Ever since George Bush's take-it-easy response to Hurricane Katrina, the chattering classes have been trumpeting Republican "vulnerability" and the likelihood of the Democrats' retaking one, if not both, houses of Congress.
Disappointed that the Iraq catastrophe has so far failed to bring about Bush's destruction, angry liberals seemed almost cheered by the destruction of New Orleans. At last, they cried, Americans of every political stripe would wake up to the criminal incompetence of "the worst president in history."
I'll grant that Bush is down, at least in the polls. But for the Republicans to lose the House or the Senate, the Democrats would have to win, and to date the party of the opposition has still not discernibly entered into opposition. Indeed, the Democratic Party, dominated by Bill and Hillary Clinton, often behaves as though it's trying to squelch the passion for throwing out the Republicans.
In August, a CNN poll found that 57 percent of Americans favored setting a deadline for complete troop withdrawal from Iraq. Yet not long before that, when Sen. John Kerry introduced an amendment calling for just such a timed pull-out, his Democratic colleagues overwhelmingly voted no, 32 to 12 (the withdrawal amendment was defeated in the Senate, 86 to 13).
We've heard the stand-pat argument ad nauseam -- the supposedly "pragmatic" anti-anti-war position. The Democrats, it's said, can't be seen to be "weak on national security." But now we have the decidedly mainstream National Intelligence Estimate saying that the U.S. presence in Mesopotamia encourages terrorist attacks and America hatred: an unoriginal observation but very useful campaign ammunition for nervous Democrats.
Nevertheless, the party bosses still think it best to avoid gestures that might fire up the anti-war movement. A perfect example of the Democrats' Iraqophobia occurred in East Hampton, N.Y., in August, at the height of the Clinton-driven fundraising season. Simultaneous with the boss couple's swing through the richest precincts of Long Island's East End, a Clinton lieutenant, Gen. Wesley Clark, appeared at a separate fundraiser on behalf of six out-of-town Democratic House candidates, all veterans of the military.
Invited to help promote the event, a local group of anti-war veterans wanted to display panels of photographs -- inoffensive head shots only -- of U.S. soldiers killed in Iraq and Afghanistan. But the group was told that Clark and the six candidates would cancel if any such photographs were posted, so the pictures didn't go up.
Trudy Mason, a state Democratic Committee member from New York City and Clinton foot soldier, explained the decision to The East Hampton Star: "You have to first be elected. We don't need to do anything that might hurt these candidates." Whatever Mason's tactical expertise, the immediate result of the no-picture decision was to alienate local Democrats. The East Hampton Town Democratic Committee voted, 23 to 7, to boycott the fundraiser, and a Marine veteran of Vietnam, Joseph Giannini, took the panels of dead soldiers to a nearby peace vigil.
The Democratic Party's top-down strategy of killing voter excitement isn't limited to Iraq. In July, the Democrat-owned Chicago City Council passed a "living wage" ordinance to force "big box" stores such as Wal-Mart to increase their paltry compensation for thousands of workers. People cheered in the packed council gallery when the roll was called, presumably because poor black Chicagoans are desperate for a raise.
The ordinance wasn't radical; it would merely have required mega-stores to pay at least $13 an hour in wages and benefits by 2010. But it was too much for Mayor Richard M. Daley, Clinton loyalist and heir to the Cook County Democratic machine. Last month, Daley vetoed the ordinance, and the council's attempt to override failed by three votes, 31 to 18.
Daley spouted the usual University of Chicago economics claptrap about the wage guarantee's "hurting people who need the jobs the most," but his motive was political. The mayor and his brother, former Commerce Secretary William Daley, were crucial actors in both of President Clinton's big "free-trade" wins, the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and Permanent Normal Trading Relations (PNTR) with China. Wal-Mart and the other giant retailers love "free trade," because it guarantees that most of what they buy and sell gets made by cheap labor in foreign countries where the workers can't form unions. As industrial America collapses, Wal-Mart's political clout grows ever more immense (former Sen. Ernest Hollings, the South Carolina Democrat, tells me that the big-box-retail lobby killed his port-security bill, because of its $15 fee on each ship container), and the Clintons follow the money. It is not a coincidence that Hillary Clinton sat on Wal-Mart's board from 1986 to 1992.
Why this self-defeating strategy? Well, the Clintons and their allies don't see it that way. For the ex-president and the junior senator from New York, fundraising always comes ahead of vote getting (even Rupert Murdoch has joined the Hillary cash wagon), and the big money is evidently counseling caution on Iraq. Centrist Southern Democrats and the party's fundraisers-in-chief, the Clintons have never been comfortable with class issues or had much use for labor unions. After all, NAFTA and PNTR finished off organized labor as a serious political force in the United States.
Moreover, Hillary probably thinks she'll run better for president from the minority, co-starring with her husband in a Restoration drama. If, miraculously, the Democrats win the House this year, many of the new Democratic committee chairmen will be to the left of the Clintons, and might start causing trouble. At judiciary, John Conyers Jr. (D.-Mich.) wants to explore impeachment of Bush, which dredges up Monica Lewinsky. At Ways and Means, Charles Rangel (D.-N.Y.) could try to raise the income-tax rate on the Wall Street plutocrats who fund the Clintons. Meanwhile, John Murtha (D.-Pa.), the leading congressional critic of the war, might become majority leader and press hard for withdrawal from Iraq, which would force the Clintons into a corner: They criticize the management of the war but not its alleged goals.
Who needs the bother when Hillary's pro-war, anti-populist platform works well enough to keep the money piling up for 2008? It's a great way to maintain control of a minority party, and to keep it that way in Congress.
John R. MacArthur, a monthly contributor, is the publisher of Harper's Magazine.
© 2006, Published by The Providence Journal Co.