Few folks, if any, favored the Democrats to have a stellar showing, but just as
few imagined that they would stumble as badly as they did. In one very rough night, the Dems lost the Senate and failed to gain any ground in the House.
Conventional wisdom says that
midterm elections turn on kitchen-table concerns, and the Democrats failed to
make strides on issues that favored them: a lackluster economy, a swooning
Dow, an emerging health care crisis, soaring prescription drug costs, corporate corruption. Even before Election Day, the most ardent Democrats were furious that their leaders had failed to draw clear lines between the parties on these issues. Why, many have asked, didn't they offer an explicit
agenda of what they would accomplish if they had the entire Congress under their control?
There are at least three answers. But most important may be that it was impossible for Democrats to attack the tax cut that is the centerpiece of the Bush economic program, since so many of their most endangered members voted
for it. Republicans also did remarkably well at blurring the distinctions in some areas; both sides claimed to have a plan for lowering the cost of prescription drugs for seniors, for instance, and it was hard for voters to get deeply enough into the fine print to figure out which one would work.
Adding to the confusion was the fact that the pharmaceutical industry was spending millions on ads that portrayed the less-generous GOP plan as the better one. And in an ironic way, the fact that Democrats controlled the Senate made it harder for them to play electoral offense, because it raised a
hard question: If they have such great ideas, why hasn't the Senate passed them?
The focus now shifts to presidential politics, and there, Democrats believe, their candidates won't feel nearly so constrained. Most of the bigger names who are considering the race including Al Gore expect to make that decision
by the end of the year. Others may be making their decisions within days. That's why it is safe to bet, despite President Bush's popularity, that the
Democrats will soon be offering much tougher talk on the President's programs. As silver linings go, it's a thin one but for now, that hope is
just about the only thing keeping the Democrats going.