The Democratic Party was not really ready for this. Democrats have been
in the wilderness so long--since Ronald Reagan launched the
conservative era twenty-five years ago--that older liberals began to
think it was a life sentence. Bill Clinton was the party's rock star; he
made people feel good (and occasionally cringe), but he governed in
idiosyncratic ways that accommodated the right and favored small
gestures over big ideas. The party adopted his risk-averse style. Its
substantive meaning and political strength deteriorated further.
Then George W. Bush came along as the ultimate nightmare--even more
destructive of government and utterly oblivious to the consequences.
The 2006 election closed out the conservative era with the voters' blast
of rejection. Democrats are liberated again to become--what?
Something new and presumably better, maybe even a coherent party.
This is the political watershed everyone senses. The conservative
order has ended, basically because it didn't work--did not produce
general well-being. People saw that conservatives had no serious
intention of creating smaller government. They were too busy delivering
boodle and redistributing income and wealth from the many to the few.
Plus, Republicans got the country into a bad war, as liberals had
On the morning after, my 6-year-old grandson was watching TV as he got
ready for school. He saw one of those national electoral maps in which
blue states wiped away red states. "Water takes fire," he said. Water
nourishes, fire destroys. How astute is that? It could be the theme for
our new politics.
With Democrats in charge of the House and the Senate, we can now return
to a reality-based politics that nourishes rather than destroys. The
party's preoccupation with "message" should take a back seat to
"substance"--addressing the huge backlog of disorders and injuries
produced by conservative governance. This changeover will be long and
arduous. But at least it can now begin.
Republicans lost, but their ideological assumptions are deeply embedded
in government, the economy and the social order. Many Democrats have
internalized those assumptions, others are afraid to challenge them. It
will take years, under the best circumstances, for Democrats to recover
nerve and principle and imagination--if they do.
But this is a promising new landscape. Citizens said they want
change. Getting out of Iraq comes first, but economic reform is close
behind: the deteriorating middle class, globalization and its
damaging impact on jobs and wages, corporate excesses and social abuses,
the corruption of politics. Democrats ran on these issues, and voters
The killer question: Do Democrats stick with comfortable Washington
routines or make a new alliance with the people who just elected them?
Progressives can play an influential role as ankle-biting enforcers.
They then have to get up close and personal with Democrats. Explain that
evasive, empty gestures won't cut it anymore. Remind the party that it
is vulnerable to similar retribution from voters as long as most
Americans don't have a clue about what Democrats stand for.
The first order of business is taking down Bush. The second front is the
fight within the Democratic Party over its soul and sense of direction.
These are obviously intertwined, but let's start with Bush and how
Democrats can contain his ebbing powers. This is not a philosophical
discussion. Events are already moving rapidly.
Everyone talks up postelection bipartisanship, and voters are weary of
partisan cat fights. But that doesn't mean selling them out to get along
with the other party. If Bush wants compromise, let him start by
promising not to nominate any more hard-right-wingers to the federal
judiciary. Harry Reid, the new Senate majority leader, could respond by
promising not to confirm any nominees if Bush doesn't keep his word.
The tables are turned now. Democrats will control the pursestrings
of government. Beyond keeping post offices open, they can kill anything
Bush proposes. They have the high ground, but they can now also be
blamed for what goes wrong. For the first time in a dozen years,
Democrats have the power to alter the governing fundamentals.
Ending the war cannot be compromised. Voters want out "now," as soon as
possible. They did not endorse a couple more years of US occupation,
many more lost lives and wasted billions. If Democratic leaders get that
wrong, it becomes their war too, and Americans will not be forgiving. A
coherent alternative that deserves bipartisan support may emerge from
the Baker-Hamilton group. But, if not, Democrats should be principled
critics and draw up their own road map.
Let Iraqis decide their own fate. Telling them to split up into three
parts sounds like more colonialist intervention. Iraqis are robbed of
true sovereignty as long as occupying Americans are present. Democrats
can come up with a plausible timetable for withdrawal, accompanied
by rational foreign-policy steps like direct talks with Iran and other
Middle Eastern powers to defuse the sectarian violence and to
arrange a manageable exit for the US military.
Congress cannot command troops, but it has enormous leverage to coax and
prod Pentagon policy through appropriations and other legislation.
Cutting off funds in the midst of war is not going to happen--it never
has in US history--but the military itself could become a valuable
source of strategic ideas, both in hearings and through back-door
communications. Bush's promised "victory" in Iraq is not an option.
The Pentagon, in fact, is especially vulnerable to Congressional
pressure, because its spending is scandalously out of control. Rumsfeld
allowed it, and the services took advantage of his open checkbook.
Emergency "war" spending is headed toward $507 billion and covers
numerous projects with no relevance to Iraq or Afghanistan. House and
Senate committees can force out the facts and expose this outrage now.
If they don't, it will haunt them later when they try to reduce federal
When Democrats take up their commitment to reducing Bush's budget
deficits, they face a big problem up front. The economy is heading
toward recession. Shrinking federal deficits would only make things
worse. Dems need to back off that pledge and consider stimulative
They can look for money elsewhere. One promising source lies in the many
investigations and hearings Senate and House committees are planning to
expose war-profiteering--Halliburton's no-bid contracts, obscene
subsidies and tax breaks for Big Oil and Big Pharma, the rank corruption
that has essentially looted government programs. Properly managed, these
inquiries can produce popular anger and demands for recovering the
public capital carried off by private interests.
The straightforward way to achieve this is taxation. For three decades,
Washington has been cutting taxes for corporate and financial interests,
not to mention the wealthy. Democrats have to find ways to stop intoning
this conservative tax-cutting mantra by showing that government has been
robbed and ordinary families are the losers. Will voters be upset that
Democrats are recovering public money by raising taxes on the
plunderers? I think they will cheer.
Representative Charles Rangel, the next chair of the House Ways and
Means Committee, has said he will not attempt to repeal Bush's
outrageous tax cuts for the wealthy--but instead let them expire in
2010. That kills estate-tax repeal and puts other measures in terminal
jeopardy. Democrats should go on the offense and develop a tax-shift
strategy that increases taxes on corporations and capital in order to
finance tax relief for struggling families, middle-class and below.
Last-Ditch Bush may veto this, but let's see how many nervous
Republicans vote against it.
All this depends, however, on the question of whether Democrats
have the stomach for a fight, not only with Bush and the GOP but with
the business and financial interests that underwrite both parties. We
don't know yet, but a test case may come soon. Corporate leaders,
investment bankers and the insurance industry are lobbying to gut the
modest regulations enacted after Enron and to disable investor
lawsuits against fraud on Wall Street and in corporate boardrooms.
Copyright © 2006 The Nation