Tuesday, October 14, 2014

The End of the Democratic Party as We Know It, Part III

Al Gore went into hibernation after conceding the 2000 election.  He reappeared several months later sporting a beard, as though he had been on a walkabout,  but it turned out he had hid away in Europe.  The beard became the subject of intense scrutiny in the media, seemingly more so than the first 6 months of George W. Bush's time in office.

The Democrats had prevailed in a fight over the leadership of the Senate, thanks to Jim Jeffords splitting from the Republican ranks to join the Democratic Senate caucus as an Independent.  The general election had left the Senate equally divided 50-50.  This nullified Vice-President Dick Cheney's tie-breaking vote, which would have given the leadership to the Republicans.  It was a tough day for Trent Lott, who had long groomed himself for the position.  Jeffords was recently eulogized for this bold move, passing away in August of this year.

It was hard to gauge which way the Democrats would turn.  They suffered a leadership crisis, made all the more apparent when they refused to stand against the PATRIOT and Homeland Security Acts, Republicans put forward in the wake of 911.  There appeared to be little resistance to the "police state" the Bush administration was creating in the wake of the worst terrorist strike on American soil in history.  Congress and the UN Security Council had approved a resolution to invade Afghanistan and root out al Qaeda, which was held responsible for the attack, along with its Taliban supporters.


However, nothing prepared the world for Bush's next bold gambit to attack Iraq, claiming in an infamous "white paper" that Saddam Hussein still had weapons of mass destruction and was linked to the World Trade Center bombings.  Hussein had essentially been under "house arrest" ever since the Persian Gulf War, as the United States continued to enforce no-fly zones, impose heavy sanctions and travel restrictions on Iraq throughout the Clinton administration.  But, apparently this policy of containment wasn't enough for the Bush administration, which felt it had to rid the world of Hussein once and for all.  The UN Security Council wasn't so amenable this time around.  Bush took to the "bully pulpit" in an effort to convince the American people that this was a "just war."

As it turned out, it wasn't such a hard sell.  It was rumored that the White House struck a deal with Democratic Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle to deliver the votes the Republicans needed to carry the resolution 77-23, which was fast-tracked in the month of October, 2002.  Twenty-nine Democrats had crossed over to vote for the Iraq war resolution, including Hillary Clinton, John Kerry, Joe Biden, John Edwards and Tom Daschle, despite the defiant stand of Robert Byrd, who had pleaded with his fellow Democrats to reject the war measure.

What made the matter worse was that the UN weapons inspection team had gone into Iraq and found nothing that suggested Hussein was hiding the weapons of mass destruction the Bush administration claimed he did.  Hans Blix, who was then head of the IAEA, had filed a report that was available to US Congresspersons before the vote, but apparently no one took the time to read it.  He later spoke on that report in January, 2003.

Al Gore made a defiant reappearance at the Commonwealth Club of San Francisco, saying that the United States had squandered the good will of the World in the wake of 911 by going to war in Iraq.

Fear had trumped reason.  Not so much fear that Iraq represented any real threat to the United States, but that the emotional weight of 911 still lingered in the minds of American voters, and that Democrats would be voted out of the Senate in 2002.  It turned out these fears were justified, as Republicans retook the Senate in November.  Daschle remained as the Democratic Senate Minority Leader, but he was powerless in the aftermath of this electoral sweep that left Republicans firmly in control of all branches of federal government.

At this point, the Democratic Party was rudderless.  It seemed no one wanted to step forward to lead the party.  It wasn't until August 2003 that Howard Dean emerged as a leading candidate for President.  The Vermont Governor defiantly stood against the Iraq War, which had begun in March, and garnered much attention among Democratic voters.  However, it seems the Democratic National Committee wasn't ready to see such a maverick politician lead the party, and actively pushed more recognizable figures to run.  John Kerry announced his bid for President shortly before the New Hampshire primary.  Howard Dean had lost an Iowa caucus, where he had been expected to win.  He didn't make his case sound any better when he let out this infamous scream in an effort to rally supporters.  The media jumped on it, and essentially drove him out of the race, making it clear sailing for John Kerry through the remainder of the primaries.

Political campaigns had become media driven like never before.  Television could make or break a candidate.  While most news networks made a minimal effort to remain impartial, Fox News had become the organ of the Republican Party, actively promoting GOP candidates across the country.  The Democrats had to fight for air space on the other major television news networks, even on MSNBC, which was emerging as the "voice" of the Democratic Party.

I have to hand it to John Kerry.  He tried to unite the Democratic Party, extolling the virtues of the past, but he was going up against a revitalized Republican Party that would use whatever hook or crook to get George W. Bush re-elected, even if it meant besmirching Kerry's military record.  This time the election came down to Ohio.  Bush had surprisingly carried the state in 2000.  Ohio is a traditional union state, which had long supported Democratic candidates.  Clinton had carried the Buckeye state in 1992 and 1996.  The Kerry campaign felt it could regain what the Democrats had lost.  Such was not the case, and Bush secured a second term, to the disquiet of the world.

Never in modern history had a President been so reviled abroad yet win re-election.  It was like the United States had entered into a new era of isolationism, resolute in its stand against Islamicism, which had come to replace the former Soviet Union as the number one menace in the world.  The Democrats seemed powerless in the face of the Bush White House, which felt it had won a mandate from the American people, winning the popular as well as electoral vote.

Ohio voters
The oddest thing is how so many traditional union labor states were now Republican, with Republican governors and Republican legislatures.  It was hard to pin down the reason for this shift in the electorate, as this had been the base of the Democratic Party for decades.  Jesse Ventura, a former wrestler and now Independent Party candidate had won the governorship of Minnesota in 1999 and made a brief run as a presidential candidate in 2004.  The same state that had given us Hubert Humphrey.

Electoral maps now broke down the national election by counties, and it became clear that the base of the Republican party was in the rural and suburban regions of the country.  If elections were decided by land area, Republicans would dominate Congress and the state legislatures throughout the country.  The only place where Democrats polled well were urban areas and a handful of traditional Northeast Democratic states.

Part of the reason for the huge electoral shift is the politicization of religion, especially among the evangelical sects.  For the most part these Protestant groups had thrown their support behind the Republican Party, as its candidates had made religious values prominent in their campaigns, often conflating these values with government.  Bush himself had held Bible readings in the White House, and often punctuated his speeches with Biblical references.

Mike Huckabee, a Republican minister, and also from Hope,
served as governor of Arkansas from 1996-2007,
and ran for President in 2008
What the Republicans proved very good at doing in the 2000 and 2004 elections was mobilizing this religious base, shrouding its supply-side economics and pernicious foreign policy in the cloak of Christian values.  This had been the strategy of Reagan, which led to sweeping electoral wins in 1980 and 1984, and carried Bush's father to victory in 1988.  As it turned out, the Clinton administration had been little more than a bump in the road.  The Republicans saw themselves commanding Congress and state legislatures for decades to come.

The Democrats tried to remain secular in their idea of government, holding to the rules and protocols of the Constitution.  However, Democrats could no longer rely on their traditional base of support without blurring the lines, and as a result the party shifted to the right in its attempts to regain votes it had lost in previous elections.

Democrats win 2006 midterms,
thrusting Nancy Pelosi into the spotlight
The war didn't turn out very well for George Bush and the Republicans, and the economy that had been surviving thanks to shock treatments by the Federal Reserve, seemed on its last legs by 2006, when the GOP took a massive hit in the midterms.  The Democrats had retaken Congress.   This was an amazing reversal of fortune!

Al Gore had finally shaved his beard but showed no interest in running for President.  John Kerry likewise took a pass, setting the stage for Hillary Clinton, who had risen to prominence in the Senate, after winning re-election in 2006.  There was also a dark horse, a young Barack Obama, who had only recently come into the Senate in 2004, but was quickly making a name for himself.


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