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As Long as We Remember...

May 14, 2009

All Democrats Have to Fear is Themselves

Tony Soltero

We currently stand at what could be a watershed moment in America's political history. As has been well documented, the Republican Party is in serious disrepair nationally. It has essentially been reduced to a regional Southern party, with a few scattered pockets of influence in the Midwest and West. It's become all but extinct in the Northeast, and its reach is shrinking rapidly on the West Coast.


The reasons for the GOP's dramatic fall from grace are manifold. They include an over reliance on playing to race-based fears in white voters, which wound up alienating just about every minority group in the country. There's also the party's long-standing courtship of Christian fundamentalists, which has led it to a philosophy of ideological rigidity and intolerance – and that's an epic failure with younger voters.


But more than anything, what has most hurt the Republicans is that for the first six years of the 21st century, they had complete control of the federal government and free rein to do what they pleased – and their leaders had no credible excuses when their policies wound up plunging the nation into an ill-conceived, costly war and the brink of economic collapse.


Oh, and Terri Schiavo and Hurricane Katrina didn't help, either.


Recent polls show that only about 20% of Americans identify as Republicans these days. A recent Rasmussen poll revealed that the Republican Party is viewed favorably by 31% of the nation.


To put that in perspective, the same poll had legalizing marijuana as favored by 41% of the public, and privatizing Social Security at 36%. Even current right-wing bogeyman, Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, polls in the 30's in America – which means that the Republicans are held in lower regard than self-promoting foreign blowhards. When you're busy demonizing a guy who's actually more popular than you are, you've fallen pretty hard.


Meanwhile, the Republicans continue to chase away anybody who strays so much as one degree from accepted right-wing political orthodoxy, to the point where a hardcore conservative like Arlen Specter – a man who voted for every Bush tax cut; a man who wildly cheered the war in Iraq; a man who heartily endorses torture; and a man who opposes health-care reform and labor empowerment – is somehow now considered "too moderate" for the GOP. Oh-kay.


So, certainly this bodes well for the Democrats, right? Are we about to see 50 years of Democratic dominance, like we did for a few decades after FDR cleaned up Herbert Hoover's messes?


Well, maybe. But the Democrats certainly aren't acting like they want to seize this opportunity.


The American people voted for change last fall, in the person of Barack Obama. Despite the media's desperate attempts to describe ours as a "center-right" country, the reality is that a perfectly adequate center-right candidate named John McCain was available to the voters, who proceeded to reject him in favor of the "socialist."


The message was loud and clear: Americans want action. Americans want meaningful health-care reform. Americans want banking reform. Americans want a lid put on job-killing free-trade agreements with third-world nations. Americans want to be able to afford higher education again.


President Obama heard the message, and he's doing what he can to make it happen (though he could stand to listen to a few better economists when it comes to banking).


But the Democrats in Congress, and especially in the Senate, have been far too timid. Maryland’s own senators, Barbara Mikulski and Ben Cardin, are fully on board with the president's platform. But many other Democrats are dithering around, wringing their hands, and listening to far too many lobbyists – or worrying about a raised eyebrow from beltway media hacks.


A couple of nominally Democrat senators have weighed in against offering a public option for national health-care reform. One of them had the temerity to state that he couldn't support it because it might prove too popular. Could a greater disconnect between an elected official and his constituents even be invented?


So these Blue Dogs, for whom the most important thing in the world is approval from their Republican betters, stall and obstruct. They water down President Obama initiatives to the point they lose their effect. They do everything possible to avoid carrying out what the public voted for last November, by bitterly clinging to misguided fetishes about "bipartisanship" as an excuse for inaction. Hey, it gets them featured on Fox News.


And in doing so, these Blue Dog Democrats are undermining what could be a golden future for the party. When the next election rolls around, the public is going to have one thing on its mind – did we get the change we voted for? Did our lives improve? Is the government responding to our needs? Have Democrats proven to be better than Republicans in this department?


If the answer is "Yes", then having a "D" by one's name will be an easy ticket to re-election by any candidate. But if the answer is "No," the Democrats' moment on the Hill will pass quietly and ignominiously.


Don't think the Republicans don't understand this. When Bill Clinton attempted health-care reform 15 years ago, Republican intellectual Bill Kristol circulated a famous memo urging his party to oppose the legislation at all costs – because its passage would ensure a Democratic lock on the government for years to come. The Republicans opposed, the Democrats rolled over, and Newt Gingrich became a household name.


If the Democrats learn from that experience and stop worrying so much about getting tut-tutted by the likes of David Broder on the "bipartisanship" chimera, then they'll be in power for many years to come.


Hanging curveballs over the plate don't come along very often. If the Democrats whiff on this one, all bets are off for 2010.


Only the Democrats can beat the Democrats next year.


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