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Chameleon Games

11.20.2002 | POLITICS

As so often happens these days, the majority of political pundits analyzing the recent election returns have missed the point. Two examples of this missing in action analysis appeared in Washington Post columns by E. J. Dionne Jr. and Richard Cohen on November 12, one week after the election that gave the Republicans control of both the House and Senate. Sifting through the returns to examine what the Democrats did wrong this year and to suggest what they should do better in the future, both writers blamed them for what Cohen described as "not ... an ideological drubbing but rather ... missed opportunities" and praised the GOP and President Bush for a campaign that Dionne wrote "succeeded brilliantly." And both writers cautioned the Democrats against reading their resounding defeat as a signal to move toward the left. Oh, how they cautioned against that.

Dionne's column, the more perceptive of the two, contended that Democrats under-estimated the effect of their opposition to the homeland security issue vis a vis seeking labor rights for employees of that proposed department; that they didn't articulate their reasoning for blocking Bush's efforts to pack courts with conservative judges, and that they failed to propose economic stimulus measures that would have appealed to the party's core constituency. Cohen's column was less an analysis than a diatribe against any stances even slightly left of center, mocking anti-war sentiment as "impossible" and derided the efficacy of Black and Hispanic candidates: "As for Texas, it showed once again that the rainbow coalition--the left's impossible dream--better have some pink at the top. Having a black Senate candidate and a Hispanic gubernatorial candidate resulted in defeat for both."

Both columns contained glaring intellectual inconsistencies. In one paragraph, Dionne ruminated on Bush's great success "in hiding partisanship and ideology," then in the next paragraph quoted Weekly Standard conservative writer Jeff Bell's description of Bush's "fierce, relentless, highly effective partisanship" as a tactic that left the Democrats bewildered. Cohen wrote that "what the Democrats should have done was embrace the war on terrorism and make it a non-issue. Then the party should have moved on and raised economic issues." This is, of course, exactly what the Democrats tried to do. But the core of both columns was the disparagement of any suggestion that the Democrats might do better next time out by moving even slightly leftward. " ... There's no reason to act woozy and stumble to the left," Cohen warned. "The party has been in that corner before. It's where it usually loses." Dionne wrote that revisiting the arguments between center and left would be "to miss the point of 2002."

The case could well be made, however, that the opposite is true. To the extent that American politics veers away from the center, the Republicans are firmly and unabashedly entrenched as the party of the right while--historically, at least--the Democrats have been the party of the left. In recent years, though, the Democrats have moved to the right in an effort to capture what has been seen as the all-important middle ground. But for the Democrats to move too far toward the center is to risk political suicide, by alienating their core in pursuit of support that is uncertain at best. This is especially true as the population ages and tends to become more conservative. As the Democrats become increasingly indistinguishable from the Republicans, they also become less attractive to the young, the less well-to-do, and to people of color--the very people who could be a growing power base for them. This base is likely to become even more important, and more energetic and committed, if the Republicans continue to wage war all over the world. If the Democrats want to make a better showing in 2004, they should indeed pay attention to the advice of pundits such as Cohen and Dionne--and then do the exact opposite.

About the Author
John Beckett is a free-lance writer and author with more than 30 years experience in journalism.
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