The state of American politics is dismal.
To begin with, there are no third choices. And, truthfully, there's hardly a second one either.
If you had asked me prior to 2001, I would have echoed the long-held sentiment in American politics that there wasn't a dime's worth of difference between Republicans and Democrats. That the choice was between Tweedledum and Tweedledee. That both parties were fully owned corporate subsidiaries - the only difference being which corporate masters were at the helm.
Then Bush happened. The truth, of course, is that Bushism - regressivism - had been around for quite a while, at least since Reagan, but without the unholy combination of Rovian brashness, a national security fright, and all branches of the government being in the hands of the same set of scary monsters. In my book, this was something rather different - both in terms of scale and kind - and made for what appeared to be a substantial distinction between Democrats and Republicans for maybe the first time ever in the course of my life.
A distinction, yes, if only a sort of backhanded one, though. That is to say, the gap opened up purely because the Republicans moved so far to the right, not because of any progressive renaissance in the Democratic Party. In fact, the Democrats moved to their right as well, just not as far, not from the same starting place, and not all of them. And so, once the Texas Tornado moved to town, we got the incredibly irresponsible tax transfers (disingenuously labeled tax cuts), the insanely brutal Iraq war, neglect then exacerbation of global warming, and so on, with about half the Democrats in Congress going along for each of these rides.
That wasn't a huge shock. Democrats have been in retreat since 1980, and the context from 2002 to 2006 was not one which particularly rewarded boldness or dissent. Since then, however, conditions have changed. George Bush's job approval is starting to fall below the 30 percent mark with some consistency. His war and his credibility are completely shot. There is a lot of anger out there, and probably the only reason the movement for impeachment isn't stronger is because many people figure it's not worth it with 'just' a year and a half to go.
But also because even if you could take down Bush and Cheney, you'd be left with... Nancy Pelosi, leader of a Congress that has miraculously managed to be less popular than George Bush only five months into their term, demonized female Democrat from San Francisco (and therefore - hint, hint - probably a lesbian!, in addition to being, gulp, a liberal!), and something less than an inspiring political figure in terms of either substance or style. If Cheney is Bush's insurance policy, Pelosi is both of theirs.
But I digress. How in the world could a Democratic Congress manage to earn a 23 percent favorability rating in just six short months, without even doing anything? Perhaps by not doing anything? Nothing, that is, except, of course capitulating on the single issue that enrages the American public the most, and that most explains the rout of 2006 that gave them their very majority. It was one thing for Democrats to melt like a snow cone in Riyadh when conditions were not terribly favorable to playing the role of principled opposition (although please don't get me started on how failing to oppose on principle actually leads to a vicious cycle which encourages more violations of principle later). But this is something quite different.
The sad fact is that Democrats are frightened of the shadows of their shadows. On an overcast day. Which leads to the even sadder fact that American voters effectively have two bold selections from which to choose when they step into a voting booth. There is the truly disastrous party and then there is the merely embarrassing party. There is the party that is destroying when it isn't pathetically bumbling, and then there is the party that facilitates whatever the other guys want (hey, you don't even have to say 'please', either!). Tweedledee and Tweedledum, my handbag! In any given election, American voters can choose between really evil monsters, on the one hand, and a third-cup-out-of-the-same-depleted-tea-bag anemic approximation of evil monsters, on the other. Who says there's no real choice in American politics?!
Karl Rove knows where on the human body one finds the jugular vein. (Hint to Democrats: it's not located in the pinky finger, not that you've particularly attacked GOP pinkies, anyhow.) He and his ilk are completely and utterly unscrupulous about destroying any obstacles that block their attempts to obtain and wield power, and that certainly includes knocking over democracy, the Constitution, and truth, not to mention American soldiers and Iraqi citizens, should any of those have the bad fortune to find themselves on the wrong end of Dick Cheney's bourbon-fueled shotgun.
The list of their power-seeking crimes is as big as George Bush's personal library is small, but it is worthwhile to consider some of the highlights. Of course, the endless exploitation of 9/11 is highest on that list, with perhaps 9/11 itself at the top, depending on your conspiratorial cup of tea. It seems pretty clear that the presidential elections were stolen in 2000 and 2004, in the former case by employing the partisan majority of the highest court of 'justice' in the land to seize power. That alone is certainly one helluva set of seriously tawdry politics, for any polity calling itself a democracy.
Once in office, everything was politicized, in the most crass terms imaginable. Especially Iraq. My guess is that each of the principals in the Bush administration had their various reasons for wanting to invade, whether that was war profiteering, Likud puppeteering, Iraqi exile racketeering, Pentagon engineering, or anti-parental domineering. For Rove, though, it would seem that it was all about power (and some good old fashioned Democratic Party smearing). Thinking the war would be a piece of cake, I'm quite sure they believed that Iraq would help Bush in 2004, dominate domestic politics (e.g., Social Security plundering) and allow Republicans to establish the generational juggernaut that Professor Rove dreamed about late at night, up in his laboratory.
And so, for starters, they scheduled the war 'authorization' vote in October 2002, right before an election, one of the most crass displays imaginable of one of the most cynical ploys conceivable - that of exploiting national security issues for nakedly political purposes. From there it only went downhill. During that race, Rove and the GOP (almost none of whom, of course, had bothered to show up for duty in Vietnam) smeared Democratic Senator Max Cleland, a triple-amputee Vietnam vet, with advertisements morphing his face into that of Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden. Of course, politics has rarely been a sport for the feint of heart. Just the same, this sort of thing would never have happened a generation ago. Nixon would not have gone that far, and McCarthy was clobbered when he did.
What was Cleland's alleged crime? Therein lies another tale of the politicization of national security. After 9/11, Democrats proposed the creation of a Department of Homeland Security in the federal government. Bush rejected the idea. Then he changed his mind, and all of a sudden it was his program, and if you didn't vote for it, your face got morphed into bin Laden's or Saddam's. Never mind that the administration had meanwhile loaded the bill up with union-busting language, killing the labor rights of tens of thousands of federal employees and making them newly vulnerable to whatever management wanted to do to them. Provided morality is a foreign country to you, you have to admire this bit of engineering for its sheer craftsmanship in cynical politicking, not to mention its ultimate effectiveness. On the other hand, if you do have moral qualms about how politics is practiced, few prior episodes could be more nauseating.
We could go on and on because, frankly, they've gone on and on. Who could forget the swift-boating of John Kerry, or the Republican convention Band-Aids mocking his purple hearts? Who could forget Bush saying that al Qaeda was hoping the Democrats would win the elections of 2004 and 2006? These and other similar depredations are the actions of cancer cells on the parasites attached to the bloodsuckers affixed to the bottom-feeders in the skankiest swamp of American politics. Assuming we can survive it, this era will surely be known to history for the radical cheapening of the national discourse we've all witnessed firsthand.
Unfortunately, however, such tactics happen to be pretty effective. And especially so when the national press and the poorly-labeled opposition party cower in the corner rather than scream bloody murder at the degradation of American politics. So the GOP and its Rovian cancer have been 'winning' elections and, with rare exception, getting just about everything else they want, legislatively and otherwise. That is pretty much the very definition of success in politics, and so - unless you were fortunate enough that your mama raised you to have better manners - that's, unfortunately, what you're gonna do.
What if Democrats did the same? What if they practiced the take-no-prisoner school of politics, same as the GOP? What if their only interest was in winning - ethics, the Constitution, the public interest be damned? What if, in short, Harry Reid (or Howard Dean or Nancy Pelosi) played the game of politics just like Karl Rove does? What if they played for keeps?
Have you heard about the two American soldiers captured and gone missing in Iraq? Maybe, maybe not. Well, if Reid were Rove, you'd never hear the end of it. It would be a national obsession, just like OJ and Natalee Holloway and Paris Hilton and god-help-us-whoever-is-the-personal-story-blown-completely-out-of-proportion-du-jour - and, indeed, just like the American hostages in Iran were, all the way back in the hopelessly naive days before Reagan. It would be all hostage, all the time. 'News'casts, especially some lefty equivalent of Fox that knew where its corporate bread was buttered, would keep a relentless clock running, and you'd never hear the end of "America Held Hostage, Day 43!", as if two soldiers were an entire country of 300 million. The president would be increasingly portrayed as weak and ineffective as he was unable to rescue these two heroes. Of course, that would mean that he would lash out with some act of semi-random violence in order to be seen to be doing something, anything, probably the only result of which would be a boatload of senseless violence and death, likely to include the two soldiers themselves. But when practicing cynical politics, one doesn't worry about such trivialities. If Reid were Rove, the only consideration would be winning, and American hostages make lovely tools for that purpose.
Did you hear the one about how Al Hurra television, the US government's $63 million propaganda organ in the Middle East, unwittingly allowed terrorists to broadcast their violent message on its airwaves, because none of the Americans running the thing, er, spoke Arabic? No? You haven't? Well, if Reid were Rove you'd never hear the end of that one, a screw-up so egregious that even the obsequious mainstream media ran a headline saying, "U.S. Government Gave Airtime to Terrorists, Official Admits". (Of course, if this had happened seven years earlier the headline would not have been "U.S. Government...", but rather "Clinton Administration Gave Airtime to Terrorists" - but that's another story.) If Reid were Rove, George Bush, who is so inept that he has actually managed to gain a reputation for idiocy even from a sympathetic press and a do-nothing and say-nothing 'opposition' (why don't we just get it over with already and call it the Democratic Pastry instead of the Democratic Party?), would be made to appear even more the buffoon for allowing this to happen on his watch. If Reid were Rove, the David Lettermans of this country would have a hold on this story like a pit bull chomping on a pair of jeans marinated in chicken grease. With a juicy leg inside.
If Reid were Rove, we'd see constant examples of Bush making a fool of himself on national security issues, and we would have seen them in 2004, when they counted. We'd see Bush promising to get bin Laden "dead or alive", then we'd see clips of bin Laden mocking Bush, six years later. We'd see Bush in 2002 saying "You know, I just don't spend that much time on him... I truly am not that concerned about him." Then we'd see Bush this year at the Coast Guard graduation ceremony talking about all the bad things bin Laden has been cooking up. You know, about how he was only two or three weeks away from blowing up some passenger airplanes bound for America in what Bush described as "the most ambitious known al Qaeda threat to the homeland since 9/11". About how bin Laden is, according to Bush in this same speech, sending his best generals to Iraq to kill the American troops Bush put in harm's way there.
If Reid were Rove, Democrats would make sure we saw endless loops of the president looking under his desk for the missing WMD and turning their absence into a joke. Then we'd be reminded that over 3500 Americans have gone to Iraq, supposedly to protect us from those WMD, and have since returned in body bags. While the president who sent them there clowns. Maybe it's just me, but somehow, I don't think the White House attempt at humor would appear quite so funny in 2007.
If Reid were Rove, Americans would know that the very same government that claims to be fighting a war against terrorism is now harboring a terrorist who has bragged about blowing up an airliner and killing the 73 people on board, and who has similarly touted his accomplishments in bombing busy nightclubs and hotels.
If Reid were Rove, you'd never hear the end of how Bush's wondrous Department of Homeland Security (which, we'd be reminded, doesn't include the CIA or the FBI) allowed a guy to enter the country carrying a deadly strain of tuberculosis, even though he was on the no-fly list. We'd be asked over and over again how we could expect to be safe from terrorism with a government that can't even deal with a known medical threat crossing our borders.
In fact, if Reid were Rove, we'd be reminded that today is Day 2098 of the unsolved anthrax attack from 2001. And that tomorrow is Day 2099. And that the next day is...
If Reid were Rove, stories about small communities across America holding bake sales in order to buy armor for their kids going off to the war in Iraq would be seared into our collective consciousness. And then we'd be reminded of the no-bid contracts Halliburton got for Iraq, how the Vice President arranged those, how he still has financial interests in the company, and all the sordid details of the corruption and failure to perform in which it has indulged.
If Reid were Rove, you'd know Jack Abramoff so well by now that you'd feel like he was a (very unwanted) member of your family.
If Reid were Rove, we'd see images of Bush with a guitar in hand as New Orleans drowned, morphing into visions of Nero fiddling while Rome burns. We'd watch jumpy repeat cuts of Bush saying "Brownie, you're doing a heckuva job" over and over again, like some sort of video scratch track.
If Reid were Rove, every American taxpayer would know that their share of the national debt was now up to $60,000 and rapidly rising, and that Bush inherited the country's largest surplus ever and immediately turned it into the largest deficit ever. We'd see images of working Americans buried under their tax bills. We'd be constantly told what portion of those cuts went to the rich, and how much they made from them. We'd see the nationalist and xenophobia cards played shamelessly as Americans were reminded how much of the country is now owned by China and Japan (to the accompaniment of ominous chords on a soundtrack). Then we'd be snidely informed that, "Bureaucrats in the government think our record-setting debt of $9 trillion is okay because it is not a historically high ratio against GDP. Whatever that means."
And if Reid were Rove, every American would know the roll call of dishonor, being reminded of how Bush's daddy got him into the safe Texas Air National Guard, how Ashcroft took seven draft deferments, how Cheney took five and how Wolfowitz and almost all the rest never served. We'd see Cheney - or an actor playing him - repeat over and over "I had better things to do in the Sixties than fight in Vietnam". Like Michael Dukakis's little soiree in a tank, or John Kerry's oblivious I-voted-for-it-before-I-voted-against-it line, this would be made to haunt Cheney from here to oblivion.
And so on, and so forth, if Reid were Rove.
But Reid is not Rove, and so you don't see any of this, and you're not likely to. Is it because Democrats are morally superior to the GOP and to conservatives when it comes to the game of politics? To their credit, yes. Who could not be, when compared to these human horror movies of the right? But there's more to the story, as well. Democrats are also embarrassing wimps, afraid to throw a punch, and often even to block one. And, they are complicit in far too many ways in the depravities of the right, even if they mostly just go along for the ride.
Would we want them to act as the GOP has, destroying the fabric of American democracy in a relentless pursuit of power at any cost? Yes and no. Unfortunately, this is not a question with simple black and white answers. It is, in fact, another variation of the age-old ends-versus-means conundrum. My general answer to the question is an emphatic no - American democracy, such as it is, is tattered enough from the regressive movement's assaults of the last quarter-century, and even if that weren't the case, anything that further diminishes it is almost assuredly a bad thing.
That said, we need to be cognizant of the clear fact that if these guys aren't stopped, there won't be anything left to defend. And stopped soon, for that matter. For the four years after 9/11, I had the sick feeling that this country was about one terrorist attack - one burning of the Reichstag - away from a full-on fascist regime lasting from here to eternity. That may still be the case, though it is also clear that the American public has wised up, at least somewhat.
But, the thing is, the situation is analogous to Europe in the late 30s, I'd say (and if we can thank the Nazis for anything, we can certainly thank them for the wealth of historical metaphors they bequeathed us, although we of course manage to misapply them as often as not). That is to say, you may hate war, and you may even be a subscriber to pacifism, but once Hitler puts his Wehrmacht on a roll, you have only two choices, war or fascism. And, for that matter, often even the former was a long-odds crap shoot - meaning that you could wind up with both: (a losing) war, only to be followed by the further joys of occupation and fascism. Ask the French or the Poles.
Bush is no Hitler, though Cheney fairly salivates in that direction. There may be a difference in scale between invading all of Europe and invading Iraq, and between the Gestapo and Guantánamo, but it is not a difference of kind. And, of course, we're not done yet.
Which means that, no, as a matter of fact, in this scenario I don't want the Democrats to continue doing their very best Neville Chamberlain impressions. We've all seen that movie, and we know how it ends.
Even worse than the abject failure of the Democrats in Congress to protect us from these monsters is that, truthfully, they really wouldn't have to resort to being Roves or Cheneys to go up against Rove and Cheney. At this point, I wouldn't mind a bit seeing them take some of the shots suggested above. (Especially because, unlike the GOP transgressions, these jabs are based in factual and moral truth. There's a world of difference between pointing out Cheney's Vietnam record and repeating back his own words about that, on the one hand, and turning Max Cleland into Osama bin Laden, on the other.)
But if squeamishness is an issue, that sort of skirmishing isn't even particularly necessary. Even if the Democrats don't have the stomach for hardball politics, how about just using the institutional powers given to them for just this purpose by an angry public in the last election? Watching the party fold a powerfully winning hand on the war appropriations bill last month was a sickening visage. Bush needed that money for his dramatically unpopular war - why not continue sending him the same bill (which gave him the money, after all, along with Congressional strings attached) and let him keep vetoing it? This despised and mistrusted president couldn't plausibly claim Democrats were withholding funding for the troops as he kept vetoing that very thing.
And while we're talking here about simple institutional remedies to the current nightmare, how about just passing some good old fashioned legislation? That is what Congress is for, isn't it? Why can't the Democrats just keep sending the White House bill after bill of popular legislation - stripped of all earmarks and other distractions - and let Bush cast veto after veto of laws and programs the public wants? Healthcare, environmental protection, reform of government corruption, progressive tax reform, workplace protections, college funding, stem cell research, et cetera, et cetera, and yet cetera. If you can't get these into law, at the very least the public should know just which party is blocking the legislation they favor. Make these guys own their unpopular ideas, and make them pay for them!
Ah, but you're no doubt thinking, there's the prospect of the dreaded filibuster to worry about (careful, now - you're channeling Harry Reid here). And it's true - since the Democrats took control of Congress in January, the GOP has repeatedly used the threat of a filibuster to block consideration of important legislation. But, hey Harry, why do you keep playing that game? Why not revert to the old system, in which a minority had to actually filibuster - rather than just threaten to do so - in order to block business in the Senate? Make them pay for their obstinance. Make them own their regressive and unpopular ideas. Do Republicans really want to be seen fighting bravely for days on end to ensure that the Senate does not actually discuss what to do about an unpopular war? Do they think blocking even the discussion of potential solutions would make them look good? Do they really want to stand in the well of the Senate like Jimmy Stewart, disheveled and covered in ten o'clock shadows, defending the principle that there cannot be any discussion of a no-confidence motion on Alberto Gonzales? Well then, for goodness sake, let them! Heck, it'd be worth it just to see Trent Lott's plasto-hair get mussed!
And while we're talking about the lovely Alberto here, what in the world does the guy have to do for Democrats to impeach him?! That's done in the house, anyhow, where there's no filibuster, where the Democrats have a healthy majority, and where majorities do what ever they want to minorities. Does Gonzales need to get caught with a congressional page in his office, pants down at his ankles? And would it have to be a male page, at that, for Pelosi to find sufficient grounds to allow impeachment proceedings to go forward? How many administration officials have to appear before Congress and lie before Democrats use this power in a case screaming out for it as if it were a stadium full of Beatles fans, circa 1964? How many have to come and demonstrate their contempt of Congress with displays of their suddenly porous memories? How many of Karl Rove's email messages have to get deleted before something actually happens?
And what about the Congressional power of the purse? Hey, Dingbat Dems - yeah, you guys over there by that bag of hammers - wake up! First of all, you shouldn't be funding GOP pet projects anyhow, because they suck. But even if you can't find it within yourselves to pull the trigger for that reason, how about at least exercising a little leverage to get what you want in return? Maybe if you spiked an absurdly jive 'missile defense' boondoggle or two every once in a while, Rove's missing emails would suddenly and miraculously reappear, eh? You getting my meaning here?
What's most astonishing about the Democrats is that they are so beaten down, so practiced in the art of capitulation, so used to identifying with their tormentors in some sort of twisted political version of the Stockholm syndrome, that they can't even manage to serve their core personal interests anymore. You gotta figure that the Joe Bidens and the Steny Hoyers of this world could at least pull off the one thing politicians are best known for, at the expense of all else. You'd think that they could minimally protect their jobs, whatever that took. And yet they stand by watching, mouths agape, like passengers on a train that just passed their intended station, as the GOP rigs elections, and when that isn't enough then uses the Justice Department to steal them even more efficiently still. Good one, fellas! Maybe a brief chat with Tom Daschle would be instructive here. Sure, he's a nice guy. But he's also a former senator, too. Get it?
If Reid were Rove, this shit would never happen. If Reid were Rove, Republicans would tremble at the prospect of indulging their worst tendencies, however tempting, knowing that a mountain of woe would be dumped on their heads were they to trash the institutions of American democracy, knowing that they would be ridiculed mercilessly if they tried hawking their unpatriotic and hypocritical lies, knowing that they would be pummeled into ER cases with do not resuscitate orders if they advocated politics which were in fact detrimental to most voters, in order to benefit elites. If Reid were Rove, the Republican Party would either change its politics, or it would have representation in Congress truly proportional to the one-half of one percent of Americans whose interests it actually represents. If Reid were Rove, there'd be some Republican clown - maybe Joe Lieberman - from Greenich, Connecticut in the House, and that'd be the entirety of the national GOP congressional delegation.
If Reid were Rove, life would have been a lot happier this last quarter century, and there'd be a lot of people alive today who aren't otherwise. But, then again, if Reid had been Rove all these years, there would never have been any Rove in the first place.
David Michael Green is a professor of political science at Hofstra University in New York. He is delighted to receive readers' reactions to his articles (mailto:email@example.com), but regrets that time constraints do not always allow him to respond. More of his work can be found at his website, www.regressiveantidote.net.