What Elections "Mean"
November 7, 2002

by Joe Sobran

     Are the pundits reading too much into Tuesday's 
elections? Those pundits have a dubious habit of 
interpreting election results as if they were virtually 
unanimous utterances of vox populi, oracular 
pronouncements of The American People.

     To be sure, the Republicans won a very impressive 
victory for the party in the White House in an off-year. 
They actually gained seats in both houses of Congress, in 
defiance of the historical pattern.

     But they didn't win the sort of transforming 
landslide that changes the character of politics for a 
generation. They won a lot of fairly close races because 
they managed to get their voters to the polls, while the 
Democrats didn't. That may be all it means. It could 
easily be reversed in 2004, especially if the momentary 
GOP hegemony in Washington leads to military disaster or 
economic collapse.

     The last three Democratic presidents -- Lyndon 
Johnson, Jimmy Carter, and Bill Clinton -- started off 
with Democratic control of Congress too, but all three 
quickly misplayed their advantages. Power is a perilous 
thing to possess.

     The Republicans ran a very smart national campaign, 
but they had lots of help from their opponents. The 
Democrats had no theme. While the Republicans were 
unequivocally for "war on terrorism," the Democrats were 
ambiguous, appealing neither to pro-war nor to anti-war 
voters. Like the Republicans in the 1930s, they hoped the 
electorate would share their partisan hatred of a popular 
president. It was an attitude, not a strategy, and it 

     The Democrats' fierce but empty partisanship 
resulted in a series of unedifying spectacles. In New 
Jersey, they managed, in spite of the law, to switch 
Senate candidates when the shady incumbent dropped out of 
the race for no better reason than that he was losing. In 
Minnesota, the incumbent died in a plane crash days 
before the election, and a "memorial" service in his 
honor turned into an ugly anti-Republican hate rally at 
which the "mourners" actually booed Republicans who had 
come to pay their respects. And the Clintons, symbols of 
corruption to everyone but hard-core Democrats, 
campaigned for Democratic candidates from coast to coast.

     If the Democrats were trying to bring angry 
Republicans to the polls, they succeeded magnificently. 
Having done their best to lower the tone of the campaign, 
they are now bitterly blaming each other for their 
defeat. These recriminations, fully in character, 
reinforce the impression they have been assiduously 
creating, that they are a party of malcontents.

     But they are wrangling about something serious: 
Which way should the party go? The die-hards want it to 
keep moving in its traditional path, which is leftward. 
The moderates see that incremental socialism no longer 
sells and that voters have had enough tax increases, 
thanks anyway. Each faction sees the other as futile. The 
die-hard leftists charge the moderates with watering down 
principle in a vain attempt to ape the Republicans; the 
moderates see the leftists as living in the past. Both 
sides have a point.

     This split explains why the Democrats weren't able 
to unite on a campaign message, and probably won't unite 
on one in the near future. The Republicans can at least 
offer an optimistic conservative rhetoric to continue 
building their electoral support. This soft "right-wing" 
approach enrages the Democrats (and the media from whom 
they take their guidance), but it works politically.

     Still, neither party as a whole really stands for 
anything much, and a vote for either is no more than a 
vague gesture of approval (or discontent, as the case may 
be). Voting is like trying to say something with a gag in 
your mouth, and a million votes don't add up to any 
particular meaning beyond an inarticulate preference for 
one of two available but unsatisfactory alternatives.

     Even a lopsided outcome shouldn't be construed as a 
hearty endorsement of the victor, only a widespread 
agreement on the (perceived) lesser evil. And as Lyndon 
Johnson learned, people can change their minds about the 
lesser evil pretty rapidly.

     We do have provisions for those eccentric people who 
insist on voting for what they really want. These are 
called "third parties," a synonym for automatic losers. 
Their supporters have the consolation of knowing that 
their votes do mean something fairly definite and that 
they are saving money on balloons.


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