Party of Losers
HARRY TRUMAN ONCE said that, if given the choice between a Republican and a Republican, the voters will pick a Republican every time. That's a neat encapsulation of the principal political lesson to be drawn from last Tuesday's election results around the country.
In the most visible races, Democrats tried to imitate Bill Clinton by tap dancing to the right, in large measure by offering to cut taxes, while proposing little or nothing in the way of positive, proactive governance. The result was a failure to mobilize the traditional Democratic base, which stayed home in record numbers or strayed into the Republican camp. The most striking example was in New Jersey, where the Democratic candidate for governor, Jim McGreevey, failed to dislodge incumbent Christie Todd Whitman, even though two ultraconservative third-party candidates--a Libertarian and a right-to-lifer--together racked up 8 percent of the vote, all of it coming from Whitman. But McGreevey failed to come out of traditional Democratic strongholds like Essex and Camden counties with large enough margins of victory because black voters failed to turn out, while Whitman actually carried a majority of senior citizens. She won by just 1 percent.
In Virginia, the Democratic candidate--Lt. Gov. Don Beyer--ran on a tax-cutting program similar to McGreevey's, but tried to frighten the Democratic base into turning out with a negative TV blitz linking his opponent, former GOP state attorney general Jim Gilmore, to Pat Robertson. It didn't work; here, too, black voters stayed home, and the anti-Robertson spots backfired. They served only to energize the Christian right, which even succeeded in electing a black conservative (with white votes) to the seat in Virginia's House of Delegates once held by Thomas Jefferson. Beyer got creamed.
In New York City, Democrat Ruth Messinger could never have beaten the popular, well-heeled incumbent mayor, Rudy Giuliani, but the size of her loss was shocking: Giuliani's landslide win by 17 points was only 1 percent shy of the 1938 GOP record victory by Republican Fiorello LaGuardia (who ran as a staunch supporter of FDR's New Deal). Messinger, once a progressive, pro-tenant City Council member, cozied up to rapacious real-estate developers like Donald Trump. She also tried to make herself acceptable to the business community by proposing a $1.5-billion cut in the city's budget and a speedup (longer hours for the same pay) for city workers, a majority of whom are nonwhite. The result: Out of 500 union locals in the city, only 10 supported Messinger; black turnout was at its lowest ever; and Hispanic voters, virtually ignored by Messinger, gave half their votes to Giuliani.
A lot of national attention was given to the contest for the Staten Island congressional seat vacated by Susan Molinari when the GOP star left for a CBS anchor chair. Labor made a big push for the Democratic candidate, union member and assemblyman Eric Vitaliano, although the conventional wisdom before the election held that GOPer Vito Fossella would ride Giuliani's coattails in this traditionally Republican district. But Vitaliano ran TV and radio spots proclaiming himself a "conservative Democrat," union voters stayed home or jumped to the GOP, and Republican Fossella--boosted by $800,000 worth of attack ads on his opponent paid for by Republican National Committee soft money--actually ran ahead of Giuliani by 8 points.
Democrats used to flail against George Bush on the "vision thing," but today it is the Democrats who are bereft of a vision markedly different from that offered by the Republicans. The failure of this year's crop of Clinton imitators means an almost certain increase in Republican House and Senate majorities next November. A recent Supreme Court decision upholding tight Minnesota rules on cross-party endorsements quashed the possibility of third parties playing a balance-of-power role in most states; thus, the only hope for a renewal of progressive electoral politics is for left Democrats to form permanent alliances fighting primaries against Me-Too Clinton clones (much as the Democratic Leadership Council sparkplugged the corporate takeover of the Democratic Party by supporting primary contests against left-liberals). Absent such efforts on both state and national levels, the one-party-two-name system will continue its ever more conservative drift without serious challenge, voter apathy and cynicism will further mount, and well-organized and -funded conservatives will continue to be able to dominate low-turnout elections.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss City Pages' biggest stories.