So Why Did the Democrats Win?

  • Share
  • Read Later
For all the celebrating they have done over their election victory last week, Democrats won't be taking over control of Congress with a blueprint for how to capture the biggest prize, the presidency in 2008. The reason is simple: apart from the fact that they faced an unpopular President and an unpopular ruling party both blamed for a very unpopular war, the Democrats already can't agree on why they won.

In describing the victory, the various factions of the Democratic Party sound as if they all witnessed a different election. The Democratic Leadership Council, a group of moderates in the party, declared the victory "a testament to the centrist problem-solving reputation of Democrats outside the cauldron of Beltway partisan warfare."

Not exactly, says, the Campaign for American's Future, a liberal group where Hillary Clinton was booed earlier this year when she explained her opposition to setting a timetable for troop withdrawal from Iraq. "Before the pundits muddy the results with talk of the new more "conservative" Democratic legislators and the need for moderation," wrote Robert Borosage, the group's president, "it is worth looking at what voters said. [Democrats] started the election sounding like Hillary, hesitant to lay out any clear position [on Iraq], and ended sounding like Ned Lamont."

And those are just two of many theories floating around. Noting the victories of Ohio gubernatorial candidate Ted Strickland and Pennsylvania Senate candidate Bob Casey, both of whom frequently discussed their faith, Jim Wallis, a liberal Christian minister who has advised Democrats to emphasize their religious values, wrote on his blog "when Democrats take a more morally sensible and centrist position on issues like abortion, they do better than liberal Democrats have done."

On the other hand, Matt Stoller, a prominent liberal blogger on the site, wrote "economic progressives, some of whom are more conservative on social issues, and some of whom are not, did extremely well. A wave of liberals won in the Northeast."

The truth is that all of these groups are right — and wrong. In the House, 15 of the newly elected Democrats will join the so-called New Democrats, a group of moderates, and another handful will feel more comfortable with the Blue Dogs, a group whose members are more conservative on social issues such as gun control; many of both groups of candidates stressed their moderate positions on issues such as abortion and gay marriage during the campaign.

At the same time, some of the biggest victories for the Democrats came from liberal candidates. In Kentucky, John Yarmuth, a liberal, anti-war newspaper publisher who the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee thought had little chance of winning, took a very competitive seat that Democrats had repeatedly failed to win in the past. In Ohio, Rep. Sherrod Brown, an unabashed lefty who opposed President Bush's positions more than any other congressman in the country, according to Congressional Quarterly, defeated a G.O.P. moderate, Senator Mike Dewine. A Democrat named Carol Shea Porter who pulled out a stunning upset in a New Hampshire race not only called for setting a firm withdrawal date for troops to leave Iraq, but also called for extending Medicare to all Americans.

Highlighting their religious values may have helped Casey and Strickland. But in the heated race to replace outgoing Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, Rep. Harold Ford of Tennessee showed up in some of his campaign ads in a church and was one of many conservative Democrats who emphasized their faith — and still lost. A strong, forceful position against the war, as the liberal bloggers called for, helped get a bunch of Democrats elected to the House and Senate. On the other hand, in a blue state like Connecticut, Ned Lamont, one of the bloggers' favorite candidates, lost to one Joe Lieberman, a major war supporter who ran as an independent and lured many Republican voters to his camp. And Republican Chris Shays, another war supporter who represents the southern part of that state, defeated a challenger who spent her entire campaign attacking Shays for his position on the war.

Many of the winning Democratic candidates, such as Brown, ran on a populist platform, emphasizing pocketbook issues like raising the minimum wage and attacking oil and drug companies. But even if economic populism did help elect many Democrats, will it necessarily sell in a presidential race? You might remember that a Democratic presidential candidate once spent the latter half of his campaign railing about the evils of powerful corporate interests and was widely criticized for it by many in his own party and lost. His name was Al Gore. And the Democrats can't even agree on the hero of the election; many in Washington are hailing Rahm Emanuel, who ran the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, while many liberal bloggers are pointing out correctly that Emanuel early on wrote off both Yarmuth and Porter as having no legitimate chance to win.

Given the variety of interpretations of last week's election, almost any 2008 Democrat candidate could justify a White House run. Iowa Governor Tom Vilsack, who announced last week he will seek the White House, has emphasized a commonsense, centrist approach highlighting personal values that candidates like Casey won on. Of course, Gore could look at the victories of Brown and others as proof positive that the party can win with an unapologetically liberal candidate who is strongly opposed to the war in Iraq and President Bush's handling of the war on terror.

For their part, Republicans seem more unified about the way forward. From Indiana Republican Mike Pence and others vying for leadership in the next Congress to presidential contenders such as John McCain or even Rudy Giuliani, the message they took from the election is the party needs to return its roots. And as Democratic strategists often privately lament, Republicans can easily describe their party's principles, even if they don't always live up to them: small government, low taxes, strong national defense, and moral values.

So barring the emergence of a Democrat who can talk about faith and appear to be centrist and progressive at the same time, (see Obama, Barack), Democrats will remain mired in a never-ending debate of left vs. center, Netroots vs. DLC, populist vs. business-friendly. Of course, they can take some comfort from one other election lesson: as Republicans found out this year, having an agenda everyone agrees on isn't the same thing as accomplishing it — or winning on Election Day.