An ashen Ken Mehlman, chairman of the Republican National Committee, appeared on the morning news shows on November 8 saying something that sounded bizarre - "We never saw it coming." The statement was echoed verbatim by President Bush. How could this be? A rising tsunami of voter discontent with Republicans had been polled, parsed and discussed in the media for months prior to the November 7 election. It seemed likely that every man, woman and child on the planet who was even marginally aware of the coming U.S. elections would have had a sense that big political changes could be in the wind. But on the day after the reckoning the insiders residing at the top of the Republican heap showed undeniable signs of shock.
Ken Mehlman and President Bush weren't the only insiders to be sandbagged by the voters' judgment. Karl Rove was on record arguing before the election that the polls showing a likely tide of Democratic victories in race after race across the country were meaningless. Again and again he insisted without qualification that it wasn't going to happen, that Republicans were not going to lose their Senate and House majorities.
Where did their delusional certainty come from? Karl Rove and Ken Mehlman have been surprisingly, even jaw-droppingly, candid about the logic behind the flawed judgment, and their reasoning highlights ominous cracks in the foundation of our democracy - and possibly in the future of the Democratic Party.
Both men were sure that the Republicans financial advantage in the majority of races put them beyond any real competition from Democrats. Although these two partisan gurus may have been blinded by bling into believing that anything, even a disastrous war, is fungible, no one can disregard the catastrophic potential of privately financed elections. Ned Lamont lost in Connecticut after corporations, AIPAC and other special interests flooded Lieberman's shameless, deceitful campaign with money for the specific purpose of thwarting the will of Democratic primary voters.
Rove and Mehlman were wrong this time in large part because the consummate arrogance and incompetence of the Bush administration put them in new territory, somewhere beyond a financial fix. Democrats cannot rely on continuing Bush-league hubris and bad judgment to maintain a presence in Washington, and becoming the party of big money doesn't seem to be in the cards. We all know the answer: strict public financing of elections. Democrats have to make it an absolute priority.
You may think that this one has already been lost in the Supreme Court on first amendment grounds, but I beg to differ. The three branches of government, executive, legislative and judicial, were founded as co-equals, meaning that the Supreme Court cannot override congressionally approved legislation signed by a president.
Democrats now control both houses of Congress and the next presidential election is only two years away. If a progressive Democrat is elected in 2008 (John Edwards might be a good choice), and Democrats maintain their current majorities in the House and Senate, we could conceivably have a public financing law that is beyond the reach of a right wing Supreme Court.
But there's other serious work on the table.
During the week before the election, Ken Mehlman carefully explained his cheerful outlook on the cataclysmic poll numbers to PBS News Hour's Jim Lehrer: Democrats couldn't win the House because Republicans had organized their districts more efficiently. National polls, he said, never considered the congressional district where the respondent lived and therefore could not accurately predict an upset in the balance of power.
The translation was numbing. Republican gerrymandering in state after state had sealed victory for them, Mehlman believed. The will of the majority was therefore as inconsequential to continuing Republican domination as it had been to its creation during recent presidential elections. Both Rove and Mehlman apparently believed that Republicans had achieved their goal and created a permanent Republican ruling party, and democracy be damned.
Gerrymandering, the legal equivalent of stuffing the ballot box, is the abuse of redistricting which is supposed to happen after every census to guarantee proportional representation of the U.S. population in Congress. Although gerrymandering has guaranteed political representation to minorities, it is used these days with a vengeance to concentrate, isolate and marginalize voters to keep them from interfering with a desired political outcome. With today's software, locating specific demographics down to the level of individual households and drawing boundaries around them can be done, and is being done, with breathtaking ease.
Although both political parties have benefited from gerrymandering, democracy can be neither restored nor maintained without eliminating the abuses.