The new overpowering fact in American politics is $87 billion. During my book-flogging tour, I heard it mentioned repeatedly in conversations coast-to-coast, usually with only a knowing nod. It has become the popular marker for the fiasco in Iraq, the lies told going in, the obscene waste of lives and money, the growing disgust for Little Caesar. George "$87 billion" Bush. What was Karl Rove thinking when he let his guy go on TV and utter that magic number?
The war has become a political killer: Bush loses if he is stuck in the same place next summer. I assume the White House understands this and, therefore, will pursue a modified Aiken Solution. Declare victory and get out. Obviously, the exit has to be stage-managed "with honor," claiming success and acknowledging nothing to the contrary. But, unlike the stagnant economy, the president at least has some control over cutting short this disaster. He will go for a quick resolution, falsified as shamelessly as when he went to war.
I expect this to occur by early spring, but I'm told some Republican wise heads want it even sooner. The Iraqis will be bullied into a new constitution and early elections. The president will announce our triumph and staged withdrawal, proud of the new "democracy" he has created. The costly reconstruction will continue for awhile (until Congress grows weary), but U.S. troops start coming home immediately. If the timing is right and the theatrics are convincing, Americans will turn their attention elsewhere, glad to be relieved of the open wound called Iraq. Cynical, yes, but in character.
The Viet Cong -- sorry, the Muslim guerilla fighters -- could of course mess up this script with more well-timed bombings and sniper deaths. But why should they impede an American withdrawal since it is what they are seeking? Driving out the American imperialists would be understood worldwide as a big win for the forces of darkness. Perhaps Henry Kissinger is available to negotiate a "cease fire," a false peace that lets us get out, just as he did for Nixon in 1972. A bloody mess will likely follow. We can take in some Iraqi refugees.
Incumbent presidents seldom lose reelection unless they are buried by adverse circumstances and it seems obvious the 2004 election is already the prisoner of such events. Bush has very limited options to cauterize his self-inflicted wound in Iraq, but even less control over his jobless economy. Yet none of the Democrats is likely to defeat him if these troubles abruptly disappear. On the other hand, I can imagine almost any of the Dem candidates beating Bush if the country remains in its double-bind quagmire.
My point is, the Democratic nominating contest is essentially about determining the nature of that party, not the "electability" question. Howard Dean represents anti-establishment insurrection from the ground up. His popularity is not about left or right issues (as the media and his opponents keep claiming) but rides upon the swelling anger people feel toward Bush and the Dems' own complacent, top-down, risk-averse, corporate-compromised leadership. The press is still on Dean's case, picking away at his supposed contradictions. But the Washington Post fronted an insightful counter-version by Laura Blumenfeld (October 1) that explains Dean's empowering language and angle of vision. It's not about him, he tells voters, it's about them -- all the people who feel ignored and disenfranchised, not only by Bush the right-winger. but by their own party's Washington elites.
Dean is profoundly correct in this critique. If he survives their assaults and prevails in the nomination (I think he can), it will be like an implosion of the insider illusions governing the Democratic party. He lacks their esteemed connections to the corporate-financial infrastructure that runs politics, so why is he raising more money? Because he has a list of people -- active citizens, not monied contributors -- unlike anything the party itself possesses (I've heard Dean's database variously described as 400,000 or 600,000 or 1.2 million names).
This new form of power is derived from the wondrous technologies (computers and the Internet), but actually involves the way the party used to organize voters before it converted to spin-marketing techniques. The party does not itself keep such lists any more (though it might rent them from other organizations). Why bother with names and addresses when they have polls and focus groups? The Doctor might stumble, of course, but his nomination (even if he then loses to Bush) would produce a profound ventilation -- actually a violent shake-up -- in the modern methodologies of what used to know as the party of working people.
Who could be against that? The Democratic incumbency. The last thing they want in their lives is competitive elections or citizens who come out of the woodwork to launch their own techno-grassroots campaigns. Yes, incumbent Dems all want Bush out, but they would much prefer it's done by a safer, more reliable candidate.
General Clark? I don't mean to pick on him but he seems the perfect vessel for conveying a "new face" sense of change without actually disturbing the status quo. A number of fellow bloggers accused me of seeing black helicopters when I earlier described Clark as the Clinton establishment's stalking horse [see "More Stupid White Men"]. But that is self-evident now that Clark is an active candidate. Mr. Bill's Hollywood friends are swarming around the General with money; his campaign is run by Clintonoids. The General's tepid economic-stimulus plan is off-the-shelf stuff from the Democratic Leadership Council. He is being tutored on economics by Citigroup godfather Robert Rubin and Gene Sperling, the DLC's economist in chief.
If you want four more years of Wall Street economics guiding the Democratic party, go with the Four Stars. If you are ready for risk and real change, listen to the Doctor. People who put aside convictions in order to win an election often wind up regretting it. I know I did during Bill Clinton's presidency.
The new "K Street" show on HBO is a vivid (and disgusting) expression of our decayed democracy. I don't know whether Americans distant from Washington will find this entertaining. I find it borderline obscene. The amorality of money-driven Washington is accurately depicted, though in a shallow manner designed not to piss off any truly important players. But what induces elected politicians like Senator Barbara Boxer to participate in fictionalizing their own public lives? A hunger for flattering attention probably. The sad inner truth of modern Washington is that even U.S. senators, their actions and ideas, are generally ignored. They too have become bit players in the dramas concocted by lobbyists and narcissistic political consultants.
I understand James Carville and Mary Matalin. They have created a great gig for themselves, the bipartisan power couple play-acting at hardball politics. I know them distantly, they are not evil people. But I wonder if they realize how cynical they have become as Washington figures. The message of their show (therefore of their lives) is that "democracy" is an entertainment, put on to divert the great unwashed with amusing sound bites, while the "real people" do the business of governing to serve their clients. .
The Dean campaign should show "K Street" tapes at their Meet Up's. It would be a splendid recruiting tool, a quick way to show people why they are angry, why they are not powerless if they can learn to believe in themselves.
Speaking of violent shake-up's, I have one more rant to get out of my system. I support the California recall, both in principle and on the present facts. Citizens have very limited means to discipline elected officials in our decayed democracy, but recall is one of them. It's a way to jerk their chain -- hard but decisively -- in extreme circumstances. Over a century, it has seldom been invoked in the states that permit it. Think of recall as a seismic message from the great unwashed who are otherwise ignored by the crafty insiders.
If any governor deserved to have his chain jerked, it is Gray Davis. He is the epitome of money politics, utterly divorced from popular experience and aspirations, totally devoted to milking the money sources and managing contesting power blocs to insure his own survival. I see a crude poetry in the fact that his extraordinary skillfulness as a money guy was unhinged by a raw rebellion of public anger.
Like many others, I hope Davis survives, but it won't be the end of history if he doesn't. It might even provide a new beginning if rebuked politicians absorb the message. Arnold may prove to be a clown or perhaps shrewder than people suppose. Either way, the Golden State will survive, still struggling with all of its deep problems. Given my understanding of where we are in corrupted representative democracy, we need more earthquakes -- lots of them. Who knows, maybe we will get another next year in Washington.