What comes next? The catastrophic conservatism of George W. Bush and the DeLay Congress is collapsing. Americans have turned against the signature Bush initiatives: the war in Iraq, privatization of Social Security, trickle-down economics, the Big Oil energy policy. The GOP coalition is splintering. The religious right’s extremism–Schiavo, stem cell research, attacks on science–alienates most Americans. The cynical posturing on immigration and gay marriage grows more transparent. DeLay is gone. Bush has moved from swagger to sorry.
Democrats are roused by the possibility of taking back the House and perhaps even the Senate this fall. But the stark failure of the right opens a far broader possibility, creating the space for a bold progressive vision and movement to challenge the grip that conservatives have had on our politics and imaginations over the past quarter-century. In this context, it’s worth taking a sober look at the possibilities and limits of the coming election.
The Debate We Will Have
With nearly two-thirds of the country now disapproving of the performance of Bush and the GOP Congress, Democrats are tempted to start scoping out their new offices. Nothing could be more pernicious. When Democrats believe they are sitting on a lead, they turn from cautious to catatonic.
In fact, while the conditions for a political tsunami this fall are gathering, Republicans may still be able to survive the storm. Congressional seats are like impregnable medieval castles, populated with loyal subjects and defended with all the hot oil ads and dedicated troops that money can buy. Challengers have neither the time nor the resources for a long siege. Republicans will flood any close race with big money in the final weeks. Even with voters looking for a change, taking out any of these barons is a heroic feat; on average, 94 percent of House incumbents win re-election. Moreover, Americans still tend to scorn Congress but like their legislator; they think Congress is corrupt but that their Representative is clean. Democrats need only fifteen seats to win a majority in the House, where the rules, and the seniority of liberals, would enable even a small majority to produce a dramatic change. But it will take an extraordinary mobilization to get it done.
Democrats may have difficulties navigating the storm as well. They have no consensus position on the fundamental issue driving opinion–the war in Iraq–and aren’t particularly compelling on how to fix the economy. Democrats rail at Bush’s failures in Iraq, but they are all over the map on what to do going forward. House minority leader Nancy Pelosi has supported the old Marine Jack Murtha in calling for getting the troops out (“redeployment” is the euphemism du jour), while others–including pre-presidential candidates Hillary Clinton, Joe Biden, Evan Bayh and Mark Warner–argue that it is important to leave a stable government in place, although they are divided on how to achieve that. And some, like Joe Lieberman, act like they’re part of the presidential glee club.
On the economy, Democrats have an open-throated critique of Bush’s failures–the budget and trade deficits, the stagnant wages, the growing inequality and poverty–but no clear alternative growth agenda. They’ve made fiscal probity a priority but hesitate to argue for fair taxes. This tends to leave them tongue-tied about major public investment. So when Bush argues for tax cuts and growth, too often Democrats argue about deficits.