President Bush says winning elections is refreshing. And losing them? Bitter medicine, indeed. Every political concession is a tale of humbling heartache. Over time, though, comes a "you-win-some-you-lose-some" equanimity that allows even the most disappointed to go onto the next campaign, the next candidate, the next cause. But after their dismal showing this year, congressional Democrats face a difficult future. In a painful replay of 2002, they didn't just lose some, they lost almost everything. "I just want to die," confessed one Democratic congressional aide, "or stay drunk for a long time." It's no wonder.
Not only did a Republican stay in the White House, but Republicans already holding the reins in Congresspicked up even more seats in both the House and the Senate. Translation: Democrats will have a mighty tough time doing anything let along fending off President Bush's legislative agenda.
"When you win, there is a. . .feeling that the people have spoken and embraced your point of view. And that's what I intend to tell the Congress," Bush said in declaring victory. "I earned capital in the campaign, political capital, and now I intend to spend it."
While the president eagerly plans his spending spree, the desultory opposition has been left soul-searching in the bargain basment: "We Democrats better think long and hard about. . .how our party is going to connect with the hopes and aspirations of people," said Democratic Sen. Christopher Dodd of Connecticut after watching his party lose four Senate seats, including that of its leader Tom Daschle. The gains give the GOP a 55-44 advantage in the Senate, with one independent. The news was at least as bad for Democrats in the 435-seat House. Republicans, who went into the election with a 227-205 edge, emerged with 231 seats; the margin could widen, depending on the outcome of two Louisiana runoff races next month.
Democrats privately acknowledge that they were repeatedly outmanuvered by the GOP on everything from prescription drugs to education reform. That made it all the more galling when four incumbent Senate Democrats from Texas lost after Senate Majority leader Tom DeLay masterminded a controversial plan to recast their districts into GOP-filled pockets. "Obviously, the DeLay strategy worked," sighed House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi. Among the Texas losers: Reps Martin Frost and Charles Stenholm, both 25-year-veterans of the House.
There were some isolated bright spots for Democrats. Most notably: wins by rising political star Barack Obama who picked up an open Senate seat in Illinois, and political newcomer Melissa Bean, who toppled veteran Illinois Republican conservative Rep. Phil Crane.
Why? So, what happened? Ask Republicans and they'll say the voters made clear they prefer the Republican platform. Ask the Dems and they'll say the GOP manipulated the country, successfully diverting voters' attention from real issues like jobs and education to moral issues like gay marriage. "They exploited the loveliness of the American people, the devoutness of people of faith for political end," fumes Pelosi.
In the end, though, all that matters is that the Republicansat least this time are the big winners. And the only thing left to do, says Rep. Bob Matsui, is go on to the next campaign, the next candidate, the next cause. "Obviously, we look to 2006," says Matsui, co-chair of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. "We are going to be out there recruiting candidates. We are going to be out there raising money. . ." Yesbut so are the Republicans.