Something strange has happened in the year since conservatives celebrated the re-election of George W. Bush. The Republican Party, free at last to run the country as it sees fit, is fast becoming an object of popular loathing. First came the Bush Administration’s plan to privatize Social Security, which sparked unease in the red and blue states alike. Then came the GOP’s intervention in the Terri Schiavo case, which three-fourths of Americans deemed inappropriate. There was the threat to “go nuclear” in order to insure Democrats wouldn’t filibuster right-wing judicial nominees, withdrawn after it became clear the public didn’t appreciate such talk. And we haven’t mentioned Iraq, “Scooter” Libby or Hurricane Katrina yet. In an October poll, six in ten Americans said President Bush does not share their priorities; well over half now believe the Iraq War was a mistake; fewer than one-third feel the nation is on the right track.

It’s enough to make you think that losing the 2004 presidential election was the best thing that could have happened to the Democrats. Why, then, does the prospect of a bold liberal resurgence seem so farfetched? Why, even as Bush’s approval ratings plunge to record lows and charges of ethical misconduct hover over figures like Bill Frist and Tom DeLay, do the Democrats appear so feckless? Why is it all too easy to imagine the GOP riding out its recent troubles and holding on to power in the midterm elections next year?

In their new book, Off Center, political scientists Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson argue that the answer, at least to the last of these questions, rests in the emergence of a Republican political machine that has managed to undermine and subvert the mechanisms of accountability in our democracy. Like many pundits and political commentators, Hacker and Pierson take as their starting point the conventional assumption that in American politics the balance of power lies in the center–with the so-called swing voters, whom both parties assiduously courted last year and who, in a closely divided electorate, ought to be able to prevent politicians on either side from drifting too far to the extremes.

The recent behavior of the Democrats, at least, bears the maxim out. The party’s leaders get anxious when anyone so much as utters a word that might be perceived as veering too far to the left. If the Republicans are upbraiding anyone in their ranks, by contrast, it’s for signs of moderation. Again and again in recent years, Hacker and Pierson show, the GOP has enacted policies–assaults on workplace health and safety regulations; tax cuts that overwhelmingly benefit the rich; the rollback of environmental laws–whose thrust is unabashedly radical. Despite commanding razor-thin majorities, Republicans have pursued an agenda that caters to their increasingly right-wing base without paying a political price. They have gotten away with this not because America has grown rabidly conservative–in fact, as Hacker and Pierson demonstrate through polling data, a majority of citizens oppose the GOP’s agenda on everything from the environment to Social Security to the minimum wage–but because the bonds between ordinary voters and elected officials have grown increasingly frayed.

Some of the developments Hacker and Pierson document to buttress this claim–rule changes in Congress that have centralized power in the hands of reactionaries like Tom DeLay; policy shifts achieved through executive orders that slip below the media’s radar; legislation written behind closed doors with no public debate–will be familiar enough to readers of this magazine. What is new is the connection the authors draw between the machinations of a fiercely determined Republican elite and the erosion of our civic institutions. On the one hand, they note, the institutions that are supposed to help citizens stay abreast of what elected officials are doing–“traditional news organizations, widespread voluntary organizations…locally grounded political parties”–have grown increasingly anemic. On the other, Republican elites “craft rhetoric and policies to make it difficult for even the well informed to know what is going on.” Tax cuts are thus front-loaded with provisions that aid middle-income families, while the benefits to multimillionaires are disguised and delayed. Massive corporate giveaways are woven into legislation on issues (prescription drug legislation, an energy plan) the public generally wants the government to take action on. If you are highly educated and have enough free time on your hands, sorting through the details to determine exactly who the winners and losers are is certainly possible. But lots of people don’t, and given the media’s growing fixation on drama and brevity, even those who make a sustained effort might remain unapprised. Consider Bush’s 2001 tax cut, arguably the most important piece of domestic legislation of the past five years. Hacker and Pierson were among a team of researchers who examined every story that ran in the nation’s top-circulation daily, USA Today, on the issue in 2001. Of the seventy-eight articles that appeared, the vast majority examined the politics surrounding the plan, a mere six focused on its contents and only one looked at its distributional effects. The results were not much better in the New York Times, where just seven stories explored the distributional effects.

It is hard to read Off Center without concluding that the capacity of political elites to manipulate public perception has come to overwhelm the ability of the average overworked, infotainment-saturated citizen to understand what is being done in his or her name, a depressing thought when one considers that democracy can’t really function without an informed citizenry. But is deception the main reason our politics has veered off center? It’s not as though Karl Rove and Tom DeLay invented lying and manipulation, after all. Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger were equally skilled practitioners of the craft and no less Machiavellian. Of course, back in Nixon’s day the Republican Party still had a substantial number of moderates in its ranks. There were also plenty of Democrats around who didn’t automatically roll over when conservatives tried to bully them. A striking thing about the litany of radical legislation catalogued in Off Center, from tax cuts to the energy plan, is how frequently Democrats in Congress caved in or went along, something Hacker and Pierson acknowledge but play down in their analysis. Their book offers one of the more original and thought-provoking takes on American politics in recent years. But the disparity they highlight between what voters say they want and what the GOP gives them is not due solely to zealots like DeLay; equally important has been the absence of an opposition party willing to stand up and fight for an alternative.

The story Michael Graetz and Ian Shapiro tell in their recent book, Death by a Thousand Cuts, vividly illustrates the problem. Graetz, a law professor at Yale University, and Shapiro, a political scientist at Yale, set out to unravel what on the surface appears a mystery: how the drive to repeal the estate tax, a measure that affects just 1 to 2 percent of the population and that is paid predominantly by the superrich, fueled a grassroots campaign that ended up throwing Democrats on the defensive. In a typical year the estate tax brought in enough revenue to fund one-half of the spending of the Department of Homeland Security or of the Education Department, or twice the amount of money spent on Pell grants (the largest federal program to help nonwealthy students attend college). It was, in other words, a tax the vast majority of Americans had a vested interest in keeping on the books, a point the Democrats should have had an easy time making.

Why didn’t they? The simple explanation is that Republicans employed deception, renaming the estate tax the “death tax” to make it sound like something that affected everyone and trotting out people like Chester Thigpen, an African-American tree farmer from Mississippi and a grandson of slaves. (Not for the first time, color-blind Republicans managed to recover their vision when trying to put one over on Americans.) In 1995 Thigpen testified before Congress about how the estate tax was going to rob his family of the American dream. “We…want to leave the Tree Farm in our family,” he explained. “We’re not rich people.” His story was promptly featured in a Heritage Foundation report, “Death Tax Devastation: Horror Stories from Middle-Class America.” One detail not mentioned is that Thigpen didn’t actually come to Washington on his own initiative or write his testimony–he was recruited by a man named Jim Martin, a GOP activist and Bush supporter who heads a seniors organization that was pushing for estate-tax repeal. Also omitted was that Thigpen’s estate was not, in fact, taxable–he really wasn’t rich, and so, as with the vast majority of family farmers and small-business owners, the measure wasn’t going to cost him a nickel.

Even so, Graetz and Shapiro make a convincing case that propaganda was not the chief reason the campaign to repeal the estate tax gathered steam. A far more important factor was that throughout the 1990s, the only people in Washington making impassioned moral arguments about it were antitax conservatives, a committed network of true believers determined to convince Americans that it was wrong on principle for the government to tax anybody’s assets when they died. Had there been voices on the other side arguing that levying a tax on inherited wealth in a nation where people pride themselves on self-reliance is both right and fair, the passion and energy of the repeal forces might have been neutralized. But there weren’t. Democrats for the most part ignored the issue. When they finally got around to thinking about it, they weren’t sure what their position should be, let alone how to frame it in compelling moral language. Not surprisingly, they were easily outmatched. “Talking to the strategists from both sides,” write Graetz and Shapiro, “left the indelible impression that the Democrats facing the repealers were like the Yale football team trying to take on Ohio State.”

This is what happens in politics when one side makes clear what it is fighting for and the other side does not, a seemingly self-evident point that has somehow been lost on the Democratic Party’s leading strategists. Again and again during the 2004 presidential campaign, the swing voters so coveted by the Kerry campaign told pollsters and reporters that while they weren’t crazy about Bush, at least they knew where he stood and what he believed. Even Kerry’s most ardent supporters were hard-pressed to say this about him. The effort to tar Kerry as a “flip-flopper” worked in part because on issues like Iraq, eyes glued to the polls, this is exactly what he was.

In fairness, the problem isn’t Kerry’s alone. As Washington Post columnist E.J. Dionne Jr. notes in Stand Up Fight Back, the Democrats have become a party whose members define their identity by telling voters what they are not: “We’re not tax-and-spend liberals, we’re not weak on defense, we’re not soft on crime, we’re not feckless on family values.” The mere hint of a set of affirmative values–standing up for shareholders against corporate criminals, say, or insisting that every American should have access to affordable healthcare and a college education, or expressing indignation at the scandal of poverty in the world’s wealthiest nation–has generally been avoided. It’s no wonder that, in light of this, many people nod their heads when Republicans tell them the GOP alone stands for clear values. And it’s no mystery why, in the absence of a vigorous case for something different, Democrats constantly find themselves reacting to what the other side proposes.

“What if progressives were to become bolder–and more candid–about the philosophy behind their ideas?” Dionne asks. The party’s more timid consultants never seem to tire of warning that such an approach risks alienating the moderate middle. It is a reflex rooted in fear, but also in the shadow cast over the party by the last Democrat to have succeeded on the national stage. It is a sign of how desperate liberals have grown that the losing streak they have been on lately, combined with the sense that they are invariably being outsmarted by tougher and more politically savvy conservatives, has fueled nostalgia for Bill Clinton. Then again, perhaps such nostalgia is inevitable in a party that has put up the charisma-challenged Kerry and Al Gore in the last two presidential elections. For all his faults, Clinton was an undeniably gifted politician with a natural ability to telegraph empathy and to parse issues in a manner that appeased his supporters and frustrated his foes. It is hard to read John Harris’s recent biography of the ex-President, aptly titled The Survivor, and not come away impressed by Clinton’s ability to stay on his feet. Unlike Gore and Kerry, Clinton took the GOP’s best punches and didn’t fall to the mat. Like Ali in the Rumble in the Jungle, he did the rope-a-dope, absorbing his enemies’ harshest blows and then, just when he looked to be finished, striking back with some combinations of his own.

The “Man from Hope” made liberals feel like winners again. Watching Clinton deliver a speech at the Democratic National Convention last year, it was possible to imagine that Kerry might defeat Bush. And yet, paradoxically, Clinton’s legacy and example is something the Democrats urgently need to shed, not embrace. For it is from Clinton that the party’s leaders inherited some of their most debilitating traits: the obsessive fixation on polls (mined in a desperate effort to predict what the public wants them to say); the elevation of expediency over principle; the search for compromise in a tug of war with an opponent that has made no secret of its desire to quash them at every turn. Again and again during his two terms in office, Clinton neutralized his conservative critics by co-opting their ideas and blurring the distinction between himself and them. Many people looking back believe this was smart politics. But any honest assessment must reckon with the costs. As Harris notes, Clinton’s two major achievements–reforming welfare and balancing the budget–were conservative goals. In announcing that the era of big government was over, he was reading from a script written by the right. Clinton was a brilliant politician but a terrible party leader. His personal survival came, it appears increasingly clear over time, at the Democrats’ collective expense.

Harris tells a story about an event in the spring of 1995 that ought to dampen the enthusiasm of anyone dreaming that in 2008 Hillary will restore the pride of liberalism by carrying on her husband’s legacy. It was the fiftieth anniversary of Franklin Roosevelt’s death and, at the cottage in Warm Springs, Georgia, where the architect of the New Deal had died, Clinton held forth, telling the audience that FDR would have supported his efforts to cooperate with Republicans, reform the welfare system and make incremental progressive change. In the audience were Arthur Schlesinger Jr., author of an acclaimed three-volume history of the New Deal, and John Kenneth Galbraith, who served in Roosevelt’s Administration. They were not persuaded. In the next morning’s Washington Post, Galbraith quipped, “FDR enjoyed his enemies. I’d like to see Bill Clinton enjoy them more.” Schlesinger noted that Roosevelt “loved a good fight,” whereas Clinton “seems by temperament an accommodator.” When Clinton read the article he was furious, and responded by doing the quintessential Clintonian thing–inviting Schlesinger, Galbraith and other prominent liberals to a seafood luncheon, where he turned on the charm and told them he was looking forward to using his veto pen in the period ahead. “I think all of us were both impressed and disarmed,” Schlesinger wrote in his journal that night. “I also think we all felt that if he acts the way he talked, things would improve–but still wonder about the ‘if.'”

Bill Clinton is no longer around. And there is some evidence–the recent maneuver by Senate Democrats to force Republicans into a closed session over the failure to investigate prewar intelligence, for example–that the GOP’s plummeting fortunes have begun to swing the balance of power in Washington. Although they control every branch of the government, Republicans have had to retreat from some of their top priorities lately, such as making repeal of the estate tax permanent, and have had no luck preventing the American people from believing they were lied to about Iraq. You can fool some people some of the time, it appears, but even the Rove-led GOP can’t fool all of them all of the time.

Strikingly, however, the Democrats still appear unable–or unwilling–to seize the moment and explain how they would govern the country differently. They bemoan the phenomenon of working-class voters getting suckered into voting for the GOP yet shy away from embracing a populist economic agenda that might win back their allegiance. They criticize the Bush Administration for leading America into a disastrous war yet refrain from issuing a unified call for withdrawal (when Pennsylvania Representative John Murtha recently did just that, Democrats from Hillary Clinton to John Kerry scrambled to distance themselves from his remarks). Perhaps this is why, in a recent Pew Research Center poll, while the voters said they trusted the Democrats more on a wide range of issues, the party’s approval ratings were no better than the Republicans’, with discontent particularly strong among their own usual supporters. Sixty-three percent of Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents believe “the party is doing only a fair or a poor job standing up for its traditional positions on such things as protecting the interests of minorities, helping the poor and needy, and representing working people.” Until this changes, there will be no reason to believe that the Republican Party’s recent problems will have a lasting effect. And, for all the flaws and contortions in our political culture and system of representative government, the Democrats will have nobody but themselves to blame.