In round one of the melancholy parlor game fashionable in Democratic circles these days, everyone simply tried to make sense of the election's mechanics: What happened? How many points did George W. Bush give all those Senate candidates? How on earth did Georgia Democratic governor Roy Barnes, ahead by double digits in the polls virtually down to the two-minute warning, end up losing?
Round two, which got wind in its sails last week and will continue at least until the Democrats win an election someday, is the Bigthink Round: What does it mean? Was this election a tremor, a blip, a temporary crisis forged of unique circumstances out of which good can eventually come? Or was this a 1934-style earthquake, a marker of what our politics might look like for the next 40 years, just as that election signaled a reign of liberal New Deal politics even through Republican administrations?
Many of the Democrats I've posed this question to lately -- pols, operatives, writers -- want to believe the former but secretly fear the latter. In some respects, this is characterological more than ideological. Liberals tend to assume the worst, and some percentage of the current despondency is a sort of comedy act: Moaning about how grim it all looks for our side has been liberal shtick for years.
In reality, things might not be so bad. Exhibit A in the case for tremor is that Times op-ed piece last Tuesday by Donald Green and Eric Schickler, a reasonably persuasive argument that nothing about this election changed the way people fundamentally see the parties, but that the issues that were important on Election Day -- war, security -- were Republican issues. This view is supported by no less an authority than Arthur Schlesinger Jr., who once wrote nearly 2,000 pages of excellent history about that last earthquake (the New Deal) and who told me last week: "No, this isn't a realignment. Shift a few thousand votes here or there, and the Democrats still control the Senate."
Well, true. And it's also true that on most of the leading issues, a majority supports the Democratic position. That, in a nutshell, is the tremor argument, along with the belief, or more accurately the hope, that the "issues palette," as the pollsters say, will revert to matters more favorable to Democrats.
But if all these things are true, why does it feel bigger than that?
Because the Republicans, after twenty years of pushing the national conversation toward the right but never fully taking control of it, have finally and firmly landed on a formula.
What is it? It's best explained in dialectical terms. Ronald Reagan, the man with whom this history of conservatism's rise begins, was thesis: optimistic, principled in his way, but not rigid -- ultimately a flexible man who believed in the old idea of politics as a gentleman's vocation. He was willing to fulminate in the afternoon in public but have a scotch with Tip O'Neill in the evening to trade Irishisms and hash things out in a reasonable way.
Newt Gingrich was antithesis: dark, martial, visionary, a loon, a believer that politics is war by other means, someone who was bound to push hard and flame out.
W., and Karl Rove, and the rising generation of Republican politicians and operatives, are synthesis: They, especially Bush himself, have Reagan's uncomplicated, cheery nature. And they have Gingrich's ideological tenacity. Contemplate that for a minute: Gingrich's agenda and Reagan's disposition. And that's the formula.
This was the story in Georgia. The Republicans had likable candidates for Senate and governor, and both ran deeply ugly campaigns. Saxby Chambliss upset Max Cleland in the Senate race with madness, accusing a Vietnam-era triple amputee of being soft on defense. But in addition to that, Chambliss benefited from something having to do with the governor's race that the polls never picked up. Barnes lost for a variety of reasons, but his defeat -- not the most important contest in the country, but probably the election's single most surprising result -- happened mainly because of massive white turnout in the state's rural areas.
What brought them out? Talk of Barnes's being the "governor of Atlanta" and not of the suburbs or the rest of the state, and a controversy over the Confederate emblem on the state flag. Last year, Barnes reduced the size of the Stars and Bars on the flag. GOP candidate Sonny Perdue promised to let voters decide whether the state should return to the old flag. In other words, it was about race, but it was mostly implied and subtextual. And it was all engineered by Ralph Reed (yes, that Ralph Reed), now the GOP chairman of Georgia, who wrote with dripping contrition six years ago in his book Active Faith that "when it came to racism . . . conservative evangelicals . . . were not only on the sidelines, but on the wrong side of the most central cause of social justice in this century." Reed went on at length in that book about how Christian conservatives had a moral duty to reach out and touch African-Americans. He just didn't say the touch would be a mugging.
The lesson of Georgia is that Republicans know how to work the formula. Ditto Minnesota, where the fervor of the Wellstone memorial was exploited with cynical brilliance by the GOP, whose candidate all but called Wellstone a traitor before his death and then put on a lovely act of piety after it.
The Republicans are in complete control of the emotional terrain of politics (as well as, of course, having more money, stronger supporting institutions, and their own "news" network for message dissemination). The Democrats chase them around like a bunch of bumbling Clouseaus. That's why it feels like this election might portend bigger things. The gaps -- in imagination, organization, desire -- are huge, and growing. Until Democrats narrow them, the fact that poll respondents prefer the Democratic position on this or that issue won't mean a lot.
The Democrats could get some breaks. The economy may falter. That, probably, is the GOP's Achilles' heel; as I like to say, the difference between the two parties is that while the Democrats are sometimes compromised in their principles because of corporate contributions, the Republicans are never compromised, because helping those contributors is the principle. The war, assuming it starts, could bog down or make things worse in the Gulf, although we don't really want to cheer for those things to happen. The issues palette could change back to Social Security and so forth.
When you talk to Democrats, these are the kinds of things they say. But look back over the list. It's all passivity -- waiting for something to happen, for Bush to make a mistake, for the Times to uncover a scandal. The Democrats need to make something happen. If not, they might be watching from the wings for a long time to come.