The loss of the US Senate majority as well as a few more seats in the House in the mid-term election might yet contain the seeds of the Democratic Party's re-emergence as a progressive force if party leaders will embrace their populist grassroots.
The party is moving in the correct direction in promoting Nancy Pelosi to the post of House Democratic leader after Dick Gephardt stepped aside after the election debacle. Pelosi, from San Francisco, is a solid progressive who has not only raised a lot of money for Democrats, but through her "PAC to the Future," she has seen that it is channeled to liberal candidates around the country. (Some progressives may grouse about fundraising being one of the qualifiers for party leadership, but that is the reality we work under.) The pro-business Democratic Leadership Council argued that making Pelosi the minority leader would retreat from the centrism that prevailed during the Clinton era. In our mind that is a good thing, if Pelosi can set new progressive priorities for the party's agenda and refocus Congress members to look out for working-class interests instead of the corporate class.
Tom Daschle has the more challenging role as he returns to the role of minority leader in the Senate. As the White House sorts through the legislative wish lists of conservative interest groups, Public Citizen, the watchdog for consumers, sees pushes for more tax cuts for the rich; to privatize Medicare and put insurance companies in charge of any prescription drug plan; for an energy plan to benefit the oil companies and further deregulate utilities; appointment of right-wing judges and enactment of tort "reforms" that will defund trial lawyers and close off the courts to all but the wealthy and corporations; and trade deals that will roll back even the modest progress on globalization issues that had been evident in the Senate.
In the meantime, Daschle needs our help in stiffening not only his spine, but also the spines of other Democratic senators who tried working with the GOP last year, saw their efforts trashed by Dubya on the campaign trail, and now are being told by D.C. pundits that they need to go along with Bush's new "mandate."
Even with Republicans in control of both houses of Congress, talk of a mandate for Bush appears to be seriously, if typically, overblown. The Bush White House was desperate to claim a mandate ever since the GOP had to resort to five partisans on the Supreme Court to intervene in the 2000 presidential election in which -- need we remind you? -- Al Gore outscored the pretender by more than 500,000 votes. This time, a shift of 49,000 votes in Minnesota, Missouri and New Hampshire would have kept the Senate in Democratic control and a switch of 42,500 votes in House races would have put Democrats in control there. If either had happened, the White House would have been licking its wounds instead of reviewing corporate lobbyists' Christmas lists.
Senators Jean Carnahan, Max Cleland, Tim Johnson and Mary Landrieu learned that voting with Bush on his ill-advised tax cut for the rich and the Iraq war resolution did not protect them from Bush's airborne attacks. Democrats need to redefine themselves and embrace progressive ideals that carried them since the New Deal. A good start would be to propose a cut in the payroll tax instead of approving more tax cuts for the rich. Joe Conason of Salon.com noted that a cut in the payroll taxes not only would be more progressive but also "put money into the pockets of those who need it most and would spend it fastest, stimulating the economy immediately rather than 10 years from now." Congress could make up that revenue by removing the lid on payroll taxes at higher incomes.
Republicans never recognized a Clinton mandate in 1992. They fought him at every turn and used every parliamentary trick to stall his initiatives. Voters rewarded the GOP in 1994 with control of Congress. The same thing happened this past Congress: After the GOP lost control of the Senate, Republican senators used filibusters and other parliamentary tricks to deny Democrats significant legislative victories.
Now Trent Lott is the one who needs 60 votes to pass controversial bills. As long as Democrats can keep 41 votes to sustain filibusters they can stop most bad things from happening. It won't be easy. Republicans will try to peel off "Demopublican" senators, such as Evan Bayh (Ind.), John Breaux (La.), Thomas Carper (Del.), Dianne Feinstein (Calif.), Mary Landrieu (La.), Blanche Lincoln (Ark.), Zell Miller (Ga.) and Ben Nelson (Neb.), but Democrats need to keep their caucus in line behind a progressive agenda for the good of their own careers as well as the welfare of working people. Otherwise the GOP will continue to pick them off.
Progressives also should put the heat on so-called "moderate Republicans": Lincoln Chafee (R.I.), Norm Coleman (Minn.), Susan Collins (Maine), Olympia Snowe (Maine) and Arlen Specter (Pa.), as well as independent Jim Jeffords (Vt.). They talk a moderate line when it comes to re-election. Don't let them get away with supporting extremist Republican legislation.
There were some bright spots in the election, to be sure. Democrats' aggressive efforts to get out the vote in South Dakota, carried Sen. Tim Johnson to re-election by 524 votes. Republicans threw everything they had at Johnson, but he benefitted not only from the support of Daschle, who was trying to preserve his Senate majority leader status. Johnson got a key assist from the state's Indians, who often lag behind white voters in turnout but this year provided the margin of victory. Returns from the Pine Ridge reservation reported Wednesday morning erased the narrow lead of Rep. John Thune (R). It was the fruit of a much-criticized drive that registered about 4,000 new Indian voters since July. Indian voting was up about 20%, according to the Sioux Falls Argus Leader, citing county officials.
Unfortunately, the turnout was not enough to carry Stephanie Herseth and Jim Abbott into the at-large House seat and the governor's office. Herseth fought hard, but she lost by 26,394 votes, or 7 points, to Gov. Bill Janklow, who was forced to move by term limits. Abbott lost by 49,639, or 15 points, to Mike Rounds, the Republican state Senate leader.
Perhaps even a bigger win was scored in Iowa, where Republicans had great hopes of beating not only three-term Sen. Tom Harkin but also Gov. Tom Vilsack. Instead, Iowans elected a Democratic governor and senator in the same election for the first time since 1936.
Rep. Greg Ganske (R), who made his bones with the Republicans in 1994 by beating 36-year incumbent Democratic Rep. Neal Smith, was recruited by the White House to take on Harkin. At one point Ganske boasted to his supporters about the negative race he planned to run. When a tape of his remarks was distributed to news media, Ganske demanded a criminal investigation, but local and federal authorities decided no laws were broken.
Despite frequent visits by Bush, and a finale that included not only an appearance by Dubya, but also Vice President Cheney and First Lady Laura Bush in the closing days of the campaign on Ganske's behalf, Harkin played on his clout as Agriculture Committee chairman, which helped the state's farmers, and populist rhetoric, which made no apologies for his active opposition to Bush and the Republican agenda.
Working people responded and gave Harkin a 10-point victory margin, the biggest win of his four statewide races. "For all who want our economy back on track with tax relief for working families and not tax breaks for those at the top, this is your victory," Harkin told supporters on election night.
The Omaha World Herald headlined the report of his win, "Harkin vocal, unapologetic, re-elected." Harkin explained, "If you stand by your principles and your values, Iowans are willing to give you some running room." Many times in the campaign, Harkin said, Iowans told him they were voting for him despite disagreeing with many of his positions. He even carried Buena Vista County, where our plant is located, in the heart of conservative Northwest Iowa. It was the first time he carried the county in four elections.
Vilsack became the first Democrat to win a second term as governor since Harold Hughes did so in the 1960s. Despite a faltering economy, Vilsack beat Republican Doug Gross by 8 points. The Democrat said he would work on the concerns he had heard Iowans voice about the cost of prescription drugs, job security, maintaining the quality of the state's education system and providing adequate environmental protection.
Iowans re-elected these progressives despite maintaining a 4-1 Republican majority in the state's congressional delegation. The GOP also held control of both houses of the state Legislature. If progressive populists can win in Iowa, it's worth trying in other states in the so-called "red zone" of the Midwest.
Kelly Young, executive director of the 21st Century Democrats, which promotes progressive populist candidates and worked in South Dakota, Iowa, Minnesota and Missouri, said instead of trying to depict themselves as the centrist party, Democrats need to define their differences with the Republicans on issues such as health care, the need for good-paying jobs, decent schools and retirement security to win future elections. "If we continue to try to out-Republican the Republicans, we won't win," she said. "If we try to compete with the Republicans in money raising and spend it the way [Republicans] spend it, we'll lose. ... We have to go back to the grassroots and communicate with voters."
As Dick Gephardt gives up his Democratic leadership post in the House, he also should give up his run for the presidency and concentrate instead on taking out Sen. Christopher Bond in 2004. Gephardt would have made a good Speaker, but this election hardly gives him a platform to mount a presidential campaign. He has the stature to take on Bond, however. As for the 2004 presidential race, we think Harken's keynote speech at Paul Wellstone's wake qualifies the straight-talking Iowan to run again as the spokesman for the democratic wing of the Democratic Party. Get back on the bus!