Man Without Qualities

Thursday, November 11, 2004

Looking For Love In All The Wrong Places

The great Democratic self-flagellation proceeds apace. But like many a jilted suitor, the Democrats seem to be looking in all the wrong places for love, the cause of their losses and the solution to their problems - and determined to repeat their mistakes.

The Democrats simply should not be focusing so much on their loss of the presidential election. Once the economy recovered in earnest, it was always a very long shot for John Kerry to win. In fact, Kerry-Edwards did better than most economic models predicted - he should not be ashamed of his vote count (some aspects of his broader campaign "performance" is another matter).

But perhaps the most peculiar and potentially fatal effect of the Democrats' over-emphasis on the presidency is the resulting romanticization of the Clintons. Yes, Bill Clinton unseated an incumbent President. But Mr. Clinton mostly surfed into office on the back of an economic wave - a recession that had receded a little too late to benefit George H.W. Bush. In 1996 the by-then-burgeoning economy allowed Mr. Clinton to overcome the many flaws in his first administration.

This part of the Clinton "legacy" will at some time be repeated. In the future, both Republican and Democratic administrations will again fall victim to the uncontrollable business cycle. And in the future, otherwise unsuccessful incumbents (like Bill Clinton) of both parties will be returned to office because an uncontrollable business cycle just happens to bouy the incumbent up. But presidential business-cycle surfing had nothing to do with Mr. Clinton (indeed, his 1993 tax increase risked a double dip recession) and the Democrats need not look to Mr. Clinton to replicate the most critical aspects of "his" 1992 and 1996 successes. Even the 1992 business cycle wave that washed Mr. Clinton into office would probably not have been enough if Ross Perot hadn't declared his bizarre 1992 jihad against the incumbent. As they seek wisdom in their Clintonian apocrypha, are the Democrats going to try to replicate or institutionalize that aspect of Mr. Clinton's 1992 campaign? Perhaps John Corzine - whose function is mostly to persuade near-billionaire Democrats to run for Senate seats - might branch out a bit with a effort to persuade eccentric billionaire Republicans to run against incumbent Republican presidents?

While the waves of the business cycle will eventually carry Democrats back into 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue as flotsam if nothing else, the same cannot be said of the Capitol. That's why the election of several new Republican Senators and the ejection of key Democratic Congressional incumbents in a period of prosperity, including the defenestration of what should have been a secure Democratic Senate leader Tom Daschle, should be much more troubling to the Democrats than what happened to John Kerry. The Democrats should be trying harder to figure how to fix what's been going wrong for them in the Congress.

With respect to Congress the Clintons are especially dangerous people to romanticize. They have almost always been poisonous to Congressional Democrats. Mr. Clinton's 1992 coat tails were negative - Democrats then lost seats in the House. The 1994 Congressional elections, which awarded both House and Senate control to the Republicans, were vastly more disastrous for the Democrats than those of 2004. Yes, there was a bit of regrouping in the late 1990's - but that was mostly attributable to Republican missteps, not to Mr. Clinton. The 2000 election was a return to the Clinton norm, with Al Gore deprived of what should have been an easy "third term" - and the Senate slipping back to Democratic control only after Republican Jim Jeffords defected.

So why the focus on the presidency - and therefore the focus on Mr. Clinton as "the last big Democratic winner" and on Hillary Clinton as potentially "the next big Democratic winner?" The Clintons since 1992 are more responsible than anyone else for putting the Democrats in their current disastrous Congressional position. The Democrats' top imperative should be to make sure that nobody like the Clintons ever gets close to Democratic positions of power again. Instead, the Democrats and their media apologists seem determined to make the same mistakes all over again - just like so many hasty, jilted lovers do on the rebound.

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