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National security: The real reason behind the Democrats' defeat

By Daniel G. Jennings
web posted November 25, 2002

Now that the dust is settling from the historic Democratic rout in the 2002 midterm elections, people are asking how could the Democrats have suffered this unprecedented defeat. (After all, this is only the fourth time since the Civil War that the presidential party gained in a midterm election)

The reason for the Democratic failure is an obvious one: It's national security, stupid! In the post-September 11th world, national security and foreign policy issues are more important to voters than domestic issues.

The Republicans were able to win because the public saw them and, especially President Bush, as being strong on national security issues and viewed the Democrats to be weak on them. This state of affairs came about because many Democrats were seen as putting partisan politics ahead of national security. They tried to appease the peace movement and the far left by voting against Bush's efforts to get rid of Saddam Hussein. They voted against plans for a Department of Homeland Security to appease unions and sided with the flag-burning, America-hating peace movement at a time when patriotism was running high.

At the same time, President Bush made the smart move of campaigning on behalf of Republicans across the country, turning the election into a referendum on his presidency and, by inference, the war on terror. Voters were told that a vote for the GOP was a vote for the flag and strong support
of the war and they made their choice.

The Democrats made the mistake of thinking that Americans had forgotten about the danger of terrorism and the war against it. They tried to run on domestic issues while pursuing a peace agenda that came straight out of 1968.

Average Americans scared to death of bin Laden, Saddam Hussein and other terrorists would have nothing of this. Some Democrats like Dick Gephardt saw this and got in step behind the president but too many of the party's leaders forgot about the danger of terrorism. Many liberals and moderate leftists who would have normally voted Democrat probably pushed the button or the screen for the GOP this election season because of their fear of terror.

What this means is that for the first time since World War II foreign policy issues were more important in an American Congressional election than domestic issues. It's a new political paradigm in a new political world. With the September 11th horror strong in recent memory, Americans are more interested in having a president who will take strong action against our enemies abroad than one who will deliver prescription drug benefits or ensure the future of social security.

Republicans seem to have realized this but Democrats haven't. The Democrats tried to run a 1990s style campaign focusing on domestic issues and giving concessions to the far left. The Republicans ran a campaign for the year 2002, waving the flag and emphasizing their President's strong stand on defense and national security. They also took advantage of the fact that the leaders taking a strong stand against terror in 2001 were Republicans, Rudy Giuliani and George W. Bush.

If the Republicans made a mistake in 2002, it was not being aggressive enough on the national security issue. Not going into Democratic strongholds and challenging Democratic doves like Colorado's Mark Udall and Diana DeGette by running attack ads pointing out their opposition to President Bush's foreign and national security policies and then sending in major national Republicans like Bush and Giuliani to campaign for local Republicans. If they had, at least a few of these left wingers would have been defeated and the Republican majority in the House would have been larger.

How will this concern about national security affect future elections?

That's hard to say. If the terrorist attacks against America continue and more third world dictators try to develop weapons of mass destruction, the public will continue to side with the Republican hawks against the Democratic doves. If we win the terror war, if Al Qaeda and it's allies are eradicated and Saddam and company are removed, then it may go back to politics as usual.

If the terror war continues, then the Republicans will continue to win big.

The major change will be that the Democrats in 2004 will probably ignore the peace movement and become super hawks. We'll probably see ex-hippies criticizing President Bush for not being tough enough on terror and for not taking sufficient military action. The Democratic presidential nominee in 2004 will probably stress his or her willingness to take military action and to use law enforcement against terrorists at home.

The best thing to say about the 2002 midterm election is this: It's a new world, folks. The voters have new concerns and the old ways don't work anymore. National security is now the most important issue in American elections and will be for the foreseeable future. The question is: Can the politicians and campaign managers on both sides of the aisle see this or not?

Daniel G. Jennings is a freelance writer and journalist who lives and works in Denver, CO. He has worked as a reporter and editor for daily and weekly newspapers in five states.

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