As they arrive in Minneapolis for their convention, Republicans cannot evade the monuments to their misrule. Only a few miles from convention headquarters is the site of the I-35W bridge, which collapsed last summer, killing thirteen and injuring 145, symbol of the Republican drive to “starve the beast” by stinting on basic public investment, rolling back sensible regulation, scorning the very government they were elected to lead. Also nearby is the Larry Craig memorial toilet, symbol of the seamy hypocrisy of those who would enforce a blinkered morality on others, as they flout it privately. In Minnesota hotel rooms a short video, presented courtesy of the Campaign for America’s Future, thanks Republicans “for the memories”: Iraq, Katrina, record home foreclosures, Gilded Age inequality, corporate cronyism, Abu Ghraib, Guantánamo and more.
Eight years ago, the people gave the right the keys to the country. With a GOP Congress, conservatives had the power to govern on their own terms–and they drove the country off a cliff. America is weaker and more isolated abroad, with our reputation besmirched and our influence blunted. They’ve made us the world’s largest debtor, with our dollar debased and our economy dependent on the generosity of foreign central bankers. Three million manufacturing jobs have been lost. George W. Bush and John McCain say the basics of the economy are strong, but most Americans have fared worse, even when the economy grew. The wealthiest 0.1 percent–those with incomes over the $5 million that McCain says one must earn to be rich–have captured grossly disproportionate rewards from the nation’s growth. Corruption and cronyism–Halliburton, Enron, WorldCom, Big Pharma and Big Oil–have plundered billions from our Treasury. The Iraq debacle has squandered more than $1 trillion and counting. Heavy challenges like global warming have been scorned. Our broken healthcare system has deteriorated even further while our civil liberties have been curtailed by an imperial President who disrespects the Republic itself. The right’s failure is complete.
Republicans try to sound hopeful. McCain is running neck and neck with Obama; McCain’s “drill now, drill here” posturing has struck a chord with Americans taxed by high gas prices–even though the Administration’s own energy experts say increased domestic drilling will do nothing to solve our energy needs or lessen dependence on foreign oil. The right is trotting out all the old tricks, braying about “tax and spend” Democrats, inveighing against elitist, arugula-eating liberals, donning once more its mock populist election-year garb.
But this is an addict’s illusion. Reality says the right’s time is over. The smarter ones admit it. “If we were a dog food, they’d take us off the shelf,” concludes Tom Davis, former head of the Republican Congressional Campaign Committee. Republican strategist Ross Douthat concludes that we’re “headed for a period of Democratic dominance, maybe four years, maybe eight or more.”
Republicans have lost the past three special elections. Democrats now enjoy a robust registration edge. More than two dozen Republican incumbents decided to quit rather than fight for re-election this year. Even the corporate moneybags are hedging its bets, donating to Democratic candidates and committees, buying up Democratic lobbyists. As Senator John Ensign, chair of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, puts it, “If you have an R in front of your name, you better run scared.” Indeed, most Republicans are running from the GOP label, acting as if they’ve never met George Bush.
Conservatives, of course, rarely admit failure. Already they are excoriating Bush as a “big government” deviant from the faith. Once more McCain is dusting off the old staples: tax cuts for the rich and the corporations as a recipe for growth. Corporate trade deals as a generator of jobs. More war and more imperial bluster. More Big Oil energy and Big Pharma medicine policies. He calls for privatizing Social Security and taxing healthcare benefits, and he deigns, with too many houses to keep track of, to lecture Americans on skipping vacations to make their mortgage payments. Cloistered in a life of privilege–raised on an admiral’s estate, married into an heiress’s fortune–McCain dares paint Barack Obama, who grew up in less than ideal circumstances, as elitist and out of touch. And so McCain’s campaign is reduced to a noun, a verb and POW, invoking the one sacrifice of his life to fend off a deeper look at his career and policies. But it is not likely that even McCain will be able to sell the same old, same old, when 80 percent of Americans are looking for a dramatic change in course. “The era of ‘the era of big government is over’ is over,” as Bill Scher of the Campaign for America’s Future puts it.
Whatever outcome the election delivers, the nation is at an ideological watershed. The old order that has ruled for nearly thirty years has imploded, but a new order is not yet fully formed to replace it. McCain dare not acknowledge that market capitalism, once relieved of government regulation and social obligations, has produced harsh inequalities and brutal dislocations instead of general prosperity. Obama does not dare to describe a fully reactivated reform agenda for government, fearful that it might sound too audacious to some wary voters.
Nevertheless, this moment demands nothing less than a broad reimagining of the future and what is possible. The country at large expresses deep yearning for a fresh vision, and progressives welcome the opportunity. This is the hour when left-liberal activists and thinkers can step forward and drive events–not because we have controlling influence but because we have confident answers and ideas, while the nervous agents of the status quo in both parties act confused and lost.
After years of playing defense, progressives are thinking ahead, imagining a postelection politics in which we push a President Obama to step up to the crisis. We are re-envisioning a government that confronts neglected social needs, that tackles the deep corruption in financial markets and imperious corporations, that reorders America’s priorities and values.
These are difficult, unsettling objectives, and neither party is quite ready to think in such ambitious terms. But we are. And we expect to be heard.