Robert L. Borosage is co-director of the Campaign For America's Future.
Fired. Voters took a good look at Bush’s one-party rule in Washington and fired Republicans yesterday. But they did much more than that. Before the pundits muddy the results with talk of the new more “conservative” Democratic legislators and the need for moderation, it is worth looking at what voters said.
Iraq was the major issue driving insurgent Democratic candidates. In the midst of a war, with soldiers under fire, the vast majority of Americans voted to change course in Iraq. Democrats started the election cycle wary about challenging the president on the war—and ended it buying ads tying Republicans to the president’s failed course. They started the election sounding like Hillary, hesitant to lay out any clear position, and ended sounding like Ned Lamont. The president wanted to nationalize the election around the war on terror. He succeeded and Americans stunningly voted for a change in course.
Second, Democrats across the country, in red states and blue, ran populist campaigns, indicting Republicans for being in the pocket of the drug and oil lobbies. More money was spent on ads portraying the threat posed by corporate lobbies than the threat posed by Osama bin Laden. It wasn’t simply Abramhoff, Foley, Weldon and Sherwood—and the Republican follies. Democratic candidates waged a concerted assault on a Republican party that picked the pockets of Americans to reward their corporate benefactors. Moveon.org set the tone with their “caught red handed” ads in the early spring. Democrats stayed on that theme. The costs of Republican corruption fed into the economic pressures on working families. And this trumped the threat of higher taxes, the second issue around which Republicans nationalized the election.
This reality is reflected in the results. An extraordinary number of the Democrats owe their election primarily to their position against the war. That’s how Carol Shea-Porter, a social worker, upset Republican Jeb Bradley in New Hampshire. It contributed to the defeats of Nancy Johnson in Connecticut, Anne Northup in Kentucky, Charlie Bass in New Hampshire, Melissa Hart in Pennsylvania, Clay Shaw in Florida, and many more. Democrats were aided in conservative districts because they pledged a change in course in Iraq.
The new populist temper will be magnified by the election of Bernie Sanders, Sherrod Brown, Amy Klobuchar—and possibly John Tester—to the Senate. These are strong, no-nonsense progressive-populists. Brown won in Ohio against a relatively moderate Republican senator by running an unrelenting campaign around economic populism. DeWine’s ads assaulted him for his social liberalism, his opposition to the Patriot Act and warrantless wiretapping, his votes for taxes, while Brown’s focused on jobs being shipped abroad and working families being ignored. By leading with economic populist arguments, Brown was able to sustain assaults on his social liberalism in a socially conservative state.
The Blue Dogs and the New Democrats are already claiming victory, and calling for curbing the Moveon.org wing of the party. But a lot of this is inside-the-beltway chatter. The reality is clear: Democrats come to office with a mandate to challenge the president on Iraq, and the corporate special interests on the economy. That will be the yardstick by which voters measure the new majority.