The party of tired blood badly needs a “regime change” of its own. For the greater good of the Democrats, Gephardt and Daschle should go. Win or lose, a graceful postelection exit would liberate both to pursue their presidential dreams while someone with more backbone manages the opposition politics. This outcome is easier to imagine if Democrats lose the Senate and again fail to achieve a House majority (colleagues expect as much in that case from Gephardt). But new faces would be even more therapeutic if the party wins control of both chambers. The Senate majority leader and House minority leader have steered Democrats with a stale strategy of risk avoidance and incumbent protection–instead of trying to shake the party out of its self-absorbed complacency. Their leadership has been slow-footed and confused but, above all, blind to new realities. Neither man seems large-minded enough to grasp the country’s changed circumstances or to embrace the risks and opportunities of vital new ideas.
Republicans are privately astounded and grateful. Gephardt and Daschle are so preoccupied with dodging bullets and running away from unambiguous positions that they seem surprised, even a little bitter, to learn that voters don’t have a clue about what Democrats stand for (even rank-and-file Democrats have trouble figuring it out). Yes, it’s a trifle unfair to blame them, because their timidity and ineptitude reflect the party’s–though in fact, many Democrats are eager for more aggressive leaders and yearn, at least privately, for more substantive politics. They are still nurturing misplaced nostalgia for the Clinton years and the false hope that if they just keep their mouths shut, the country will yearn for their return. The more fundamental problem is that Democrats as a whole really don’t know which way they’re headed. In that sense, Daschle and Gephardt are exactly the leaders the party deserves.
Daschle has been particularly lame as point man. Democrats like to wail about Bush’s $1.3 trillion tax cut but forget that Daschle’s opening offer was $900 billion. He rushed through the bailout for airlines (his wife was a lead lobbyist) and left out the workers. The measure expanding unemployment benefits was hailed as a great Democratic victory, but the bill included $43 billion in new business tax breaks, compared with $8.5 billion for the millions of jobless. Gephardt is shackled by House rules, but he too tailored the agenda to avoid discomforting conservative Democrats (many of whom vote with the GOP on money issues anyway).
War in Iraq is the latest, most fateful example of their failed leadership. Gephardt, uncharacteristically, blew off his own caucus and made a private deal with the President, oblivious to the growing antiwar momentum. He failed to persuade a majority of his own colleagues, who voted with House whip Nancy Pelosi. What was Gephardt thinking? That this would inoculate him against the “peacenik” label and that weak-minded Democrats would forget? Daschle, likewise, caved on the craven premise that once they got the “war vote” out of the way Democrats could concentrate on their popular domestic issues.
And what issues are those? The Democratic leaders stood mute and wary before historic events that have the potential to reshape national politics–the cratering stock market, Enron-style corporate scandals and deflation-prone meltdown of the economy. For six months, liberal-labor advocates banged on the hypercautious leaders to stake out a forceful party position. They resolved to remain vaporously unthreatening and three steps behind the White House. Now, can you believe it, some polls indicate that voters trust Republicans more to handle the corporate corruption!
On the economy, the Dems are sticking with Clinton’s old policy–balance the budget and prosperity will follow–which amounts in these troubled circumstances to dangerously backward economics. Gephardt belatedly announced a modest stimulus plan three weeks before the election (did anyone hear about it?), while Senate Democrats remain fixated on fiscal discipline, reaching for the mantle of Herbert Hoover’s historic disgrace. Cynics would say they are implicitly rooting for terrible times for their own rank and file, in hopes of winning the next election. When they do accede to deficit spending, it will be catch-up as usual.
Changing leaders does not solve every problem, but it might jump-start the big arguments needed to reinvigorate the party’s character. Pelosi is poised to succeed Gephardt, if he resigns, as insiders expect, and her contest against more conservative Martin Frost of Texas should become a decisive moment in the party’s future. In the Senate, most members don’t want a strong leader pushing them to take risks, but maybe someone like Chris Dodd of Connecticut could be persuaded to try again (Dodd lost to Daschle by only one vote). This problem is not essentially about left-right ideology but about the heart and guts to lead. Democrats have to learn the value of fighting and losing–fighting for important ideas and principles, losing a roll call and then fighting again, until the party’s convictions are made strong and clear and popular faith is mobilized. That has been the strategic approach of modern Republicans, who rebuilt their party by sticking to core convictions, however extreme. Democrats appear to believe they can do it with mush.