Democrats couldn't win a campaign if they had Field Marshal Rommel and
a division or six of panzers with which to do it.
Republicans are so skilled at marketing they have been able to sell an
administration that makes Enron look like a model of comparative
probity and success.
Or such was the case. The latter half of this equation is now growing
stale. The wheels are coming off the wagon, and the main question
remaining is can Democrats, mired in despondency and debilitation
since Reagan rode up, find the smarts and guts to take advantage of a
The stakes could not be higher. There is the chance in 2006 to kill
the abomination of contemporary American regressivism (what the right
likes to call conservatism) altogether, wholly and decisively.
The model would be the Labour Party's long-term rout of the
Conservatives in Britain. After eighteen years of increasingly
unpopular rule, with most of that under the abrasive and arrogant
Margaret Thatcher, the Conservatives could have been beaten by a
volleyball named Wilson in 1997. This week's election has again
demonstrated just that concept, given the current distrust and
unpopularity of Tony Blair. He has nevertheless still won reelection
as - even a decade later - overwhelming margins of the country remain
completely unwilling to trust the Tories with the keys to government.
The same could happen in the US, in 2006.
What is required to win is a totalizing campaign strategy. Democrats
must of course have the courage of their convictions to run
aggressively, but they must also totalize the campaign ideologically
and geographically, turning it into a referendum on the failed
policies of Bush and all those on the right.
Powerful signs nowadays suggest that the smoke and mirrors of Rove and
Company have grown tedious to all but those true believers for whom
regressive Republicanism has become a religion - quite literally, as
well as figuratively. For a president and congress newly installed
just three months ago, this change in fortunes has been remarkably
Far from the mandate Bush claimed in November, the guy can't seem to
do anything now. Every time he parts the smirk long enough to utter
some mangled pablum about Social Security 'reform', he actually loses
public and congressional support, rather than gaining it. Likewise,
both he and his allies took a considerable hit on the Terri Schiavo
fiasco, and are doing so again with their hysterical attacks upon the
very judges their own party placed on the bench. Now Tom DeLay's
deodorant has gone on strike, yet his Republican colleagues foolishly
attach themselves to this drowning pol and his cement shoes of
exponentially escalating scandal. Meanwhile, Bush's sinking job
approval ratings are far lower than those of any president ever at 100
days into a second term. Bolton is tanking. Ethics rigging is
tanking. Even the nuclear option is tanking, except in North Korea
and Iran, both of which are demonstrating for the good Senator Frist
how it's properly done. All this while Greenland is melting faster
than gas prices are rising, and Republicans in Texas and elsewhere are
suing Bush (yes, you read that right) over the No Child Left Behind
albatross which he's saddled upon them. Even the Terminator has now
predictably commenced his self-destruct sequence, and may ultimately
count himself lucky if he can escape back to Austria before
Californians string him up for those sexual predations which somehow
don't seem so boyishly cute anymore.
All this means that Democrats, who have in recent years elevated to an
art form the snatching of defeat from the jaws of victory, now have
the opportunity of a generation hanging like ripe fruit before them.
It always struck me that losing the presidency in 2004 could prove a
blessing in disguise - provided that the right did not then take the
full fascist plunge and use its lock on national power to kill off
altogether that whole pesky democracy thing (still a very scary
possibility). That is, instead of the election producing the singular
'victory' of a weak, badgered and hapless Kerry presidency,
relentlessly hounded by the dark cadres of regressivism and - judging
by what we saw in the campaign - completely incapable of effectively
responding, progressives could instead lose the presidency battle in
2004 and hope, ironically, to thereby win the wider war for America.
Now that possibility looms large on the horizon, much earlier than
might have been imagined. Yes, Republicans control all three branches
of government and have achieved everything they have so far sought,
but this victory is morphing from juggernaut to bull's-eye underneath
their feet. Their destructive agenda was never popular on its own
merits, and was therefore always dependent upon world-class marketing
expertise to keep it afloat. Those deceits now wear thin. When it
comes to American government, they have broken it, they own it, and
they can no longer plausibly redirect public dissatisfaction with
their failures onto Bill Clinton, Janet Jackson or sundry Teletubbies.
Americans are waking up with a bad headache the morning after their
lost weekend of hallucinatory imbibing, and they don't like what they
see, even if it is still kinda blurry. Of course, there's always the
jingoism card to play, but - two wars later - very likely even that
dependable old dog won't hunt anymore. Meanwhile, the economy is
anemic for working Americans while the rich grow fatter and, if the
Republican government acts at all, it renders the situation worse, not
better. Even the use of cultural issues such as gay-bashing can be
effectively turned against the right in the form of political jujitsu,
if only Democrats have the courage and the smarts. This simply
requires pointing out to independent, centrist voters how issues of
key importance to them are ignored by Republicans, who instead indulge
their obsessions with other people's sexuality and with the
ever-deeper invasion of Americans' personal privacy.
Granted, history suggests that such courage and smarts are iffy
propositions indeed for Democrats, but recent behavior has been
encouraging, and 2006 presents the party with an opportunity to redeem
itself in a huge way. The trick will be to pull out a big stick and
swing it hard. In addition to the opportunities presented by the
heightened vulnerabilities of the right's house of cards politics,
Democrats can reap the benefits of conviction, the sheer power of
which (irrespective of the ideological flavor in question), they have
lost sight of for a quarter-century. This is what Harry Truman and
Ronald Reagan knew, and Democrats today do not. People do not want to
be desultorily presided over. They want to be led, they want the
security of being led firmly, and they will follow you to all kinds of
different places if you simply go. Should Democrats find the means to
actually stand firm for their core values, they may learn that
sometimes good policy is also good politics.
There are many themes which the party should hammer hard upon to win
decisively in 2006, including the Iraq lies, the economic struggles of
middle America, the concentration of power (which American political culture historically loathes, regardless of
party) in Republican hands, and GOP arrogance and corruption. What is most important, however, is to make the strategic decision
to totalize the election, on two dimensions.
The first and most significant is ideological. Now is the opportunity
to put the entirety of the conservative scourge away for the
foreseeable future by running against the right, as the right. That
is, Democrats should be making the case against the full GOP
experiment in regressive politics, which the right has now largely
implemented, and which voters can now assess - but only if they are
prompted to perceive the package as a package. In short, it is
essential to force Republicans to own the totality of their record,
and then to turn the election into a public referendum on the
continuing desirability of the right-wing lunacy which now has the
country in its grips.
Given the current climate it would be the height of folly, the
greatest failure of imagination, and the world's worst marketing
cock-up since the New Coke, for Democrats to run on a series of
individual issues. Instead, they should hoist Republicans with their
own petards, and let Americans judge whether they like what they see.
Many - including the scary millions of glassy-eyed political moonies
of the right - will. But most won't. The result could well be a
powerful and lasting mandate against the full panoply of caustic
conservative policies too long abrading the American body politic, as
opposed to an incremental and piecemeal victory on a couple of issues,
or in a few congressional districts.
This is important. If Democrats are bold and clever, the ruinous turn
to the right which has infected America and tormented the world for a
quarter-century can possibly be repudiated in toto. Doing so takes
marketing savvy to frame it for what it actually is - a concerted,
integrated movement - and boldness to go after it as such, labeling it
a disastrously failed experiment conducted by ideological fanatics.
This is about changing political consciousness in this country. It
requires getting Americans to collectively associate with the GOP and
conservatism everything they don't like regarding current policies and
conditions, so that they can then decide to reject the GOP and
conservatism. What is at stake here is the difference between success
on, say, Social Security and maybe a few judgeships, versus taking
down, hard, the entirety of the radical right for the foreseeable
future. It is the difference between winning isolated skirmishes as
against ultimate victory in a war.
Democrats must turn the campaign into a totalized struggle against an
ideology, and the party advancing it, which are bankrupting the
country, pursuing reckless and failed foreign policies, ignoring
domestic security, and destroying popular programs like Social
Security and Medicare. Then, when they win big in November 2006, they
must show the smarts to frame that victory (and set it up for the
press) as a wholesale repudiation of the regressive right experiment,
just as the right adroitly and effectively floated the "moral values"
and presidential "mandate" claims following the 2004 election.
Of course, an explicitly ideological campaign has always been a
non-starter in America, and is especially so now that the very term
liberalism has become so tainted. I am not arguing that Democrats
should run on the slogan "choose liberalism, not conservatism",
particularly when so many more Americans self-identify today as the
latter rather than the former. But running against the concentrated
power, corruption, arrogance and mismanagement of the Republican Party
and its agenda - as a package - would be a winner, and one which could
take down the whole apparatus at once, not just the least popular
parts of it.
But this alone is not enough. The second approach by which Democrats
should totalize the next election, and one which also jibes perfectly
with ideological warfare, calls for employing a national strategy.
That means running everywhere against the national party instead of -
the other profound blunder Democrats could make in 2006 - against
individual candidates, on the basis of local issues, in each district
and state race. The so-called 'Republican Revolution' of 1994, which
flipped both houses of Congress into GOP hands for the first time in
decades, employed this strategy and points the way to victory here.
Every Republican running for office, regardless of their individual
positions, should be bound and tied to Republicanism and its myriad
failures in Washington until they appear joined at the very hip.
Democrats must morph their opponents across the country into an army
of faceless Tom DeLay and George Bush clones.
Employing both these strategies could generate a political tsunami in
2006, sweeping new Democratic majorities into both houses of Congress,
propelled by a general public dissatisfaction with the experience of
conservative policy choices. Elections in the sixth year of a
presidency usually produce a wide swing in favor of the opposition
party, but given the current political climate 2006 has the potential to generate unusually profound changes on the American political landscape. The simple truth is that Bush has been a sinking ship of a president from the beginning, combining radical and unpopular policies with presidential (though not
political) ineptitude and transparent personal insecurities. Talk about hitting the trifecta. He has been rescued only by the
perfect storm of 9/11-driven rally-round-the-flag sympathies, a highly skilled and equally savage political team, a free pass from
America's biased and/or intimidated press, and the gift of two breathtakingly bungling (when not cowardly) electoral opponents,
with a Democratic Party to match. In short, this has long been an apparently powerful presidency and associated ideological
movement which has utilized bluster, craft and luck to barely mask its actual high degree of vulnerability, all the more so now.
All that was ever required to bring it down was the simple combination of strategic smarts and the courage of conviction.
Indeed, the latter alone would probably have been enough, and would have gone a long ways toward substituting for the former
What is more, the likelihood of a GOP electoral unraveling will be
especially high when the economy heads south (as it inevitably will,
and may be already - perhaps dramatically so, given the lurking
disasters of the debt, trade deficit, sinking dollar, etc.). This will
leave the sitting government to face a surly public as a backdrop to
likely scandal. I have long suspected that this phenomenon, in
reverse, is precisely what saved Clinton during his impeachment
debacle. Had the economy not been so robust, it is not at all clear
to me that he would have survived. In any case, if a popular
president could be impeached during munificent times for lying about a
minor sexual peccadillo, imagine what could become of the unpopular
and transparently duplicitous Bush should control of Congress change
hands, the economy tank badly, the war continue to spiral out of
control with no end in sight, and major scandals then starting to
break. And imagine if one of those scandals involved the stealing of
the election in either 2000, 2004, or both, further undermining an
unpopular president's legitimacy and further antagonizing an
increasingly angry public.
The key for Democrats is to give Americans a real alternative to vote
for, not some weak impersonation of the GOP in drag. This means, in
the coming cycle, running a strategically smart campaign, words which
in recent years have not oft been found in the same sentence as
'Democratic Party'. But it also means showing some guts, for once, by
standing for something clearly and emphatically - even if it is only,
for starters, a firm rejection of regressive conservatism.
The prize for finally getting it right could not be greater. An
already lame-duck presidency would be completely hobbled on domestic
policy, to the point of being a dead duck. Even major foreign policy
initiatives could be blocked through the power of the purse, if
necessary. Popular progressive legislation could be passed, forcing
Bush to veto laws like a minimum wage hike, which would serve to
further out him as a corporate shill. Legislative disasters of the
past four years, such as crippling tax cuts for the rich and No Child
Left Behind, could be undone with the backing of considerable public
support, and under the rubric of just that - undoing the mistakes of
the past four years. Right-wing judicial and executive appointments
would be DOA. Most importantly, Congress could begin again to perform
one of its most essential functions - executive oversight - forcing
testimony from the administration and other witnesses, and
investigating the myriad scandals now bottled up by Bush's
intransigence and Republican complicity on the Hill.
To choose but the most obvious examples, it is breathtaking to
consider that the torture fiasco sullying worldwide America's already
heavily-tarnished reputation has never been properly investigated by
Congress, even though documentary smoking-gun evidence now
substantiates that the policies were made at the highest levels of the
government. Obviously, that ain't gonna happen as long as DeLay the
Thug and Frist the Puppet are running things there. Then there is
also the matter of GOP election thievery in both 2000 and 2004,
pre-war intelligence manipulation on Iraq, the Valerie Plame affair,
and so on. Undoubtedly there's far more where these scandals came
from, and the list of improprieties for which these clowns are
responsible would surely prove endless. What is more, if Congress
actually began doing its job in this respect, the press could hardly
continue to ignore such exposed scandals, and would finally begin
doing theirs as well. Forced cabinet-level resignations (start
polishing your resume, Don) and even impeachments (give Poppy a call,
W) would not be out of the question.
A liberal hallucination? Perhaps. But, regressive conservatism
generally, and the Bush administration particularly, has always been a
house of cards waiting for even a slight wind to come along and knock
it down. Many Americans would find themselves astonished at how fast
the whole apparatus might crumble once a single card were removed.
These guys will not have to be marched back to Berlin, block by bloody
block. Rather, they have depended on an inherently unstable
constellation of a compliant press, fears of external enemies, a
remarkably incompetent 'opposition' party, and a generally tuned-out
public, in order to continue convincing a sufficient number of people
that the emperor is indeed wearing clothes. My read on this volatile
condition is that once one of these legs gets yanked out from
underneath their rickety contraption, only two paths forward would
remain probable. One would be an implosion of the entire apparatus as
the dominos start falling. That would mean the end of Bush, and the
end of America's 21st century flirtation with returning to the 13th.
But, with regressives well understanding the likelihood of that
eventuality transpiring, the other possibility is far more ominous: a
turn toward full-scale fascism as their only means of retaining power.
Think of Dick Cheney in a very bad mood. Should such an attempt
occur, we will then test as never before the challenge Benjamin
Franklin proffered when he emerged from Constitution Hall and was
asked what sort of government he and his fellow Founders had given us:
"A republic", he said, "if you can keep it".
The prospect of a rapidly destructing regressive movement in America
is neither a liberal fantasy, nor predicated on a sequence of
ridiculously improbable requisite developments. Indeed, the
background pieces are already in place: an unpopular president
heading toward deeper unpopularity on the basis of his policies alone,
a weak economy undercutting increasingly frustrated working Americans,
and a press which is now timid but could not ignore stories of such
magnitude. All that is missing is a Democratic congress with the guts
to lift the lid on the cesspool of the Bush administration. Given
general public dissatisfaction with the country's direction, a
Democratic rout in 2006 is hardly a fanciful prospect, and its impact
might be felt for a generation.
But not if the past remains prologue. Since 1980, Democrats have been
trying to bunt their way onto first base, with disastrous results.
Even on the rare occasions when they win (e.g., Bill Clinton), they
lose (e.g., Bill Clinton's policies).
Such tepid politics needn't be pursued any longer. Now is the time
for Democrats to swing hard at the fat lob which is Republican
vulnerability on every front.
Heck, it would be worth it for the novelty alone.
David Michael Green (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a professor of political science at Hofstra University in New York.