During the post-election celebration and finger-pointing season, commentators, pundits, and Democratic legislators all claim that lack of a clear and contrasting voice to Republican policies was the reason for the Democrats’ defeat.
This assertion is true to an extent. For instance, on tax issues, some Democrats supported repealing the 2001 tax cuts (Ted Kennedy, MA), some wanted them kept as is, and some didn’t know what to do. On foreign policy, 29 Democratic senators voted for the Iraq war resolution while 21 in the party voted against; and in the House, then Minority Whip Nancy Pelosi (recently elected Minority Leader) led 125 other Democrats to vote nay as 81 in the party voted yea. Voters simply didn’t know where Democrats stood.
On other issues, however, Democrats did take a stand. Throughout the election, for example, it was apparent that Social Security clearly divided both parties. Both parties had a clear and consistent message that differed from their opponents’. Case in point: Weeks prior to the election, the Democratic National Campaign Committee posted a cartoon on their website depicting President Bush (and by association Republicans) pushing a wheelchair bound senior off a cliff. This humdrum scare tactic misleadingly illustrated the consequences of Republican reform of Social Security. Further, if you watched any television you were certainly inundated with political ads highlighting the gulf between the two parties on the issue.
Hitherto, Democrats have had success employing dishonest and deceptive tactics to scare voters – especially seniors – to win their votes. It’s a bread and butter campaign strategy for them; unfortunately as exemplified by the 2002 midterms, it’s now a losing one. In the end, a majority of Democrats who reiterated by-gone rhetoric and, perhaps more importantly, those Republicans who avoided the issue altogether, lost their races. The fact that many Republicans lost because they shirked the Social Security issue merits some attention.
Most Republicans who stood toe-to-toe against their Democratic contenders and withstood the barrage of played-out Democratic demagoguery actually won. Republicans counterpunched with a steady flow of reform language, and importantly, they offered voters details and plans instead of tired scare tactics. Republican senatorial candidates like John Sununu of New Hampshire, Elizabeth Dole of North Carolina, and House candidates like Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania and Ginny Brown-Waite of Florida all deftly rebutted Democrats’ Social Security message and won their respective races, some by wide margins.
In debate after debate, John Sununu hammered away at Jeanne Shaheen’s proposal to create another commission to study the Social Security problem. He simply let voters know that Shaheen didn’t have a plan. Likewise, during a debate between Elizabeth Dole and Erskine Bowles, Dole waived a blank piece of paper in reference to Bowles’ absent plan. Pat Toomey, a champion in the U.S. House for Social Security reform, withstood a barrage of Social Security attack ads, and easily defeated his opponent in a Democrat-leaning and heavily senior citizen district. These candidates won because their message calling for change resonated with voters. Notably, under heavy Democratic scare tactics used during debates, and in radio, web, and television ads, these winning Republicans continued to firmly support personal retirement accounts (PRA).
For those Republicans who lost, many of them shirked talking openly about reform and PRAs. George Gekas of Pennsylvania, John Thune of South Dakota, and Connie Morella of Maryland all either denied the looming bankruptcy or refrained from talking about it altogether. One has to wonder how many more seats would be in Republican hands if these and other contenders openly discussed Social Security with voters instead of running from the issue.
The 2002 election proved that pols and candidates could touch the “third rail” of politics, Social Security, without being shocked. In fact polls indicate that, if allowed, a majority of voters would invest a portion of their Social Security tax dollars in PRAs.
Though it may seem like Democrats didn’t have a clear message for voters, they did stick to their talking points on Social Security; unfortunately, it didn’t stick with the electorate. Voters elected a majority of candidates who in debates and stump speeches talked about reform and PRAs. Now it’s time for Congress to listen up and to do something to save Social Security. There will be new faces in the 108th Congress but the same issues will rule the day. Let’s hope that the momentum from the midterms, and the lessons from the campaign trail, result in real action and reform.