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Why the Democrats lost the Congress

I'm in the midst of an epiphany. Watching the election returns on November 5, I realized that fear has become a primary motivation in my politics. The political outcome I feared has become reality. The Democrats lost the Congress, and they lost it because they decided to use fear as their platform. And for this decision, they deserved to lose.

My epiphany began when I went to vote in my northern Virginia neighborhood. As I entered the booth, the first thing I noticed was that my party had no candidate running against the incumbent Republican United States Senator. Then I saw that we also had no candidate against the Republican incumbent member of the United States House of Representatives. This in northern Virginia, the "moderate" part of the state.

When I saw the Democrats had no candidates, not one, on the ballot in my congressional district, it was obvious to me that the Democrats would fail in their efforts to take control of the Congress. Why? Because there in my little voting booth at Thoreau Middle School in Fairfax County, Virginia, they had given me absolutely no way to try to make things better. They had given me no reason to hope. They had given in to fear.

Much will be written about why the Democrats lost, how President Bush bravely turned the election into a referendum on his policies, and how the Republicans now have a mandate to pursue all of their legislative goals. They will make the tax cut permanent. They will appoint and confirm more right-wing federal judges. They will deprive the employees of the new federal Homeland Security Department of the basic protections most federal employees have from arbitrary action by political appointees. And they will say they are doing so because the people have endorsed these policies.

Nonsense. The people endorsed nothing. Instead, the people gave voice to their fear. Americans are afraid right now. We are afraid that terrorists are going to strike us again. We are afraid that the economy is not recovering and will not recover, at least not soon enough. We are afraid of criminals and Muslims and snipers and things that go "Bump" in the night.

My wife Anne Marie, who knows about these sorts of things, tells me that all advertising is intended to activate in us either fear of loss or anticipation of gain. Given the role of money and media in the political system, it is easy to observe this concept acting in our politics. Candidates for political office have the choice of trying to scare us into voting for them, or trying to inspire us to vote for them. For reasons that escape me, the Democratic Party chose fear over hope in this election.

The strategy backfired. I know from my own experience that when people are afraid, they conserve. If you're not sure about next year's salary increase, you don't buy a new car. If your health insurance costs are increasing as fast or faster than your paycheck, you keep that old winter coat instead of buying a new one. And if you're not given a reason to try something different, you vote for the same old thing.

People fear, and they conserve, unless they are given a reason not to, unless they are given a reason to hope. The Democrats gave us no reasons this year. Instead, they ran the kind of fear campaigns that always favor Republicans. Even within the party, the leadership tried to motivate us by spinning a parade of the horrible things a Republican Congress would do. What we needed to hear was about the good things a Democratic Congress would do.

I remember the campaign of 1992, the first presidential campaign in which I had taken a serious interest in many years. I watched Bill Clinton overcome many obstacles (including many of his own making) by talking relentlessly about hope. Having been born or raised (or something) in the town of Hope, Arkansas, he managed to capture many American minds with his mantra of hope. He had plenty of ideas and plans and policies, and he was most adept at making them sound good enough that people were saying: "You know, that just might work. At least it's worth a try." In the end, though, he won because he convinced Americans, a plurality of them at least, that there was reason to hope even in tough economic times.

Indeed, Americans elect Democratic Presidents pretty much only when Democrats speak grandly and lead us to hope. Think of Franklin Roosevelt's, "We have nothing to fear but fear itself." Think of John Kennedy's, "The torch has been passed to a new generation of Americans." Think of Jimmy Carter's promise to restore integrity to government in the aftermath of the Watergate scandal, "I will never lie to you." Think of Bill Clinton's, "I believe in a place called Hope."

This year, though, the Democratic leadership failed to give us any reason to vote for Democrats, only reasons to vote against Republicans. That's just not good enough when you are the party out of power.

It's not as though the current Republicans have much to brag about. Their solution to the economic downturn is to cut taxes. That has never worked. Ronald Reagan cut taxes in 1981 and we got a recession. The recession of the late 1980s and early 1990s began to turn for the better when George Bush the First did the responsible thing and agreed to a tax increase. He was rewarded with a crushing defeat at the hands of the Governor of Arkansas in 1992. In 1993, the Democratic Congress raised taxes and set the stage for a balanced federal budget and a record peacetime economic expansion. It was rewarded with a defeat of historic proportions in the 1994 election.

Tax cuts like those proposed by George Bush the Second are just bad policy, and the Republicans know it. Candidate Bush promised us in 2000 that he would cut taxes and balance the budget. He did only one of those two things, of course. And has all this generosity to the taxpayers turned the economy around? No. Economic growth is almost non-existent, health insurance costs are eating all of the already meager growth in personal income, and consumer confidence is dropping like a stone.

In the end, tax cuts for the wealthy, the kind of cuts Republicans are always proposing, are good politics, but bad policy. Tax cuts win elections, but they create budget deficits that suck the credit markets dry and inhibit investment and economic expansion. And yet Republicans win elections with no more than this sorry track record.

Why? Because the Democrats offered no alternative vision. Instead, they chose to try and scare us. Things really are scary enough already. Between terrorists and the economy and a sociopathic pair of snipers, Washington, D.C. is a pretty scary place, a place where there is too much fear and not enough inspiration. And it's about to get worse.

How does all this affect Indian people and Indian tribes? Probably not much, really. As dismal as the Bush Administration's performance on Indian affairs has been, I can't honestly say that a Democratic Congress would make things much better right now. The reason I can't say is that the Democrats never told us what their vision for Indian country is. Instead, they told us only that things will be really bad if the Republicans control the Congress.

Washington probably will get just a little bit meaner and a little more unfriendly for Democrats, but that needn't affect the tribes much. The gaming tribes will simply hire very expensive Republican lobbyists to do ? what, I wonder? Prevent other tribes from opening casinos that would compete with their own? That seems to have been the primary achievement of expensive Republican Indian affairs lobbyists in the last two years. They certainly have not pushed through any legislation of major benefit to the tribes in general.

It's not as though the Republicans in the Executive Branch or in the Congress have a coherent Indian affairs policy. Indeed, for the first year of the Bush Administration, its Indian policy was just to be against whatever the Clinton Administration had done. That's fair enough for a new administration, but now the Bush Administration has to have a policy of its own.

Equally important, if the Democrats wish to have tribal support in 2004, they are going to have to give us a better reason to be for them than they did in this election. The party will have to articulate an Indian affairs policy and vision that it will fight for. Doing favors for wealthy tribes that contribute to the right campaigns is not an Indian policy. Telling us how bad Republicans are is not a vision. The Democrats have to decide whether they are going to be a party of hope, or a party of fear.