With the country still mired in recession and polls consistently showing that the Republicans’ positions on such basic policy issues as the environment and the economy are decidedly unpopular, this should have been the Democrats’ year.

In addition, the connection of top administration officials with scandal-plagued corporations provided ample opportunities for a populist message against corruption and in support of economic justice.

Despite this, the Democrats became the first party out of office to lose one of the houses of Congress in an off-year election. It was the first time in a century that a Republican president saw his party gain seats in an off-year election and only the second time since 1934 that a sitting president’s party did not lose seats in Congress.

Instead of emulating the hugely successful 1994 Republican strategy of aggressively challenging the incumbent president and his party’s congressional leadership, the Democrats instead decided to work on a consensus-building approach with the Republican administration.

Perhaps the biggest mistake was refusing to challenge the Bush administration’s foreign policy. Although most Americans support in general terms the use of military support to oust Saddam Hussein’s regime, most oppose an invasion without clear authorization of the UN Security Council or a broad coalition, which is highly unlikely. These polls also indicate support dropping dramatically in the event of high American casualties, highly probable in a ground assault on Baghdad.

Making a strong case against the Bush administration’s war plans, its support for repressive governments, and its assaults on well-respected international institutions would have almost certainly resulted in a galvanizing of the Democratic Party faithful as well as large numbers of independents, insuring a Democratic victory. Millions of Democrats have been alienated by the party leadership’s insistence on acceding to President George W. Bush’s demand that he be granted the authority to invade Iraq without the legally required mandate from the United Nations Security Council.

The Republican victory was not a mandate for war. Both incumbent Democratic senators and five out of the six Democratic House incumbents who were defeated supported the Iraq war resolution. By contrast, no incumbent who opposed the Democratic congressional leadership’s support of President Bush’s war plans lost, with the exception of Rep. James Maloney of Connecticut, who was pitted against a popular moderate female Republican incumbent in a redrawn district.

It is difficult to shift public attention to domestic issues in times of international tension. The Democratic leadership should have recognized that calls for prescription drug benefits for seniors while the nation is concerned about an illegal, unnecessary, and possibly devastating war simply did not catch the imagination of the voting public.

This was particularly problematic in that the Democrats were unable to explain how they intended to pay for such benefits while refusing to reverse the recently enacted tax cuts and in authorizing a military campaign that will cost up to $200 billion.

Already, Democratic Party activists concerned with peace and human rights issues are angered by their party leadership’s support for last spring’s attacks by Israel’s right-wing government against civilian areas of the occupied West Bank, which Amnesty International has labeled as war crimes. This rightward drift on human rights concerns by the Democratic leadership has gone as far as supporting legislation opposing the International Criminal Court, including authorizing the use of military force to free any citizen of the United States or an allied nation detained in The Hague for war crimes.

As a result, many thousands of rank-and-file Democrats, longtime supporters of peace and human rights issues, voted for the Green Party or simply did not vote. Turnout from traditionally Democratic constituencies was way down. Although only a small minority of Democrats view such issues as decisive, these activists play a disproportionately large role as volunteers and contributors to the party. Even among those who reluctantly voted for the Democratic nominee, many thousands did not put in the volunteer time or campaign contributions they would have otherwise, angered that the Democrats had shifted too far to the right.

One hopes the Democrats will learn the lesson for Tuesday’s devastating defeat and decide to replace their discredited leadership with those who have the integrity and political smarts to return the party to majority status.

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