SEC chairman Harvey Pitt lurches from lapdog to bulldog, threatening CEOs with jail time if their corporate reports mislead. George Bush demands “top floor” accountability. Republican leaders in the House muscle their own caucus members into passing a sham prescription drug benefit.

The run-up to the fall elections has begun. Barely a month ago, White House political guru Karl Rove was telling Republicans they could retain control of Congress by waving the flag, celebrating the recovery and promoting an ill-defined “compassion agenda.” Now, with the dollar and the stock market sinking, the recovery looking shaky and Vice President Cheney back in hiding as investigations widen into accounting deceptions at his former company, Halliburton, Republicans are getting nervous.

Americans don’t want the war on terrorism turned to partisan purpose, pollster Stan Greenberg informed a Campaign for America’s Future press briefing, “and they want this election to be about their own pressing concerns”–the soaring price of healthcare, educating their children, paying for college, decent jobs with good benefits and whether they can afford to retire now that their 401(k) has become a 201(k).

At such a moment, progressive reforms are not only good policy but good politics. Add a real prescription drug provision to Medicare. Get serious about cracking down on HMOs. Invest in teachers, schools and after-school care and help with college tuition; pay for it by closing down offshore tax havens and making billionaires pay what they did before George W. Bush cut their taxes. Raise the minimum wage and curb excessive executive pay packages. Protect workers’ pensions and prosecute corrupt corporate executives. Save Social Security from privatization’s benefit cuts. Stop fast-track trade authority and demand trade accords that strengthen rather than diminish worker, farmer and environmental protections. Make polluters pay for cleaning up their toxic wastes instead of sending the bill to taxpayers and slowing the cleanup.

The popularity of these reforms has led Republicans to add political cross-dressing to the Rove strategy: Hug a tree, hang a CEO, don’t say the word “privatization.” Whether they can get away with this is unclear. It’s a bit like putting pearl earrings on a sow. It’s an all-too-real prospect, however, at a time when Democrats control the Senate but fast track passes easily, when Senator Ted Kennedy still has trouble getting fellow Democrats to sign on for a rewrite of Bush’s fundamentally flawed tax plan, and when Democratic Leadership Council-addled “money Democrats” blur the differences between the parties.

If Democrats hope to win in 2002, they will have to do it the old-fashioned way–by running as Democrats. And labor, community, civil rights, women’s and environmental groups will have to give them a push in the right direction–just as they did with the successful effort to keep the GOP from enacting a permanent repeal of the estate tax. Rove and his army of strategists are masters at filling the narrow cracks between the GOP and “kinder, gentler” Democrats. Only by opening a significant divide between themselves and the GOP can the Democrats emerge as the alternative that Rove and his minions fear–and that the voters are ready to embrace.