San Diego Union Tribune

November 4, 2004

Democrats trying to deal with losses

By George E. Condon Jr.

WASHINGTON – President Bush and the Republicans are prepared to move aggressively to turn their strengthened grip on the White House, Congress and governorships into conservative policy initiatives, leaving a stunned Democratic Party to face a bleak and uncertain future.

While Republicans are celebrating, the Democrats have an electoral hangover and are trying to figure out how to slow what increasingly looks to be a GOP juggernaut more in touch with public sentiment and values.

"They're going to start ramming it home on us," Democratic strategist Jim Duffy said. "They're in control. . . . We just have to wait because sooner or later they will overreach, they'll get out of touch, they'll make mistakes and we'll be back."

But in the immediate wake of Bush's impressive, 3.5 million-vote victory, it is the Democrats who look out of touch with today's electorate in a map marked mostly Republican red by the television networks.

"I don't have any answers this time," said Don Fowler of South Carolina, who served as Democratic national chairman and helped rebuild the party after its landslide losses in 1994. "We do have a huge challenge and have to face up to it."

The pain for Democrats was worsened yesterday when both the White House and congressional leaders said they were given a mandate for a conservative agenda and that they are ready to move quickly to fulfill it.

Virginia Sen. George Allen, who oversaw the Republican gains in the Senate, talked gleefully of pushing through federal judges, an energy bill, drilling in Alaska and limits on litigation – all of which had been stymied by Democrats in the last Senate.

Democrats, whose leader in the Senate lost his seat Tuesday, fear they will be able to do little to reshape or block such measures. To them, the bigger problem is figuring out how to reorient a party that is becoming almost irrelevant to the politics of entire regions, starting with the South, cutting across the rural Midwest, down through the Southwest and reaching across the Mountain West.

"It's the culture, stupid," said Mark Rozell, a professor of public policy at George Mason University and an expert on religion and politics, playing off Bill Clinton's famed "It's the economy, stupid" mantra of 1992.

"White evangelical conservatives and churchgoing Catholics increasingly feel the Democratic Party is not for them," Rozell said. "They don't want the face of the Democratic Party to be Michael Moore. "There are large numbers of Southerners and people in middle America and white evangelicals who used to be strong Democrats who now consider the Democratic Party anathema."

Voter interviews throughout the campaign found that regular churchgoers more and more felt unwelcome in a party they view as overtly secular and almost scornful of the deeply religious.

"When I was a kid, it was a different world," Fowler said. "My uncle who taught me (in) Sunday school used to say that in good times Americans turned to the Republicans and the devil, and in bad times they turned to the Democrats and God. Well, that's not part of the culture anymore. It's not Democrats and God together anymore."

Pollster Frank Luntz said voters told him repeatedly that they had a clear image of the Democratic Party: "Liberal. That's the No. 1 thing people see. They see Democrats as wanting to spend money and raise taxes. That's it."

Matthew Dowd, a senior strategist for Bush's campaign, said the election has laid bare the Democratic Party's problems.

"The real question after Election Day is: Where do the Democrats go?" Dowd said. "Their entire organizing principle for four years hasn't been pro-anything. . . . It's been anti-the president."

He said there now is "a huge vacuum" because "they no longer have the president to organize around in relation to elections."

Luntz concurred, saying: "You cannot win unless you stand for something. You cannot win by just saying no. You have to say yes to something, and the Democrats have learned that the hard way from this election."

Al From, head of the centrist Democratic Leadership Council, is a veteran of helping the party pick up the pieces from big defeats. He said yesterday that he is ready to get back to work.

Agreeing with Luntz, From said the key to recovery will be ideas and policies.

"We really need to make a more compelling case," he said. "Ideas are very important."

From also said the party needs to be less regional and more national. "We can't constantly draw the wagons in closer," he said. "We have to take on the Republicans on turf they have won, and that includes the South."

One Democratic hope is that Bush succumbs to the overconfidence and arrogance that so often befall presidents in their second terms. A common failing is to misread what the voters said, claiming a large mandate in a re-election.

"He does have a mandate," Luntz said. "It is to bring people together, to heal the political wounds, to pursue the war on terror and to work with the Congress to get the economy rolling again."

If the White House believes the mandate is to ram through its agenda over Democratic objections, it will err, Luntz said.

"Voters want to see the president work with the Democrats," he said. "They want to see things get done."

Dowd indicated that Bush understands that. "The president, just like in the beginning of his first term . . . is going to try to reach across the aisle and come up with policies," he said, mentioning tax simplification, Social Security reform and the conduct of the war in Iraq.

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