On Monday, Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle presented the new chair and vice chair of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, Sens. Jon Corzine of New Jersey and Debbie Stabenow of Michigan. A reporter asked whether Democrats would “get behind one [economic] plan fairly soon.” Daschle replied,
It’s always been the case that there is diversity within our caucus. And I view that as always a strength, not a weakness. I think diversity gives us even more opportunity to consider options. … Our expectation is that we’re going to be very much together on a plan.
Stabenow gave a different answer:
During the tax debate last year it was the Democrats, the Democrats in the Senate that brought forward the $300 that ended up directly in people’s pockets, which may be for most people the only tax cut that they get over the next 10 years under this plan. We have a philosophy and a plan that’s consistent, and that is that you have to have a demand side to economics and that by putting money directly in working people’s pockets, family farmers, small businesses, that you drive the economy. … I’m proud to represent the automakers. The automakers know that this is about having people who can afford to buy their cars. That’s who we are standing up for.
If you want to understand why Democrats lost the Senate in 2002, those two quotes sum it up. It’s hard for a Senate leader, particularly one with a bare majority, to dictate a clear message the way a president can. Maybe Daschle could have done it; maybe not. Either way, he didn’t. He settled for a tossed salad of messages about fiscal responsibility, fairness, Social Security, prescription drugs, multilateralism—wait, what was that first message again? You see the problem. The salad had no theme.
Stabenow’s message has a theme. Maybe it’s the message Democrats should have delivered. Or maybe they should have emphasized fiscal responsibility. Or maybe they should have emphasized health care. In any event, the key word isn’t demand or responsibility or health. It’s “or”—as opposed to “and.” A potent message is singular. It can cover many subjects, but it has to cohere.
Stabenow’s answer gives her party credit for the only tax rebates voters have received lately. It warns them that Bush may give them no more. It draws an understandable connection between government spending and economic growth. It makes the liberal conception of fairness look essential rather than hostile to free enterprise. It does commit Democrats to tax cuts, presumably at the price of bigger deficits. But that’s the price of politics. To campaign, as to govern, is to choose.