some ways as if we're stuck in the recent past, what with the Voter News Service saying it had trouble with its poll numbers, judges and lawyers extending poll hours, and partisan squabbling breaking out over voting and campaign irregularities - once again in Florida, but also in states like South Dakota and Indiana. Election 2002 was so familiar it was almost comforting.

Corrupt Democrats, Hypocritical Republicans

On Election Day, Democratic National Committee Chairman Terry McAuliffe was shrieking about alleged voter intimidation and suppression much in the same way he was two years ago, saying "Mr. President, do not let our election process fall prey to dirty political shenanigans once again." All that was missing was talk of hanging chads and butterfly ballots.

Of course, Republicans had been miffed at the appearance of Democratic "dirty political shenanigans" in the weeks leading up to Election Day. First, Robert Toricelli's promising career as a political fundraiser who moonlighted as a United States Senator from New Jersey was derailed after he was engulfed in an ethics scandal. He abandoned his failing reelection bid, and was replaced by former New Jersey Sen. Frank Lautenberg. This late-in-the-day candidate switcheroo was a move of questionable legality and the GOP protested loudly. But New Jersey's courts, controlled by the Democratic political machine in the state, rebuffed the complaints, and New Jersey voters sent Lautenberg back to the Senate.

And this week Republicans accused Democrats of trying to buy votes in Maryland in the hotly contested gubernatorial race between Robert Ehrlich and Kathleen Kennedy Townsend. Republicans can feel vindicated by Ehrlich's victory, but it makes you think: What would American politics be without a Kennedy coupled with accusations of wrongdoing of some kind or another?

Then again, what would American politics be without some moralizing conservative Republicans caught in the act of appearing hypocritical? This year's Arkansas Senate race featured Tim Hutchinson, the conservative former Baptist minister who once criticized fellow Arkansan Bill Clinton for his infidelities. Hutchinson was on the receiving end of similar criticism when it was revealed that he was having an affair with a staffer whom he eventually married after divorcing his wife. It was enough to bring to mind Newt Gingrich, Bob Livingston, and other GOPers who end up in the public's mind appearing more committed to cutting taxes and boosting defense than cutting out extramarital hanky panky and boosting morality. Hutchinson was not able to recover from the scandal, handing Clinton's home state to the Democrats. Note to the GOP: Adultery is not a good way to get your conservative Christian base jazzed about your campaign.

Familiar Names

Echoes of America's more distant political past haunted this election as well. For example, this year proved that failed presidential aspirants never die, and they certainly never just fade away. Instead, they run for the Senate!

Two prominent Republicans with one-time presidential aspirations, Elizabeth Dole and Lamar Alexander, reemerged this year to bid successfully for the Senate in North Carolina and Tennessee.

Former Vice President Walter Mondale shares failed presidential aspirations with Dole and Alexander. And like Lautenburg in New Jersey, he parachuted in at the last minute when the Democrats needed help, this time after the tragic death of Sen. Paul Wellstone. But unlike Lautenberg, Mondale was not blessed with the hapless Doug Forrester as his opponent, instead losing to an impressive Norm Coleman.

What It Means to Lead

This election was about Bush and the war, and virtually nothing else. But why? The answer is not to be found in distractions such as the sniper shootings crowding out voter interest in issues. Instead, look to what this election lacked: leadership.

Neither party - and no candidates in close races - took any risks by trying to frame issues in an original way. That is largely because both the Republican and Democratic parties have adopted the political tactics we have come to associate with former president Bill Clinton and his one-time political guru Dick Morris. Chief among these is triangulation: the political art of defining yourself by what you are not.

Here's a refresher course on how it works. If you are a Republican, you tell voters you are not part of the crazy right-wing fringe (you're a "compassionate conservative"). But you also most certainly aren't a military dove, tax-and-spend liberal either.

And if you are a Democrat, you tell voters you're most definitely not an old school liberal like Walter Mondale (unless, of course, you are the old school liberal Walter Mondale). You tell voters to vote for you (a "New Democrat") because you'll protect them from all the excesses of those crazy conservative Republicans.

Either way, Republicans and Democrats never offer a coherent vision for where they want to take the country. Instead, they poll the electorate obsessively to see what voters say they want and then adjust their positions on specific issues in response - ending up, as the writer Nick Denton puts it, "close to the median of their constituencies."

Candidates almost never fight over big ideas. Big items like comprehensive reform of the tax code or overhauling the country's crumbling entitlement programs such as Medicare and Social Security are off limits. Instead, almost all candidates agree on the need for, say, a prescription drug benefit or regime change in Iraq. They just jockey over the particulars - the relative size of the drug benefit or the necessary size of our anti-Saddam coalition. Meanwhile, neither party takes a risk to offer a big vision that might convince large swaths of middle of the road voters to favor one party over the other.

American politics this year was often compelling and at times absurdly entertaining. And that was in large part because it was devoid of political substance. But before we lament that, let's remember it means there's a genuine opportunity in 2004 for one of the two major parties to break out and dominate American politics - but only if they're willing to reject triangulation and take some risks.



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