WASHINGTON, Nov. 23 (UPI) -- Bush's America: Left Turn for Dems?
UPI presents a series on the changed face of U.S. politics after the Republican victories in the congressional midterm elections
Fifth of five parts
Ever since Vietnam, more than three and a half decades ago, the Democrats have been the party of shooting themselves in the foot. The only two times they have regained the presidency in all those years has been when they flew the flag of "Me-too-ism." But their rout at the hands of George W. Bush on Nov. 5 shows that even this is a busted flush. They have no credible alternatives to the Republicans on economic issues and no alternatives at all on defense ones. Where can they possibly go from here?
Yet all is far from lost for the hapless Dems and the old cliché about it being darkest before the dawn could yet -- just -- be true for them. But for that to be the case, they must turn left rather than right, abandon the accommodation-ist policies they have followed for more than a quarter of a century and -- most difficult of all -- develop real principles and show real political courage in espousing them.
For the Third Way is dead. And the Age of Clinton is finally over. If the highly significant voter shifts of the midterm congressional elections Nov. 5 showed anything they showed that. And the achievement of a left wing, northern California, San Francisco-based and San Francisco-shaped congresswoman, Nancy Pelosi, as the new House Minority Leader, may well turn out to be far from the idyllic good news for the GOP that George Will and so many other old conservative commentators complacently imagine.
First, let it be again noted, as we repeatedly have in this series, that over the next two years George W., Bush has a free hand to do what he will in national security and domestic policies. He has the sweeping powers, and the very real mandate, to reshape America, for good or ill, as no president has since his fellow Texan Lyndon Baines Johnson.
For not since the first Congress from 1964 to 1966 of Johnson's fated single elected term of office has there been such a time as this. LBJ pushed through vast achievements in Medicare and the Civil Rights Act. But he also had the free hand to inflict the historic disasters of the Vietnam War and the expanded and abused welfare system upon America. And not since then has any president of either party enjoyed the kind of disciplined, loyal majorities in both the House of Representatives and the Senate that Bush does now.
Therefore, the strategy that propelled two relatively conservative Southern Democrats -- Jimmy Carter in 1976 and Bill Clinton in 1992 -- into the White House will not work at all against Bush in 2004 whether things go wonderfully well or hideously badly for him.
If things go well for Bush, as he and his colleagues confidently expect, then the Democrats haven't a prayer anyway. Given the radical Islamic terrorist threat, peace is impossible. But if Bush wins his war in Iraq and revives the economy with his policies, voters will give him the biggest landslide since Ronald Reagan creamed Walter Mondale in 1984 -- at the very least. It could even be as big as Richard Nixon's win over George McGovern in 1972.
If that prospect looms, however, the Democrats desperately need to tack leftwards, against the prevailing conservative wind. For they will need to rally their committed core groups who will stick to them through thick and thin.
Then, at least they can regain the honorable old losers' chalice they cherished in the days of Adlai Stevenson and even McGovern and Mondale that they might be eternal losers, but at least they were principled losers. If they continue to stand for something -- or a whole lot of little things -- at least they will retain their place as the second party in the venerable American political system.
But if the Dems instead retain the "all politics is local" stupid, losing mantra of late House Speaker Tip O'Neill, and if they fail to clean out the crony corruption that rotted them through the Clinton years, then they will be up the creek without a paddle. And when the political pendulum swings again, as inevitably it someday must, they will not be riding it as they still so complacently expect.
Some new right-populist or spin-off third party, inspired by anyone from Ralph Nader through Pat Buchanan to Jesse Ventura, will wrench even that second place chalice from them, just as the Republicans displaced the ancient Whigs almost a century and a half ago.
But suppose the Republican Revolution and the Bush Imperial Presidency go off the rails in their moment of supreme triumph, just as the liberal Democrats and Johnson did back in the 1960s, what do the Democrats need to do then?
First they will need to urgently develop new defense and global strategic policies to replace failed Bush ones. And if the economy tanks seriously, then their old Third Way, free trade, booster-boom-and bubble policies of the '90s will be even deader than the current Republican ones. So they will have to come up with new policies -- and maybe even revive some old principles -- there too.
Therefore, even if those prospects appear no more than wishful thinking to current Democratic leaders -- just as they seem vague, never-to-be-really-experienced distant imaginings to most of the rest of the American people now -- tilting left and going combative makes sense for this eventuality too.
This is a radical analysis and it is likely to be as unpopular with the still dominant moderate Democrats as with the reigning conservative Republicans. For it would require the revered old party of Andrew Jackson, William Jennings Bryan and Franklin Roosevelt to actually go back and dust off their principles, and even their fiery, grassroots style of campaigning.
This would be a necessary reversion to tradition and venerable political practice too. On Nov. 5, let it be noted, it was the Republicans who proved to be the good-old-fashioned, grassroots-organized, roll-out-the regulars party who mobilized their traditional voter core and shepherded them to the voting booths. The Dems, still lost in their Georgetown soiree, soft money dreams of the Clinton years, put their trust in slick TV ad campaigns that cost a fortune and developed and delivered nothing at all. Only four of the 16 most contested congressional races went Democrat on polling day.
The road back to power is never automatic for any political party in the modern democratic world. And that road always starts with a painful re-evaluation, whether it is the Democrats tilting to the left with Franklin Roosevelt in the early 1930s or the Republicans to the right under Barry Goldwater and Ronald Reagan in the 1960s and '70s. Even Clinton's Third Way came as the result of a Democratic Party forced to confront the bankruptcy of its repeated policy failures and electoral rejections over the previous quarter of a century.
Politics is not only the art of the possible, it is also the history of the unanticipated. Therefore for the Democrats even to dream of a comeback, they must do the unexpected, otherwise they will experience the unprecedented.
They must tack to the left, and reevaluate the present in the light of their own past. Or else they will crown their relentless, humiliating, sustained eclipse of the past 36 years with a total extinction as complete as that of the 1850s Whigs -- or the Jurassic dinosaurs.