Liberal elites in Washington, New York and L.A. will be eager to cast Democratic gains as vindication of blue-state sanity over red-state religious radicalism. They will proclaim a new mandate for everything from fast withdrawal from Iraq to embryonic stem cell research to gay marriage. Ironically, the only way Democrats can actually win is by sounding an awful lot like President Bush. But the truth is that if they take back the Congress, they will have exhausted their mandate simply by being "not Bush."
Nancy Pelosi, Rep. John Murtha, Sen. John Kerry et al — back a rapid pullout, a Washington Post survey of the 59 most competitive races in August found that a majority of Democratic congressional and senatorial candidates sided with the president and opposed the "get out now" wing of the party.
Sen. Joe Lieberman of Connecticut is the most glaring example of this dynamic. The fire-breathing purists succeeded in denying the pro-war Democrat his party's nomination. But now that Lieberman is running as an independent, Ned Lamont, the Democratic nominee, is bound for a drubbing and Lieberman's "Joementum" might even have Republican coattails.
Even many Democrats running against the war are not your typical McGovernites. Tammy Duckworth's congressional campaign in Illinois is based almost entirely on her service in the Iraq war (in which she lost both legs). On virtually every other issue, however, she tries not to say anything that sounds too liberal. In Virginia, Senate candidate James Webb — who sounds like a Republican on affirmative action — is so atypical that his opponent, GOP incumbent George Allen, is running as the more "pro-woman" candidate, thanks to Webb's salty past comments on women in the military. Similarly, Pennsylvania Democratic state Treasurer Robert Casey Jr. offers little more than inarticulate fog on most issues, but his reputation (mostly inherited from his former governor father) as a social conservative and pro-lifer has him in the lead. In North Carolina, former Redskins quarterback Heath Shuler is running as a Democrat and an antiabortion, pro-gun member of the National Rifle Assn.
In this election, it appears the Dems no longer consider abortion a litmus test. In Colorado, gubernatorial candidate Bill Ritter isn't quite pro-life, but he refuses to say he's pro-choice. Missouri's state treasurer, Claire McCaskill, raises money for her Senate bid against GOP incumbent Jim Talent by touting her support for embryonic stem cell research in New York City, but she mumbles about it when on the stump back home.
Defenders of the Democrats, such as the Washington Post's E.J. Dionne, argue that this is all proof that the Democrats have a big tent and are a centrist party. Of course liberals immediately abandon this logic when discussing Republican moderates; they insist that a vote for a moderate simply empowers the radicals in the GOP. Well, that's the Republicans' point. The only way for them to fend off the Democratic tsunami is to persuade their base that a Democratic victory would give Pelosi and her allies free rein to raise taxes on everyone but married gay couples, antiwar protesters and illegal immigrants.
Also, the idea that the Democratic Party is a big-tent party is belied by the fact that swing voters aren't voting for the Democrats, they're voting against the Republicans. A Washington Post-ABC News poll found that only 22% of independents who were planning to vote Democratic were "very enthusiastic" about that choice.
There's a silver lining here for conservatives — though you can be sure it will go entirely unnoticed amid the din of champagne corks popping at the editorial offices of the New York Times. A Democratic victory would be a victory for liberals, but it wouldn't represent a mandate for liberalism. That's a lesson a Speaker Pelosi may learn soon enough.