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.
Despite this, Democrats are in much better shape than you'd know from the pundits prating about their lack of unity and absence of ideas. In reality, George Bush's extremism has forged greater Democratic unity than ever. That unity was critical in routing Bush's primary second-term domestic initiative--privatization of Social Security--and will help Democrats make the election a national referendum on conservative corruption and incompetence. (Newt Gingrich helpfully supplied the slogan: "Had Enough?")
Democratic leaders in the House and Senate not only have drummed on the Republican "culture of corruption" but have forged relatively widespread agreement on a positive issue agenda that helps dramatize the costs of that corruption to voters. They've called for a concerted drive for energy independence, as opposed to the Administration's Big Oil cronyism. They'd fix the prescription drug program--put it in Medicare and require Medicare to negotiate lower prices--as opposed to the Big Pharma giveaways DeLay forced through Congress. They would invest in education and cut student loan interest rates in half, as opposed to GOP cuts of billions from student aid. They'd raise the minimum wage, which Republicans, catering to the business lobby, have frozen since 1997. They would get serious about homeland security, in stark contrast to the cronyism revealed in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. And they would attack the incompetence and corruption in Iraq, where insider companies like Halliburton made off with billions in no-bid contracts, even while the Pentagon charges them with fraudulent billing.
Neither Democratic nor Republican incumbents have exactly been stalwarts when it comes to getting big money out of politics. But this agenda gives Democrats a populist theme, pitting the common good against the special interest, working people against corporate lobbies.
Thus far, the Republicans' response has been as fractured as their popularity. Many legislators are scrambling to go local--highlighting their independence from Bush and their effectiveness in serving their constituents. But the White House and the RNC argue that their best hope is to make the election a fear-driven choice, not a referendum on conservative performance. As Karl Rove put it to the RNC, the President knows we're at war, whereas Democrats want to "cut and run"; the President will do what is necessary to keep Americans safe, while Democrats worry about warrants and procedure, opposing the "terrorist surveillance program" and renewal of the Patriot Act; Republicans are for tax cuts and growth, while Democrats will raise taxes and sabotage growth; and Republicans defend traditional values--like marriage--while Democrats undermine them.
This replays tunes that were brutally effective in 2002 and 2004. But few voters may still be listening to the President on Iraq, and most Americans think Republicans are out of touch when they tout the supposedly good economy. Plus, Republican posturing on social issues is losing credibility even on the right.