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Democrats: No vision means no majority

By Amy Ridenour
web posted November 11, 2002

It is ironic. The Democrats lost their majority in the U.S. Senate because they haven't learned how to be a minority.

If that makes no sense to you, consider this: political parties that don't control the agenda -- as the Democrats, even before the election, did not -- rise or fall on the quality of the alternative they offer.

If a minority party proposes a strong, popular, easily-understood alternative vision to that offered by the party in power, the voters will be intrigued -- perhaps enough to make a dramatic switch.

If not, they simply won't.

Why change horses mid-ride if the second horse is no different?

It's not that the Democrats don't have differences with Republicans. They do. Nonetheless, in the recent elections the Democrats failed to show the voters a serious alternative agenda.

Instead, even on pivotal issues, the voters sensed hot air.

Majority Leader Tom Daschle (D-SD)

Take, for instance, the issue of prescription drugs. The GOP-led House approved a prescription drug benefit bill; the Democrat-led Senate did not. Majority Leader Tom Daschle (D-SD) wouldn't let them.

On generic drugs, the Democratic Senate did pass the Schumer-McCain legislation to restrict the ability of drug companies to protect their patents against generic drug manufacturers. The bill ostensibly would lower drug prices somewhat over the long haul, but it also ran the risk of reducing the drug companies' incentive to develop new drugs to combat cancer, Alzheimer's and other dreaded afflictions. The Democrats had no answer for the latter problem and in any case were vulnerable to charges that the generic drug companies had bought their support, as the most political donations made by generic drug companies went to Democrats. Therefore, Democrats never stressed the issue.

Campaign contributions also made it impossible for Democrats to do anything but ignore the increasing number of specious lawsuits by trial lawyers against drug manufacturers, and the damage they do. These lawsuits tend to raise drug costs and depress the development of new drugs with little benefit to anyone but the trial lawyers and the Democrats who receive 90 percent of the trial lawyers association's campaign contributions.

By their failure to set forth an aggressive agenda on any aspect of prescription drugs, Democrats rendered unnecessary any debate on the relative strengths of contrasting drug plans. This allowed Republican candidates to deflect Democratic criticism by casting the issue as "Republicans working; Democrats talking."

Little wonder, then, that for all the Democrats' talk that prescription drugs would be a pivotal issue, it brought them little traction on Election Day.

The Democrats also had high hopes for demonizing Republicans on Social Security. They swiftly attacked any Republican candidate who dared propose averting a Social Security financial crisis through partial privatization, running ads portraying Republicans as dangerous to the elderly. But Social Security's unsound finances are no secret. What is secret is what the Democrats plan to do about it -- if anything.

Even some voters who dislike the GOP plan must have noticed that the GOP was the only party that cared enough to propose one. This might in part be why three Republican Senate candidates closely associated with a frank discussion of Social Security -- Sununu in New Hampshire, Chambliss in Georgia and Dole in North Carolina -- won close races. Yet again, the Democrats had let the Republicans cast an issue as "Republicans working; Democrats talking."

The Democrats similarly were unable to exploit the poor economy. They've not been shy about criticizing Bush's supposed inattention to domestic matters, but where is the Democratic plan? There isn't one. The Democratic Senate has so far failed even to approve a budget for the U.S. government for the 2003 fiscal year -- which began last October 1. Whatever the merits of a case against Bush on the economy, he did at least propose a budget.

Minority parties must do two things to succeed: have an attractive agenda and communicate it well to the voters. The Republicans used this model in the years leading up to the pivotal 1994 elections to decisively end decades as a minority party.

The Republicans, in many respects, still think like the minority they used to be. They tend to have proposals on the major issues and they expend great effort communicating details about them. They act like they believe they need to prove themselves.

The Democrats, on the other hand, still have many of the bad habits they acquired during many years in the majority. They avoid policy debates with the Republicans, often treating their rivals not as equals but acting as if the GOP is unworthy of notice. Republican proposals often are labeled "extreme" or "right-wing," but leading Democrats rarely bother to explain to the public just what makes them so.

A minority party that doesn't present an attractive alternative to the status quo won't capture voter interest. If the Democratic Party wants to do better at the ballot box next time, it must develop a specific, appealing agenda -- and start sharing it with voters.

In other words, they'll need to show some leadership.

Amy Ridenour is president of The National Center for Public Policy Research, a non-partisan Capitol Hill think-tank. Readers may write her at 777 N. Capitol St. NE, Suite 803, Washington, DC 20002 or by e-mail at aridenour@nationalcenter.org.

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