Two-term presidencies rarely end on the twentieth day of January in the odd year following a national election. Rather, history tells us, they tend to flame out months--sometimes years--before the Oval Office officially changes hands. After a response to Hurricane Katrina that reinforced Americans' doubts about George W. Bush's competence and his caring, and with continuing turns for the worse in Iraq, the President has blundered toward the precipice of a prematurely finished presidency. But as history also tells us, presidencies don't plunge into political free-fall on their own. The opposition party must stoke public resentment and offer convincing alternatives to the Commander in Chief's failed vision.
Bush boosted his sagging approval ratings a bit by tarting up his Gulf Coast reconstruction plans in Franklin Roosevelt drag. But he's facing a revolt within his own party over what some see as an attempt to spend his way out of the doghouse. The danger for Democrats is that the debate over rebuilding New Orleans and the rest of the stricken region could play out as an intramural fight between a "compassionate" President and his fiscally conservative compatriots. That would leave Democrats where they were after the 9/11 terrorist attacks--as hapless allies with a President they are unwilling, or unsure of how, to challenge.
This is no time for such timidity. If Democrats want to get the better of Bush at last, and if they want to advance an agenda that could revitalize their party and their country, they must not get stuck between the Administration and its right flank. They must be blunt about the fact that while it has a big price tag, Bush's response to the Gulf Coast crisis is inadequate and irresponsible. The first step is fighting the President's decision to waive prevailing-wage laws on the Gulf Coast--a giveaway to contractors that denies displaced workers a chance to earn enough to piece their lives back together. Democrats should reject the President's attempts to ease environmental regulations in a region already ecologically devastated. They should back a proposal by Senator Russ Feingold and Representative John Conyers to delay the implementation of bankruptcy "reforms" that will make it tougher for Gulf Coast residents to get back on their feet. And they should launch a frontal assault on the tax policies of an Administration that has starved the government's capacity to provide basic protections and services. That means shooting down the President's proposal to eliminate estate taxes. It also means demanding that Bush be accountable for the $200 billion he has sunk into Iraq, with no end in sight.
At a time when savvy Republicans are starting to put distance between themselves and the President, Democrats have a chance to develop broad coalitions to demand accountability. Not just accountability for the occupation of Iraq and the campaign of calculated deceit that led us to war but for reckless tax cuts, environmental degradation and other domestic disasters this President has ushered in.
But pushing back against Bush's destructive policies is not enough. While Democrats expose and oppose the President's attempt to make the Gulf Coast a laboratory for conservative pet projects and crony capitalism, they must also lay out a full-scale reconstruction plan of their own--a "people's reconstruction" that advances a democratically accountable, economically viable, socially just and environmentally sustainable plan for regional rebuilding. By doing so, Democrats will accomplish something more lasting and important than nudging a faltering President over the precipice. They will identify their party as the credible alternative--the credible leader--it has failed to be for far too long.