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Tsunami '06: Totalize It, And Put A Stake Through The Heart Of This Monster, Once And For All
Published on Friday, May 6, 2005 by
Tsunami '06
Totalize It, And Put A Stake Through The Heart Of This Monster, Once And For All
by David Michael Green
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 once-in-a-generation opportunity.

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 precipitous.

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 anyhow.

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 ( is a professor of political science at Hofstra University in New York.


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