by E.C. Fish on November 11, 2002

My first whiff of doom concerning the 2002 midterm elections– my first indication that their aftermath would find me sitting at this keyboard once again trying to sort a very large dung heap one turd at a time– came to me shortly after the death of Senator Paul Wellstone. Unexpectedly, the feeling came not from the many gee-whiz eulogies delivered by Wellstone’s fellow Democrats describing the Senator’s dedication to public service and his own conscience as “rare” and “unique”– that is, as an example that none of the eulogizers would even momentarily consider trying to live up to– though in retrospect, a good portion of the resulting tale was told right then and there. Instead, it was the swift circulation of conspiracy theories positing the Senator’s death as an assassination by the sinister forces of the Bush cabal that began to tear at the last threads of my optimism. “Oh, Christ,” I thought. “Here we go…”

While it came as no news to me that the left was capable of producing yahoos every bit as irrational as those right wingers who believe that Vince Foster was found with Hillary Clinton’s pubic hairs in his boxer shorts, I was nonetheless struck by how ludicrously beside the point such speculation seemed– damn it, there was an election on– and, for a kicker, just how much it had in common with mainstream Democratic thought. Conspiracy theory carries with it a connotation of helplessness, a feeling that the game has been rigged by a ruthless opponent and that the best efforts of the just have thereby been rendered meaningless. It is this same kind of fatalism that has marked the general attitude of Democrats both in power and at large for much of the last two years.

One of the popular explanations for the overall failure of the Democrats in 2002 casts them as a “divided party,” a theory that is only partially true. Almost to a person, the Democrats who have held or sought office thus far in the twenty first century seem to have been united in the belief that the Bush presidency is a phenomenon that is somehow beyond the power of mere politics. What divisions do exist in the party seem to be between the centrist, DLC (or “Vichy”) Democrats, whose response to the President’s enviable poll numbers consists largely of attempts at co-option that all too often have amounted to outright collaboration, and the tattered remains of the party’s progressive wing, who seem to be operating on the theory that by maintaining a dignified silence in the face of the amazing collection of irrationalities that is the Bush phenomenon they are somehow giving the President enough rope to hang himself.

Given the dominance of these schools of thought (particularly the former) in Democratic leadership circles, it comes as no surprise that at their moments of greatest optimism before election day, national Democrats spoke not of their bold alternatives to the Republican foreign and domestic policy agendas– for indeed they had none– but of the fineness of their nuances and gestures. Voter anger over the outcome of the Florida presidential vote was to have driven a strong revenge vote for Democrats– at least according to those Democrats who failed utterly to realize just how much of the voter anger concerning Florida was in fact pointed at Al Gore, whose failure to stand up to Republican intimidation and insist on his and his supporter’s rights under the law handed the Republicans the executive branch and set the stage for all that has come after. Voter anger over Bush’s tax cuts and the resulting deficits was to have swept Democrats into office, without any of them having to do anything drastic like proposing that those cuts that have not yet taken effect (which will affect the average voter not at all) be suspended in a simple effort to stop the bleeding. And for good measure, the 2002 crop of candidates included a Viet Nam triple amputee, a Kennedy who was a woman, and a candidate for Florida Governor who was neither Neil Bush nor Janet Reno. How could they lose?

How indeed? Democrats are still apoplectic over the 2000 Green Party assertion that there is no appreciable difference between the two major parties, and in fact there were many differences between the parties in 2002, many of which will make themselves known as soon as Trent Lott, Dennis Hastert, and the President’s people get this show on the road. The problem is, apoplexy and Nader-bashing aside, few Democrats are willing to draw those distinctions, much less embrace them. Let’s hope that some time in the wilderness leads them to that conclusion, and that the ensuing body count in the meantime isn’ t too high…

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