Playing into Bush’s Hands
I’ve stopped giving money to the Democratic Party. I don’t know whether the proper metaphor is lemmings or a suicide pact. Yet Democrats seem hell bent on squandering the chance that the Bush Administration’s overreaching, incompetence, cronyism, and corruption have given them.
The central political mistake of the Bush Administration should be obvious to everyone by now. It certainly wasn’t lack of ideas. The Bushies conceived or rapidly co-opted almost every new idea in national discourse since 2000, including energy independence. Their execution has not been stellar, but that doesn’t mean that all of their big ideas are bad ones.
The Administration’s biggest mistake was trying to govern from the fringe. President Bush, who was first “elected” by the Supreme Court and then re-elected by a 3% majority, governs as if he won a landslide. He speaks and often acts as if the vast majority of Americans wants Roe v. Wade overturned, religion (meaning Christianity) back in the schools, and all economic ills cured with lower taxes and a big dose of laissez faire capitalism. That’s not true and never will be, yet Bush and his political machine soldier on.
The Bush strategy has set us all back and damaged our nation. The people are deeply divided, and Congress is dysfunctional. Petty partisan bickering and cheap shots have become habits, replacing civility and problem solving in our nation’s capital. A few Republicans are starting to see damage even to the President’s own party, if not in the short term then in the foreseeable future.
So what are the Democrats doing? Monkey see, monkey do. If the President won by “energizing his base” and moving to the fringe, they think, then we’ll do it too. We’ll play to our own base. We’ll play the childish penis-matching game: “my base is bigger than your base. ”
There are three problems with that strategy. First, the traditional Democratic base has dissipated. Democrats now have a minority party. The ideas of Franklin Roosevelt and Jack Kennedy have worked their magic, but the magic is spent. It’s time to give the old ideas a joyous Irish wake---or a New Orleans jazz funeral---and move on. Soaking the rich, bashing corporations, and subsidizing the poor just won’t cut it in the twenty-first century.
Second, competence never trumps vision. Michael Dukakis and John Kerry proved that you can’t win a presidential election, let alone Congress, without vision. Do the Democrats want to roll that same boulder up the hill a third time?
Third and most important, no one will ever beat Bush and his team at their own game. He and Karl Rove are political geniuses. When it comes to cobbling together a bare majority on “cultural” issues and national security, making people forget all about credibility, competence, and corruption, they are the best there is. No one in the Democratic party even comes close.
The nominations of Justices Roberts and Alito are a prime example. They are probably two of the best qualified people ever to be appointed to the Supreme Court. They may lean right, but probably not much more than anyone should expect from a self-described conservative president. Yet the Bush team subtly “sold” them to the American people (although not to the Senate!) as right-wing ideologues who would bring the most extreme conservative daydreams to reality.
What a brilliant political ploy that was! The right-wing fringe---Bush’s base---stood up and cheered. The Democrats made fools of themselves by pandering to their own fringe and opposing superbly qualified candidates. And the growing center took note, seeing the Democrats as ideological obstructionists, malcontents, and complainers heedless of the nation’s long-term best interest. It was one of the cleverest sucker punches in American political history---so clever that most Democrats still don't recognize it as such.
With political skill like that on the Bush team, the Democrats have no chance to win but on substance. John McCain showed the way with his anti-torture amendment. God knows McCain could never beat the Bush team on politics alone; the 2000 Republican primary proved that. But he won on substance, despite strong opposition inside the Administration. He had a good idea; he pressed it with relentless sincerity; and he prevailed. If the Democrats want to stop losing, they are going to have to find good, simple ideas like that and credible messengers like John McCain, lots of them.
I’m very happy that Howard Dean has finally learned media skills. On a television interview recently with Chris Matthews about Iraq policy, he showed Matthews up as the frivolous gossip monger and intellectual gnat that he is. Matthews tried to get Dean to talk about Cindy Sheehan, the war protester at the Bush Ranch, but Dean stayed on message and spoke with the gravitas and sobriety appropriate for a major party leader. It was an impressive performance, a far cry from Dean's famous primal scream, and a small victory in a largely losing political war.
But learning video skills and pandering to the fringe will not get Democrats elected. The Bushies are unequalled at political gamesmanship. Even if you dislike their policies or their execution, you have to admire their consummate political skill. Democrats will never win by trying to “out-politick” the Bush machine.
There is only one thing in the Democrats’ favor. Running the world’s most powerful nation at a time of awesome religious, political, economic and social change---not to mention possible climate change---is not a football game. It’s a deadly serious business.
There are signs that the American people are slowly waking up to that fact. They’re beginning to see how little the Bush Administration has accomplished besides keeping the economy from stalling and starting a war that may run for a generation. They’re beginning to see that the list of unsolved problems is far longer than the list of problems solved and growing longer every day. They want real solutions, not just rhetoric, for problems like winning the war in Iraq, accommodating globalization, reducing the deficit, rationalizing our social security and the tax systems, educating our children so they can compete with China’s and India’s, and reconfiguring our nation’s coastal infrastructure for what looks like a coming succession of nasty hurricane seasons. There are signs they are fed up with the sort of petty partisan bickering that political gamesmanship inevitably engenders.
Democrats’ main chance depends on that awakening. They had better have some good, new ideas and credible messengers ready when it comes.