The party of tired blood badly needs a "regime change" of its own. For the
greater good of the Democrats, Gephardt and Daschle should go. Win or lose, a
graceful postelection exit would liberate both to pursue their presidential dreams
while someone with more backbone manages the opposition politics. This outcome
is easier to imagine if Democrats lose the Senate and again fail to achieve a
House majority (colleagues expect as much in that case from Gephardt). But new
faces would be even more therapeutic if the party wins control of both chambers.
The Senate majority leader and House minority leader have steered Democrats with
a stale strategy of risk avoidance and incumbent protection--instead of trying
to shake the party out of its self-absorbed complacency. Their leadership has
been slow-footed and confused but, above all, blind to new realities. Neither
man seems large-minded enough to grasp the country's changed circumstances or
to embrace the risks and opportunities of vital new ideas.
Republicans are privately astounded and grateful. Gephardt and Daschle are
so preoccupied with dodging bullets and running away from unambiguous positions
that they seem surprised, even a little bitter, to learn that voters don't have
a clue about what Democrats stand for (even rank-and-file Democrats have trouble
figuring it out). Yes, it's a trifle unfair to blame them, because their timidity
and ineptitude reflect the party's--though in fact, many Democrats are eager for
more aggressive leaders and yearn, at least privately, for more substantive politics.
They are still nurturing misplaced nostalgia for the Clinton years and the false
hope that if they just keep their mouths shut, the country will yearn for their
return. The more fundamental problem is that Democrats as a whole really don't
know which way they're headed. In that sense, Daschle and Gephardt are exactly
the leaders the party deserves.
Daschle has been particularly lame as point man. Democrats like to wail about
Bush's $1.3 trillion tax cut but forget that Daschle's opening offer was $900
billion. He rushed through the bailout for airlines (his wife was a lead lobbyist)
and left out the workers. The measure expanding unemployment benefits was hailed
as a great Democratic victory, but the bill included $43 billion in new business
tax breaks, compared with $8.5 billion for the millions of jobless. Gephardt is
shackled by House rules, but he too tailored the agenda to avoid discomforting
conservative Democrats (many of whom vote with the GOP on money issues anyway).
War in Iraq is the latest, most fateful example of their failed leadership.
Gephardt, uncharacteristically, blew off his own caucus and made a private deal
with the President, oblivious to the growing antiwar momentum. He failed to persuade
a majority of his own colleagues, who voted with House whip Nancy Pelosi. What
was Gephardt thinking? That this would inoculate him against the "peacenik" label
and that weak-minded Democrats would forget? Daschle, likewise, caved on the craven
premise that once they got the "war vote" out of the way Democrats could concentrate
on their popular domestic issues.
And what issues are those? The Democratic leaders stood mute and wary before
historic events that have the potential to reshape national politics--the cratering
stock market, Enron-style corporate scandals and deflation-prone meltdown of the
economy. For six months, liberal-labor advocates banged on the hypercautious leaders
to stake out a forceful party position. They resolved to remain vaporously unthreatening
and three steps behind the White House. Now, can you believe it, some polls indicate
that voters trust Republicans more to handle the corporate corruption!
On the economy, the Dems are sticking with Clinton's old policy--balance the
budget and prosperity will follow--which amounts in these troubled circumstances
to dangerously backward economics. Gephardt belatedly announced a modest stimulus
plan three weeks before the election (did anyone hear about it?), while Senate
Democrats remain fixated on fiscal discipline, reaching for the mantle of Herbert
Hoover's historic disgrace. Cynics would say they are implicitly rooting for terrible
times for their own rank and file, in hopes of winning the next election. When
they do accede to deficit spending, it will be catch-up as usual.
Changing leaders does not solve every problem, but it might jump-start the
big arguments needed to reinvigorate the party's character. Pelosi is poised to
succeed Gephardt, if he resigns, as insiders expect, and her contest against more
conservative Martin Frost of Texas should become a decisive moment in the party's
future. In the Senate, most members don't want a strong leader pushing them to
take risks, but maybe someone like Chris Dodd of Connecticut could be persuaded
to try again (Dodd lost to Daschle by only one vote). This problem is not essentially
about left-right ideology but about the heart and guts to lead. Democrats have
to learn the value of fighting and losing--fighting for important ideas and principles,
losing a roll call and then fighting again, until the party's convictions are
made strong and clear and popular faith is mobilized. That has been the strategic
approach of modern Republicans, who rebuilt their party by sticking to core convictions,
however extreme. Democrats appear to believe they can do it with mush.
National affairs correspondent William Greider has been a political journalist
for more than thirty-five years. A former Rolling Stone and Washington Post editor,
he is the author of the national bestsellers One World, Ready or Not, Secrets
of the Temple and Who Will Tell The People.
Copyright © 2002 The Nation