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Wednesday, 6 November, 2002, 13:49 GMT
What next for the Democrats?
Al Gore and Joseph Lieberman
Al Gore wants another chance after his 2000 defeat


The narrow Republican victory has already triggered a fundamental debate among Democrats about their future electoral strategy.

Although the margins are small, the fact that the Republicans were able to increase their majority in the House - and win the Senate - is highly unusual in American politics.

trader
The weak economy did not help the Democrats
Usually, dissatisfaction with the party in the White House leads to gains for the opposition party.

But this year, President Bush was unusually popular - mainly because of 11 September - and he persuaded many voters to rally round his party by his aggressive stumping on the campaign trail.

But the Democrat's problems go beyond the difficulty they will now face in 2004 when President Bush stands for re-election.

Fundamental rethink

They also may need to reconsider their fundamental strategy, brilliantly implemented by former President Clinton, of shifting towards the centre, and embracing business.

In 2002 this strategy made the Democrats indistinguishable from their Republican rivals.

Now, some Democrats, most notably the losing candidate in the 2000 Presidential election, Al Gore, have urged the Democrats to take a stand - against the extension of the war on terror to Iraq, and against the excesses of corporate America.

US troops
The war could boost Bush's popularity
This was the opposite strategy to that pursued by the Democratic leadership in Congress in the mid-term campaign.

Senator Tom Daschle, reluctantly, and House leader Dick Gephardt (aggressively), supported President Bush's Iraq war resolution.

The Iraq war

Mr Gephardt is likely to resign shortly to pursue his presidential ambitions, leaving the Democratic house leadership to the more radical Nancy Pelosi, a San Francisco Congresswoman.

But if the Democrats take a more left-wing position, will they alienate the middle ground?

Should they consolidate their base among strong Democratic voters by opposing the war in Iraq, tax cuts, and corporate malfeasance?

Or should they redouble their efforts to reach out to the middle ground, and try to win back support among the rural conservative voters in the South and West who have deserted them?

The danger for the Democrats could be that not only the voters, but some senators and congressmen from these areas, will switch parties to the Republicans to try to ensure their re-election.

The other Democratic Senator for Georgi, Zell Miller, a is believed to be considering a switch, as is John Breaux, the moderate Democrat from Louisiana.

The ghost of Al Gore

The answer to that question depends on how the Democrats interpret the message of the 2000 Presidential election.

The losing candidate, former Vice President Al Gore, had long been a "new Democrat" proud of his record of reforming government.

His decision to move left and take a more populist position during the Presidential campaign - attacking companies over environmental legislation, for example - led to a sharp rise in his popular support in the last few days of the election.

Enron
Democrats failed to capitalise on corporate scandals
But it may also have lead him to lose several small, but as it turned out key states, such as West Virginia, whose economy depends on the strip mining of coal, whatever the environmental cost.

The Democrats notably failed to capitalise on the huge raft of embarrassing corporate scandals in the 2002 election, partly because they were seen as too close to business as well.

And neither were they able to make much headway in blaming the Republicans for the weakness in the economy, just as Mr Gore was unable to capitalise on the huge Clinton economic boom.

It may be that the electorate - or at least that part of it that votes - genuinely believes that any solution which involves the government has to fail, and that the economy functions best with the least interference.

If so, and if prosperity returns, it will hard to counter the Republican's lead.

However, Mr Gore is determined to try, and his recent speeches indicate that he is gearing up to run for President in 2004 on the same populist platform.

If Mr Gore wants the nomination, he can probably have it.

Other than Mr Gephardt, few Democrats fancy tackling Mr Bush after his presumed war victory in Iraq.

Mr Gore's running mate in the 2000 election, Senator Joseph Lieberman of Connecticut, might be one - but he has ruled out a bid if Mr Gore stands.

Low turnout

The problem for the populist strategy is that few Americans bother to vote - particularly among the poor, who might support such a strategy.

The demoralised Democrats will have to make much greater efforts to mobilise their core supporters among blue collar workers and minority groups if this strategy is to succeed.

But if this election demonstrated anything, it was that disillusion with the political system is rife - and few parties can mobilise anyone other than their partisan supporters.

The 9/11 effect

The key problem for the Democrats, however, is the renewed popularity of President Bush following the terrorist attacks on 11 September.

There has been a natural tendency for the country - especially the more patriotic parts in the South and West - to rally round the commander in chief as he pursues terrorists across the world.

Mr Bush showed he did have coat-tails in the mid-term elections, swinging key Senate seats his way by playing the patriotic card.

Mr Gore is determined to challenge Mr Bush on his approach to the Iraq war as well, with a brave speech made in the middle of the campaign.

Few Democrats were so brave - the only Democratic candidate standing for office who opposed the Iraq war resolution was Minnesota Senator Paul Wellstone, who was killed in a plane crash two weeks before the poll.

The defeat of his replacement, veteran former Senator Walter Mondale, in Minnesota is a sign of how difficult it will be for the Democrats to challenge the President on the war.

'Vietnam syndrome'

Mr Bush is determined in foreign policy terms to erase the "Vietnam syndrome" - the fear of policy makers that an aggressive assertion of American power overseas could trigger a domestic political reaction that could drive them from office.

Unless Mr Bush mismanages the war - or the peace - his strategy may succeed in isolating the Democrats as the unpatriotic party.

Mr Bush's task is made easier by the peculiar electoral geography of America.

The small, rural states - key sources of Bush support on the patriotic issues - have disproportionate weight, both in the Senate and the electoral college that elects the President.

That was why Bush was able to win in 2000 without a majority of the votes cast, and it should ensure his control of Congress for some time to come.


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