Twenty years ago Daniel P. Moynihan observed that the Republican Party had become the party of ideas. Moynihan found his own Democratic Party, for decades the font of great new political ideas, to be intellectually spent. The message of the 2002 election is that the Democrats remain brain-dead, and that ideas -- lack of ideas -- have consequences.
The conventional wisdom is that the Democrats were defeated because they had no message. This is true. But it makes it sound like a question of political technique. The reason Democrats have no message is that they have no ideas. When prescription drugs is your poster issue, you know you're in trouble (particularly when Republicans have accepted a prescription drug benefit in principle and the argument is about how best to administer it).
The trouble is that the Democrats created a great and successful revolution with the New Deal, tried to advance it with the Great Society, and when that failed, they gave up thinking.
Take welfare reform, forced upon a Democratic president in 1996 by the Republicans. Its subsequent success is an affront to every Democratic assumption about poverty and social policy. The Democrats tried to explain away the decline in welfare rolls as a byproduct of the economic boom of the late '90s. Yet now that the bubble has burst and the economy has tanked, welfare rolls continue to decrease -- and the poverty rate for black children is at the lowest level in American history.
On foreign policy, the Democrats are equally bereft. For the past 30 years, ever since the party split over Vietnam, it has been the party of negotiation and accommodation. During the Cold War, that was arguably plausible. Today it is not. When it comes to al Qaeda and terrorism, to Iraq and North Korea, no accommodation or negotiation is possible.
Which is why in this election the Democrats took a total pass on foreign policy. Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle endorsed the president's Iraq policy with transparent insincerity. It was a way to get the distraction of war off the table, Daschle explained, and get back to the "real issues." Like prescription drugs.
The prescription drug benefit passes for an innovation. The rest of the Democratic platform centers on New Deal/Great Society perennials: Medicare, Social Security and "choice" (abortion, not school). That's it -- the very definition of reactionary liberalism.
Looking backward has become the party motif. What was Terry McAuliffe's central objective in this election? Re-fighting Florida. Reclaiming the stolen election of 2000. Planting the Democratic flag at the scene of the crime. McAuliffe declared the defeat of Jeb Bush the most important race in the country. He poured in money, sent in Clinton and deployed thousands of lawyers across the country to redo the Florida recount anywhere and everywhere.
Alas, the lawyers are idle. Jeb won by 13 points. Indeed, most Republican victories in the reputed tossup states were decisive. Elizabeth Dole won what was supposed to be a close race by 9 percentage points. Saxby Chambliss beat Max Cleland in Georgia by 7 points. Even the endangered Wayne Allard of Colorado won by 6 points.
The Republicans won on the coattails of George W. Bush. The snobs of the Upper West Side disdain the "boy king," but the American people respect him because, unlike his opponents, he takes principled positions and takes risks. He risked political capital in campaigning for his party in difficult races. And he has taken huge political risks both in the war in Afghanistan (which in retrospect seems a cakewalk but at the time seemed extraordinarily risky and dangerous) and in his tough policy on Iraq.
He has the highest sustained approval rating ever measured because people recognize in him the political quality that after Sept. 11, 2001, has become prized above all: leadership.
Democrats would like to explain away Bush's popularity by saying he was the accidental beneficiary of Sept. 11. He was. Disasters do give a president a blip of support -- John Kennedy even got a boost from the Bay of Pigs fiasco -- but it quickly dissipates.
Bush's popularity has not. Bush didn't win this election because of "Message: I care" but because of "Message: I lead." We do not daily feel the presence of Sept. 11. But it is with us. It shaped this election. Status quo leaders, who cagily game the political odds even on war and peace, find themselves deserted. In the post-9/11 world, equivocation and dissimulation don't work. Political courage does.