Hung Up in Washington

Tom Daschle
Tom Daschle; drawing by David Levine


As the nation heads toward the November elections, it is now equally divided between the parties just as it was in 2000, but there are some important differences. George W. Bush’s radical presidency has united the Democratic Party more closely than at any time since the end of World War II. True, Democrats solidly opposed Barry Goldwater, but not with the same animus. And Goldwater wasn’t an incumbent president. Bush in 2000 convinced many Americans, including most of the pundits, that he would govern moderately. (Those who had talked to leaders of the right knew differently.) In recent elections, environmentalists and those favoring abortion rights mainly supported the Democrats but perhaps as many as a third of them voted Republican. In 2004 such “swing voters” are more likely to turn out for the Democratic nominee—although that of course depends on who that person is.

Many people have learned—or should have learned—from the 2000 election that their votes can matter. The hijacking of Florida produced a lasting anger that will probably energize the Democratic “base,” those committed party members who are most likely to vote. (When Democratic candidates mention Florida, they unfailingly receive loud cheers and whistles.) If Ralph Nader chooses to run, that would of course complicate matters for the Democrats. But it seems doubtful that as many people will make the mistake of voting for him again in the belief that their vote doesn’t matter.

The pollster John Zogby, who first predicted that the 2000 election would be a tie, says that he now foresees that each of the two major parties’ candidates will get 45 percent of the vote in November, with the remaining 10 percent undecided. Zogby points out that while there was much talk of a Republican sweep of both houses of Congress in 2002, several of the Senate elections were actually quite close, and many voters made up their minds on election morning. The Republicans now control the Senate and the House by narrow margins. Congress, therefore, reflects the country at large: essentially evenly divided, and, like the base of each party, highly partisan and more than a little angry.

That, at least, is how things look now, early in 2004. But politics can change radically within even a few days. Sweeping theories are at best tenuous. In the late Sixties we were told about “The Emerging Republican Majority,” and more recently we’ve had “The Emerging Democratic Majority.” There is a certain refusal to accept that politics may depend on shifting factors and situations: the quality of the candidates, the impact of immediate events, and the atmosphere of the times. Would Richard Nixon have been elected in 1968 (thus setting off that emerging Republican majority and theories about “conservative realignment” in the US) if Lyndon Johnson had ended the Vietnam War by then, or even imposed a convincing bombing pause in time to help Hubert Humphrey? (As…

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