Sen. Mary Landrieu's re-election in Louisiana on Dec. 7 showed that Democrats can -- and do -- still win when they focus on economic interests instead of bragging about how well they work with the GOP.
Landrieu beat Suzanne Terrell 52% to 48% despite campaign trips to Louisiana by George W. Bush, Dick Cheney and other GOP luminaries in an attempt to whip up the Republican vote. Landrieu can thank not only the Democratic establishment, which brought in workers and cash for the runoff, and the state's labor unions, who helped get out the vote, but also Jesse Jackson and Bill Clinton, who helped smooth over hard feelings between Landrieu and state Sen. Cleo Fields, a prominent black politician in Baton Rouge who had been cool to the senator in a grudge dating to Fields' 1995 run for governor.
Landrieu sported a liberal but pro-business voting record which had her, among other things, voting for the 2001 tax cut for the rich and "fast track" trade deals. She started the runoff campaign by firing the consultants who had her bragging during the pre-Nov. 5 campaign about voting with Bush over 70% of the time. Instead, for the runoff she highlighted her differences with W and opened a wedge between the GOP and rural voters with the disclosure that the Bush administration had secretly agreed to allow more Mexican sugar imports into the US, threatening 27,000 sugar farmers and the state's $1.7 billion sugar industry. Her support for gun rights defused a potent issue in rural areas where hunting is a religion and her support of a ban on "partial-birth abortions" also helped in a state where one-third of the electorate is Catholic.
In a race she won by 39,814 votes statewide, Landrieu carried Orleans Parish (New Orleans) by a 4-to-1 margin, or 78,900 votes. That was a stronger showing than she had in the Nov. 5 primary. In a news conference the day after the election, US Rep. William Jefferson, D-New Orleans, said black voters responded to the unfair attacks on Landrieu. "If there is any group of people that understands unfairness, it's the African-American community," Jefferson said. "Mary Landrieu really did all she could to work with this president and did all she could to reach across party lines -- and [Bush] and the Republican Party still tried to come and stomp on her."
Republicans also overplayed a relentlessly negative campaign. Despite protests that Bush had nothing to do with the negative ads, Landrieu held him responsible: "The president has some explaining to do," she told a TV reporter.
Sen. Tom Daschle, D-S.D., who played a key role in Landrieu's runoff, said the victory "proves the Democrats are alive and well and kicking and full of energy and enthusiasm and ready to go on to fight the battles of the 108th Congress." Let's hope he means it.
Louisiana shows Democrats can beat Bush by focusing on GOP economic policies that go against the interests of white rural and working-class voters. In the past few elections those voters have been drawn to vote Republican by hot-button social issues such as gun control and abortion.
Landrieu's re-election also gives fresh momentum to fellow Democrats who are pushing payroll-tax cuts as the best way to stimulate the economy and stake out a clear alternative to the Bush administration on tax policy in the new Congress, the Wall Street Journal noted Dec. 9. "It has a lot of Democrats interested," Daschle said. "It's an important reinforcement of something that should be considered," said Sen. Jon Corzine of New Jersey, who has championed a payroll-tax holiday and was named to chair the Democratic Senate campaign committee going into the 2004 elections.
Robert Reich, former labor secretary under President Clinton, has proposed payroll tax exemptions on the first $20,000 of income. That amounts to $5,000 for the typical two-earner household. Congress could make up the $700 billion the payroll tax break would cost by restoring the tax on wealthy estates. Reich noted that Republicans have made political hay by forcing the Democrats to vote against tax cuts and hiding the fact that the breaks are for the rich. Putting the payroll tax cut in play would force Republicans to choose between a tax cut for 130 million working families or a tax cut for the richest 2% of American families, "worth millions to each of their do-nothing kids," Reich wrote.
We don't find much to agree with conservative writer Andrew Sullivan, but he hit the nail on the head Dec. 9 when he wrote about Trent Lott's fond remembrance of the white supremacy movement (see Dispatches, page 5). "After his disgusting remarks at Strom Thurmond's 100th birthday party, it seems to me that the Republican Party has a simple choice," Sullivan wrote for his web site. "Either they get rid of Lott as majority leader; or they should come out formally as a party that regrets desegregation and civil rights for African-Americans. Why are the Republican commentators so silent about this? And the liberals? ... And where's the New York Times? Howell Raines is so intent on finding Bull Connor in a tony golf club that when Bull Connor emerges as the soul of the Republican Senate Majority Leader, he doesn't notice it. And where's the president? It seems to me an explicit repudiation of Lott's bigotry is a no-brainer for a 'compassionate conservative.' Or simply a decent person, for that matter. This isn't the first piece of evidence that Lott is an unreconstructed racist. He has spoken before gussied-up white supremacist groups before. So here's a simple test for Republicans and conservative pundits. Will they call Lott on this excrescence? Or are they exactly what some on the Left accuse them of?"
Strom Thurmond represented evil in 1948 and if he has mellowed in his old age he still represented a solid vote for the bad guys in his later years in the Senate, even after he started hiring black aides and helping seniors qualify for Medicare (which he opposed in 1965). Thurmond was elected governor of South Carolina as a populist in 1946 but he found that racism was an even more potent votegetter. As the GOP became more receptive to segregationists in the 1950s and '60s Thurmond found his new home there. After Lyndon Johnson led the successful effort to pass the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts in the 1960s, Republicans saw opportunity in the backlash among white voters in the South, confirming Johnson's fears that the Democrats were doing the right thing but that they would lose the South for a generation. Richard Nixon's cynical "Southern Strategy" broke the dominance of Democratic politics down South by leveraging working-class white voters against their black counterparts.
Democrats have managed to remain competitive in the South when they focus on economic issues and defuse social issues. GOP success counts on charlatans like Lott, who know the code words to conjure the ghosts of the Confederacy and convince middle-class whites that any advantage to blacks and other minorities must come at their expense.
If Lott isn't a racist, he should disavow that cynical strategy, as GOP consultant Lee Atwater did before his death in 1991. Otherwise, the GOP will have a 51-to-48 edge in the new Senate. Two moderate Rs could "pull a Jeffords" and vote to keep Daschle as Senate majority leader rather than endure two years with Lott setting the Senate's agenda. Lincoln Chafee of Rhode Island had been rumored to be considering a switch and John McCain of Arizona finds himself increasingly at odds with the GOP mandarins. Olympia Snowe of Maine and Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania also might be susceptible to the Dems' blandishments. At least they should be prepared to vote as a bloc with the Dems to stop bad bills and budget items that do damage to working people and the environment. -- JMC