It is ironic. The Democrats lost their
majority in the U.S. Senate because they haven't learned how to
be a minority.
If that seems senseless, consider: out-of-power
political parties -- as the Democrats, holding but one House of
Congress, surely were before Election Day -- rise or fall on the
quality of the substitute agenda they offer. If a minority party
proposes a strong, popular, easily-understood alternative vision
to that offered by the party in power, the voters will be intrigued
-- perhaps enough to make a dramatic switch.
If not, they simply won't.
Why change horses mid-ride if the second
horse is no different?
It's not that the Democrats don't have
differences with Republicans. They do. Nonetheless, in the recent
elections the Democrats failed to show the voters a serious alternative
Instead, even on pivotal issues, the voters
sensed hot air.
Take, for instance, the issue of prescription
drugs. The GOP-led House approved a prescription drug benefit
bill; the Democrat-led Senate did not. Majority Leader Tom Daschle
(D-SD) wouldn't let them.
On generic drugs, the Democratic Senate did pass the Schumer-McCain
legislation to restrict the ability of drug companies to protect
their patents against generic drug manufacturers. The bill ostensibly
would lower drug prices somewhat over the long haul, but it also
ran the risk of reducing the drug companies' incentive to develop
new drugs to combat cancer, Alzheimer's and other dreaded afflictions.
The Democrats had no answer for the latter problem and in any
case were vulnerable to charges that the generic drug companies
had bought their support, as the most political donations made
by generic drug companies went to Democrats. Therefore, Democrats
never stressed the issue.
Campaign contributions also made it impossible
for Democrats to do anything but ignore the increasing number
of specious lawsuits by trial lawyers against drug manufacturers,
and the damage they do. These lawsuits tend to raise drug costs
and depress the development of new drugs with little benefit to
anyone but the trial lawyers and the Democrats who receive 90
percent of the trial lawyers association's campaign contributions.
By their failure to set forth an aggressive
agenda on any aspect of prescription drugs, Democrats rendered
unnecessary any debate on the relative strengths of contrasting
drug plans. This allowed Republican candidates to deflect Democratic
criticism by casting the issue as "Republicans working; Democrats
Little wonder, then, that for all the
Democrats' talk that prescription drugs would be a pivotal issue,
it brought them little traction on Election Day.
The Democrats also had high hopes for
demonizing Republicans on Social Security. They swiftly attacked
any Republican candidate who dared propose averting a Social Security
financial crisis through partial privatization, running ads portraying
Republicans as dangerous to the elderly. But Social Security's
unsound finances are no secret. What is secret is what the Democrats
plan to do about it -- if anything.
Even some voters who dislike the GOP plan
must have noticed that the GOP was the only party that cared enough
to propose one. This might in part be why three Republican Senate
candidates closely associated with a frank discussion of Social
Security -- Sununu in New Hampshire, Chambliss in Georgia and
Dole in North Carolina -- won close races. Yet again, the Democrats
had let the Republicans cast an issue as "Republicans working;
The Democrats similarly were unable to exploit the poor economy.
They've not been shy about criticizing Bush's supposed inattention
to domestic matters, but where is the Democratic plan? There isn't
one. The Democratic Senate has so far failed even to approve a
budget for the U.S. government for the 2003 fiscal year -- which
began last October 1. Whatever the merits of a case against Bush
on the economy, he did at least propose a budget.
Minority parties must do two things to
succeed: have an attractive agenda and communicate it well to
the voters. The Republicans used this model in the years leading
up to the pivotal 1994 elections to decisively end decades as
a minority party.
The Republicans, in many respects, still
think like the minority they used to be. They tend to have proposals
on the major issues and they expend great effort communicating
details about them. They act like they believe they need to prove
The Democrats, on the other hand, still
have many of the bad habits they acquired during many years in
the majority. They avoid policy debates with the Republicans,
often treating their rivals not as equals but acting as if the
GOP is unworthy of notice. Republican proposals often are labeled
"extreme" or "right-wing," but leading Democrats
rarely bother to explain to the public just what makes them so.
A minority party that doesn't present
an attractive alternative to the status quo won't capture voter
interest. If the Democratic Party wants to do better at the ballot
box next time, it must develop a specific, appealing agenda --
and start sharing it with voters.
In other words, they'll need to show some
Amy Ridenour is President of
The National Center for Public Policy Research, a Washington,
D.C. think tank. Comments may be sent to [email protected].