How Minnesota voters got snowed.

How Minnesota voters got snowed.

How Minnesota voters got snowed.

Politics and policy.
Nov. 8 2002 10:36 AM

Wellstone's Ghost

How Minnesota voters got snowed.

7:25 a.m. PT: Two years ago, I saw Al Gore debate George W. Bush in their first clash of the 2000 presidential election. The first impression of most reporters was that Gore had won on points. I agreed but thought Bush had made a more favorable impression as a human being. Neither of those opinions became the consensus, though. The consensus formed around a theory partly validated by Gore and fully promoted by conservative activists: that Gore had shown he was a compulsive liar. He never recovered from that consensus.

Last week, I saw it happen again. I was at Paul Wellstone's memorial service. I saw Rick Kahn, the speaker chosen by Wellstone's family, deliver an election rallying cry instead of a eulogy. I thought it was inappropriate, and I said so. But the consensus that formed around that service—that the whole thing was a crass political rally—was a gross exaggeration. The possibility that that consensus changed the outcome of the election gives me great remorse.

William Saletan William Saletan

Will Saletan writes about politics, science, technology, and other stuff for Slate. He’s the author of Bearing Right.

Wellstone's service was about three and a half hours long. Most of it, as I reported, consisted of poignant tributes to the friends, aides, and family members who died along with Wellstone. Kahn's speech was way out of line, as was the crowd's enthusiastic reaction. Wellstone's sons also crossed the line, but less so. When the time came to review my notes and choose a theme for my story, it was a tough call. I wrote about Kahn and the politicization of the service—I said the event had gradually "turned into" a rally—because it was the aspect that stood out most. The eulogies were dog-bites-man. The electioneering was man-bites-dog. I'm sure other reporters followed the same reasoning.

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What I saw on Minneapolis TV and on the Internet the next day was a distillation of that spin. Gone were the accounts of the touching eulogies delivered the night before. All anybody talked about was the electioneering. Dittoheads showed up in Slate's "Fray" and every other political chat room to spread the new message. People in the street who hadn't been to the service began to describe it as an all-out rally. Minnesota Democrats spent the rest of the week apologizing. Their replacement candidate, Walter Mondale, sank in the polls and lost the election.

Kahn's speech was inappropriate and inconsiderate to the many Republican senators who had come to pay their respects to Wellstone. And there were plenty of legitimate reasons, depending on your political views, to vote against Mondale. I suspect that the Republican who won, Norm Coleman, will be a better senator. But I hope he didn't win because voters thought Wellstone's memorial service was just a political rally. That wasn't a fact. It was a spin job.

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Thursday, Nov. 7, 2002  

12:15 p.m. PT: The new Dick has arrived. No, not Dick Nixon. Dick Gephardt. Fresh from managing to lose seats as head of the opposition party in a midterm election, he's quitting as the House Democratic Leader and hinting strongly at a run for president. "I'm looking forward to the freedom to speak for myself and talk about my vision for America's future," he declares. "Staying on [as House Minority Leader] requires me to represent my Caucus and the wide diversity it represents. … It's time for me personally to take a different direction, look at the country's challenge from a different perspective and take on this President and the Republican Party from a different vantage point."

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So what's his new perspective? "I want to step out of a day-to-day management role and talk to a broader audience about our nation and our goals for our children," he says. "Ideas that will make our children's lives better: providing health care for all, expanding economic opportunity, supporting world-class education, secure retirements, energy independence, environmental protections, and securing America in a changing world."

And what was the old perspective he had to represent on behalf of his caucus? "As Democrats, we fought for our values--opportunity for all, a more secure America, good and affordable health care, and Social Security and Medicare that is there when you need it," he says. "We fought for a world-class education for our kids."

Let's recap. The old, hamstrung Gephardt was forced to fight for a losing agenda of health care for all, world-class education, secure retirement, and a secure America. The new, authentic Gephardt will fight for an exciting agenda of health care for all, world-class education, secure retirement, and a secure America.

Failing upward was a popular career track in the late '90s. A CEO could mismanage his company, tinker with the books, and move on to a new company before the mess was exposed. Those days are over in business. They're over in politics, too.

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9:20 a.m. PT: Uh oh. Here come the left-wingers, blaming the Democratic Party's poor showing in Tuesday's elections on its drift to the right. Several lefties are quoted in this morning's papers repeating a familiar line: Given a choice between a real Republican and a fake one, voters will choose the real one every time.

It's true that there's no reason to vote Democratic if the Democratic candidate is identical to the Republican. There has to be a difference. But it doesn't follow that the more different the Democrat is, the more votes he'll get. George McGovern was very different from Richard Nixon. Bill Clinton, in terms of policy, wasn't so different from George H. W. Bush.

Properly understood, being a Clinton-type Democrat rather than a McGovern-type Democrat isn't about eliminating the differences between you and your Republican opponent. It's about choosing those differences. You eliminate differences that create bad policy or bad politics in order to focus the election on differences that create good policy or good politics. War? Yes, but with allies so we don't get stuck holding the bag. Tax cuts? Yes, but for the middle class, not the rich. If you insist on being different about everything, you let your opponent define you by defining himself. He's for war, so you're against it. He's for tax cuts, so you're against them. Pretty soon, you're against Mom and apple pie.

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The problem with Democrats in 2002 wasn't that they hugged the center or hugged the left. The problem was that they didn't hug each other. Some were against war in Iraq; others weren't. Some were for rolling back the Bush tax cut; others weren't. Some were for spending more money to revive the economy or relieve suffering; others weren't. Republicans had a clear leader and a clear message; Democrats didn't.

If Democrats are going to settle on a message and a leader, the evidence still shows they're better off in the center, for the simple reason that this allows them to choose the differences that are most favorable to them. If terrorism persists and the economy remains tepid, I'd bet that the most effective Democratic strategy next time around would be to run as the party of collective security: job security, retirement security, public safety, surveillance of guns and explosives, energy technology, fighting corporate crime, and building international security alliances. John Kerry has already sketched a platform along these lines. Democrats would lose the civil libertarian vote and cough up a bunch of seats to the National Rifle Association, but they'd stand for something the GOP couldn't match, and they'd probably do a hell of a lot better than they did this year.

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Wednesday, Nov. 6, 2002  

2:20 p.m. PT: A number of Democrats are going around today sniffling that the GOP may rue its election victories because it now bears full responsibility for whatever goes wrong. Front-page articles in several newspapers imply a similar warning. Republicans will dig deeper into their wish list, the theory goes, and may antagonize voters in the process. That's possible, but the opposite is more likely. There are elections worth winning, and there are elections worth losing. This was an election worth winning.

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An election worth losing is one in which you can see trouble on the horizon. The 1988 presidential race was an election worth losing for two reasons. First, the recovery of the 1980s was running out of steam. Second, the bills from the Reagan tax cuts, unbalanced by commensurate budget cuts, were coming due. The winner of that election would have to raise taxes, cut spending, or both. George H. W. Bush won the booby prize and was tossed from office four years later.

The 1992 presidential race was an election worth winning. A recovery from the 1990-91 recession was already underway. (Bush kept saying so and was derided for it.) The information revolution was gaining steam, the World Wide Web was taking shape, and the collapse of the Cold War was freeing up money and attention that would have been consumed by military needs. The winner of that election would preside over a boom and an influx of tax revenue that would relieve the federal deficit. Bill Clinton won the prize and was re-elected four years later.

The 2000 presidential race was an election worth losing. The recovery of the 1990s was running out of steam, a recession was brewing, and the Nasdaq was beginning to tank. If the winner of that election had known what was coming, he would have expected to be punished in 2002. But for reasons that are still being debated this afternoon, he wasn't punished. He won a majority in the Senate and increased his majority in the House. Now the right will be clamoring for more business tax cuts, more conservative judges, and more abortion regulation. In 2004, will Republicans be sorry they won in 2002?

I don't think so. For one thing, this shallow recession seems unlikely to last. The recession of 1981-82 was worse; Reagan survived it and by 1984 was crowing about "morning in America." If you wanted to punish George W. Bush for a bad economy, whether he deserved it or not, this was the year to do so. By 2004, he's more likely to be riding a recovery and taking credit for it even more loudly than he's now denying blame for the recession of his first two years.

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Then there's homeland security. Both parties have played a cynical game of refusing to compromise on extraneous hitches in the key bills. Bush wanted to restrict labor rights in the bill establishing a Homeland Security Department, and he wanted limits on lawsuits in the terrorism insurance bill. Both quarrels were maintained for the election and were easily negotiable afterward. If Democrats had held the Senate, Bush would have been forced to compromise, and they would have shared the credit. Instead, Republicans will now dispense with the offending side issues, pass both bills, and cite this pseudo-accomplishment as proof that Democratic obstructionism had held up the nation's urgent business.

Finally, there's the war in Iraq. The new conventional wisdom is that the old conventional wisdom about its difficulty was wrong. If it goes well, Republicans will reclaim the military glory that they scorned when Democrats claimed it in Kosovo.

If 90 percent of life is showing up, 95 percent of politics is showing up at the right time. Republicans may not deserve any more credit for happy days ahead than Clinton deserved for the boom of the 1990s, but they'll be no more scrupulous about taking it.

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10:45 a.m. PT: Time to eat crow. I'm looking at the Senate election map and all the races that went Republican when I thought they'd go Democratic. I knew Georgia was close, but I'd heard the Democrats had a good turnout machine there. Hah! They even lost the governor who was supposed to be running it. Colorado—what happened there? The polls had shown Strickland pulling away. And Minnesota! Just last week I wrote that Mondale was coasting. Note to self: No more words that end in "oast."

When something happens that you didn't anticipate, you begin to search backward for signs you may have overlooked—things that weren't clearly significant to you at the time but in retrospect seem telling. The first one that occurs to me is a word I heard over and over in the dozens of debates I saw between Democratic and Republican candidates around the country. The word is "independent." Or rather, the word that was missing was "Democratic." With the exception of congressional districts like mine, which is heavily Democratic and was represented by a Republican, Democrats didn't run as Democrats. They ran as independents. Republicans didn't call themselves Republicans all the time, but they did campaign with President Bush. They calculated that there was something to be gained from identifying with the national Republican Party, or at least with the leader of the Republican Party, and less to be lost. That wasn't true of Democrats and their party. As long as that's the case, the best Democrats can hope for is to limit Republican gains.

As I write, Norm Coleman is delivering his victory speech in Minnesota. Everybody has a rationalization for his screw-ups in an election. The funniest one I saw last night was Democratic Party chairman Terry McAuliffe crowing that Harvey Pitt, the chairman of Bush's Securities and Exchange Commission, had been forced out by Bush himself. Pundits need rationalizations, too. Mine isn't about politics. It's about policy. I thought Coleman would lose cleanly to Mondale, but he won. I thought John Sununu would lose narrowly to Jeanne Shaheen in New Hampshire, but he won. My prognostication record will suffer for those results, but the country won't. I saw enough of Sununu to know that he'll be a very good senator. I saw enough of Coleman to know that he'll probably do the best job in the Senate of any candidate in that race, dead or alive. Ditto for Jim Talent in Missouri. At least three strong new senators were elected last night, whether or not you're a Republican. Don't let all of today's partisan spin bury that good news.

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Tuesday, Nov. 5, 2002  

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10:15 p.m. PT: Here's the big lesson of this election: The Democratic Party has failed to sell the public a story about how Democrats would fix the economy.

Democrats had a story in the 1990s: Bill Clinton balanced the budget, lowered the debt, drove down interest rates, grew the economy, created jobs, and used government to spread the wealth and help people help themselves. Maybe that story was true; maybe it wasn't. Either way, Clinton repeated it constantly in the hope that people would begin to think of the Democratic Party as the party of good economic management.

Two years into the Bush administration, the stock market has collapsed, unemployment is up, and the economy is stagnant. The out party—particularly an out party that was the in party during the boom—ought to do well in these circumstances. But as polls have shown, voters don't think Democrats would handle the economy any better than Bush is handling it.

In 1980, voters turned out for Ronald Reagan because he had a simple story about how he would fix the economy: cut taxes, reduce government, unshackle free enterprise. For years afterward, Republicans won elections by claiming Reagan had done exactly that. In 1994, voters turned out for Republican congressional candidates because Newt Gingrich offered a Contract with America. But in 2002, voters aren't turning out for Democratic candidates, because Democrats haven't packaged and sold—and in most cases haven't tried to package or sell—a simple story about what Democratic policies are, how they've worked in the past, and how they'll fix the current mess.

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Moaning isn't enough. Whether through lack of resolve, lack of agreement, or lack of imagination, a party that can't summarize its economic philosophy—and can't connect that philosophy to the boom that occurred on its watch—is in for a long decade.

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8:55 p.m. PT: By now the anchors are bending over backward not to say what they're all thinking: Democrats are doing worse than expected all over the place and are probably on their way out as the Senate's majority party. Across the South, they're getting smoked: Max Cleland in Georgia, Erskine Bowles in North Carolina, Ron Kirk in Texas—never mind Bob Clement in Tennessee and Alex Sanders in South Carolina, who were long ago given up for dead. Meanwhile, I'm watching my neighbor and congresswoman, Connie Morella, deliver her concession speech in Maryland's 8th district. I feel bad about having voted her out, but not as bad as I feel about the perversity of her losing while Republicans tighten their hold on the South. Republicans will conclude that she lost because she was in the wrong part of the country: the Democratic suburbs of Washington, D.C. Meanwhile, Democrats will look at their devastation across the South and think of giving up. Whole regions of the country are becoming monopolized. In Texas, the state I'm from, the Democratic Party has become almost irrelevant.

In Maryland, the situation is reversed. Here, the Republican Party has been virtually irrelevant. That could change with the victory of Republican Rep. Bob Ehrlich in our gubernatorial race tonight. I voted against Ehrlich because of his character, but the fact that so many Maryland Democrats were willing to vote for a Republican bodes well for the state's partisan balance. It's healthy to have real competition in every state. It keeps the dominant party from becoming stale, lazy, and corrupt. Looking at tonight's election map, I see several strong showings—by Senate candidates Norm Coleman in Minnesota and Mark Pryor in Arkansas, and by gubernatorial candidates George Pataki in New York and Mitt Romney in Massachusetts—that could bolster the Republican Party in liberal states and the Democratic Party in conservative states. Without more candidates like these, we're going to end up with a map divided between red and blue states, in which the Tuesday after the first Monday in November no longer means anything.

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7:20 p.m. PT: Given the debacle of 2000, the network anchors are being extra careful about calling races and suggesting trends tonight. How boring. I'll suggest a trend: Just after 10 p.m. ET, it already looks like a bad night for Democrats in the Senate. Max Cleland is trailing in Georgia by double digits. Jeanne Shaheen is trailing in New Hampshire by six points—oops, they just called the race, and she's out. In Louisiana, Mary Landrieu is nowhere near the 50 percent she needs to avoid a runoff under that state's strange election rules. In fact, she's barely leading her top two Republican opponents combined, which means she may well lose the seat in the runoff. Tim Johnson is holding his own in South Dakota, but it's early. At this point in the evening, the odds definitely favor a Republican takeover.

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6:30 p.m. PT: God bless Alex Sanders. According to the latest numbers, he's holding his own against Rep. Lindsey Graham in South Carolina's U.S. Senate race, pulling 47 percent of the vote. He'll probably lose, but it's a better showing than nearly anybody expected, and well-deserved. Sanders is a delightful blend of liberal and conservative: He opposes the death penalty but does so on the basis of a Christian faith that he wears proudly. He opposes a constitutional amendment to ban desecration of the American flag but does so, as a former judge, on the basis of respect for the Constitution, which he extends to presidential discretion in appointing judges. He's old-fashioned about fiscal tightness and hardnosed about playing with Social Security money. He's too old to have a political future—unless he wants to move to New Jersey, that is--but he's a model for younger Democrats who want to regain credibility in the South.

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5:55 p.m. PT: The nets call the North Carolina U.S. Senate race for Liddy Dole. I figured. Still, it hurts. This was a race between a substantive pragmatist and a bowl of sugar, and the sugar won. Dole isn't stupid; she just refuses to say anything that might get her in trouble, a pattern that produces an uncanny resemblance to perfect insubstantiality. The fact that she beat Erskine Bowles, Bill Clinton's former small business administrator and chief of staff, says a lot about the respective legacies of Clinton and Bob Dole. Clinton beat Mr. Dole soundly in 1996, but six years later, Dole's wife is thrashing Clinton's right-hand man. This is happening even though Mrs. Dole has been away from North Carolina far longer than Bowles has. Look at the campaign record of Clinton's former aides this year. In Florida: Janet Reno, gone. In Massachusetts: Robert Reich, gone. In North Carolina: Bowles, gone. In Illinois: Rahm Emanuel, the sole likely winner. Two years after Clinton left office, his party has little hope of retaking the House and is barely clinging to the Senate, and his name is worthless to his protégés nearly everywhere. All that obsession with his legacy, for nothing.

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5:40 p.m. PT: First big call of the night: CNN says Jeb Bush wins. The last time I bought a CNN projection in Florida, it was Al Gore's victory-oops-we-take-it-back in 2000. But this time it's pretty solid: Bush is leading challenger Bill McBride 59 percent to 40 percent with 25 percent of precincts reporting. That's too wide a gap in too big a sample for McBride to make up. To which I say: Good. Katherine Harris, the other notable winner in Florida (in a congressional race), is exactly the empty hack Democrats said she was two years ago. But Jeb Bush isn't. You can disagree with him on this or that policy, but he's a smart governor who has worked hard and done his best. I watched his debates with McBride, and all McBride did was carp about how things could be better. That was true, but McBride never explained how he could do better than Bush. He didn't even try seriously. He ducked every question about where he'd get the money to pay for his many vague promises. Lesson to challengers: Give us a plan, or you don't get our votes.

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10:20 a.m. PT: Hmmm.  Josh Marshall hasn't posted the Senate race predictions I sent him in response to his survey. First I thought it was because I filed them too late. (I filled out most of them Sunday night but dragged my feet on New Hampshire and South Dakota till yesterday.) Then I thought he was trying to protect me from embarrassing myself again. But then I realized, hey! Embarrassing yourself is what blogs are for. So here are my predictions, which are not to be used as the basis of a cash wager, unless you're feeling particularly generous today.

Arkansas: D

Colorado: D

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Georgia: D

Iowa: D

Louisiana: D

Minnesota: D

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Missouri: R

New Hampshire: D

New Jersey: D

North Carolina: R

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South Carolina: R

South Dakota: R

Tennessee: R

Texas: R

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I'll be back later to eat crow.

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8:50 a.m. PT: Might as well start out by saying whom I'm voting for. This is the first election in a long time in which my vote makes a difference. I live in Maryland's 8th congressional district, one of the few districts in the country that's a genuine tossup. The incumbent is Republican Connie Morella; the Democrat is state Sen. Chris Van Hollen. Our governor's race is a tossup, too. The Democrat is Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend; the Republican is Rep. Bob Ehrlich.

I agonized over both races. A couple of years ago I realized that I'm less a New Democrat than a liberal Republican. I mentioned in Slate that I'd voted in 2000 for Morella and John McCain. Last month I divulged that I'd been itching to vote for Ehrlich. But then I watched the gubernatorial debate and decided that Ehrlich was pugnacious and immature. Townsend is too profligate for my taste, and I hate her racial politics, but I think Maryland's budget fix will keep her from doing too much mischief. So I'm going to hold my nose and vote for her.

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Morella has been a harder call. She's the kind of person we need more of in Congress: liberal instincts tempered by a conservative sense of fiscal limits and personal responsibility. Plus, she lives three blocks from me. But then I got a mailing from Van Hollen that made me feel equally mushy about him. It mentioned that he went to Swarthmore College, my alma mater. I read more about him. I concluded that he's a very dogged, smart, conscientious legislator, albeit too liberal. (Even Morella is a little to my left.) I watched a debate between the candidates. Morella talked about all the times she's split with her party leadership. Van Hollen argued that her independence counts for little, since the right-wing leadership she votes for at the beginning of every Congress dictates the House agenda.

I came away with two conclusions. On a micro level, I'm more in tune with Morella than with Van Hollen. But on a macro level, my vote for Morella wouldn't help fill Congress with Republicans like her. It would just reassure or embolden the right-wingers who use their control of the House to limit the number and influence of Republicans like her. I don't really want Democrats to run the House, but the only way to push Republicans back to the center is to shake them up. And my guilt about punishing Morella for the sins of her bosses is assuaged by my disgust at her cynical, misleading attack ads. They're beneath her.

In previous elections, liberals needed a kick in the pants to stop their runaway spending and regulation. In this election, conservatives need a kick in the pants to stop their equally foolish tax break bonanza and their cynical political exploitation of minor differences in the war on terror. If I could vote out Tom DeLay, I would. The best I can do is to take away one of the six votes he needs to stay in power. Sorry, Connie.

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8:20 a.m. PT: I'm against blogging for the following reasons:

1. It encourages you to form and disseminate opinions before you know enough facts or have thought through your opinions.

2. It emphasizes who's writing rather than what's written.

However, I've been asked to blog for a few days about this election. So blog I will.