Why the Democrats Could Lose in 2008
Stay up to date with the latest headlines via email.
National Democrats are upbeat about their chances in Election 2008, citing George W. Bushâ€™s unpopularity and the weirdness of top Republican presidential candidates bogged down in squabbles over who has the right religious outlook or who is the most hostile to illegal immigrants.
But the smug Democratic hierarchy may be inviting defeat, again, by ignoring the fact that many Americans want leadership that appeals to them on the higher plane of principle. Instead, Democrats often treat Americans more like consumers than citizens, selling them new social programs rather than articulating an uplifting national cause.
Sen. Hillary Clinton of New York summed up this consumer-over-citizen approach when she announced her health care plan on Sept. 17:
"We can talk all we want about freedom and opportunity, about life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, but what does all that mean to a mother or father who can't take a sick child to the doctor?"
Perhaps a different question might be: why would a presidential candidate see the founding principles of the United States as somehow at odds with the desire of parents to want health care for their children?
With her dubious dichotomy, Sen. Clinton suggests that itâ€™s an either-or situation -- and that the founding principles must take a backseat to health-care policy.
One outgrowth of this pragmatism-not-principle approach is that national Democrats have shied away from rallying the American people around the ideals of the Republic, even when they have been under assault by Bush and his administration.
These Democratic leaders donâ€™t seem to think that ephemeral notions -- like checks and balances, the rule of law, and inalienable rights -- matter that much to the average Joe. In this view, health insurance and other social benefits should trump all.
Congressional Democrats have operated in a similar fashion, teasing the American public with promises to stop the Iraq War but then treating the issue as just another bargaining chip, albeit one covered in the blood of nearly 3,900 American soldiers and hundreds of thousands of Iraqis.
While many Americans oppose the Iraq War on grounds of morality or as a matter of legal principle, House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-Maryland, told the Washington Post that Democratic leaders were ready to drop their promise to deny Bush any more blank checks for the war if they can get another $11 billion for domestic programs.
â€œEverybody knows he [Bush] has no intention of signing anything without money for Iraq, unfettered without constraints,â€ Hoyer said. â€œI think thatâ€™s ultimately going to be the result.â€
Ironically, however, the Republicans are now so accustomed to the Democrats caving in on Iraq War funding that the White House is signaling that it has no intention of giving the Democrats anything extra for their predictable collapse. Bush seems prepared to veto the domestic spending -- and pocket another Iraq War blank check.
In contrast to this ever-waffling Democratic leadership, the Republicans do understand the political value of appealing to Americans on a higher plane.
The GOP -- the party of tax cuts for the rich -- has convinced millions of average Americans to vote against their own financial interests in order to advance their principles, from protecting gun rights to outlawing abortion to breaking down the barriers between church and state.
The Republican CNN/YouTube debate on Nov. 28 was dominated by questions and answers that emphasized right-wing goals over programmatic details. Though one may disagree with those priorities, they do go beyond the voterâ€™s pocketbook and address a larger purpose for the nation.
Fear of Flying
National Democrats have been reluctant to engage on this higher plane for many years, beyond occasional feel-good speeches stressing non-controversial values like community and inclusiveness.
The Democrats shy away from standing up for constitutional principles, possibly because they see these concepts as too abstract for common citizens.
Democrats have been weak, too, in understanding the value of truth in a democracy. Even when a Republican administration is on the hot seat, the Democrats have shown a proclivity to trade away a difficult showdown over accountability for some votes on domestic programs.
In 1993, the incoming Clinton administration and the Democratic majorities in the House and Senate helped Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush sweep under the rug the full story about national security scandals, such as the Iran-Contra Affair and the Iraq-gate scandal, both involving secret military shipments to the Middle East.
President Bill Clinton later explained that he felt it was more important to build goodwill with Republicans whose help he needed on domestic programs than to pursue the truth about those historical issues. [For details, see Robert Parryâ€™s Secrecy & Privilege.]
As it turned out, Clinton got no help from the Republicans on his domestic agenda and no reciprocity when it came to Clintonâ€™s own scandals. The Republicans won control of Congress in 1994 by rallying their base around the issue of Clintonâ€™s immorality.
In 1998, Clinton was impeached by the Republican-controlled House for lying about a sexual relationship and -- although acquitted by the Senate -- his reputation was forever tarred. As Republicans hammered away at Clintonâ€™s ethical lapses, the Democratic counter-argument boiled down to: Gee, look at the booming economy.
But that pocketbook self-interest wasnâ€™t enough to save the Democrats in Campaign 2000. Texas Gov. George W. Bush managed to overcome public doubts about his competence by stressing his supposed commitment to restore â€œhonor and decencyâ€ to the Oval Office.
That pledge -- along with fond memories of the elder George Bush and some artificial scandals about Al Goreâ€™s integrity -- got Bush close enough to snatch the White House, while Republicans also continued to dominate Congress through 2006. [For details,see Robert Parryâ€™s book, Neck Deep.]
Finally, in Campaign 2006, the Democrats started giving voice to the publicâ€™s outrage over the lies that had justified the U.S. invasion of Iraq. Millions of Americans also were alarmed by how brazenly Bush was trampling the nationâ€™s constitutional liberties by asserting his â€œplenaryâ€ or unlimited powers as Commander in Chief.
Trying to salvage the congressional Republican majorities, Bush played the fear card again and again on the campaign trail, essentially arguing that he would keep Americans safe so they could comfortably go shopping at the mall.
In effect, the principle v. self-interest balance tilted toward the Democrats. They were the ones with the more idealistic vision of the United States as a brave nation that would not surrender its Constitution in the face of fear.
The election result was a surprising victory for the Democrats as they won back control of the House and the Senate.
Rank-and-file Democratic activists began demanding that their new majorities stand tough against Bushâ€™s open-ended war in Iraq and seek his impeachment if he continued his arrogation of constitutional powers.
But the Inside-the-Beltway Democratic consultants quickly began to reassert their influence over the national party. They called on the leaders to shelve proposals for curtailing the Iraq War and throw out any notion of impeachment, instead pushing for â€œkitchen-tableâ€ issues like raising the minimum wage.
"People are not looking to their individual members of Congress to solve the Iraq War," said Democratic pollster Celinda Lake. "For the House to be focused on it now would look like partisan bickering rather than getting on with the people's business."
Lakeâ€™s view of the Iraq War as a diversion was shared by several leading Democrats in Congress, including Hoyer and Rep. Rahm Emanuel of Illinois.
Referring to Bushâ€™s Iraq War â€œsurgeâ€ and the need to focus on the Democratic domestic agenda, Emanuel said, "I know where support for more troops is, and I know where support is for the minimum-wage increase.â€
But Democratic grassroots outrage forced the congressional leadership at least to pay lip service to stopping the war. So, the Democrats conducted what amounted to a phony legislative battle, putting up some symbolic anti-war resolutions and trying to attach timelines to war funding bills.
When faced with Republican filibusters or a Bush veto, however, the Democrats ran up the white flag. Instead of conducting their own filibuster to block another blank check for the war, the Democrats surrendered.
On the constitutional front, not only did they keep impeachment â€œoff the table,â€ as House Speaker Nancy Pelosi had said, the Democrats failed to mount any sustained investigations of Bushâ€™s high-handed abuse of his powers.
Rather than launch Fulbright-style investigations of the disastrous Iraq War, Sen. Joe Biden, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, chose to make an unlikely run for President. Other committee chairmen held some scattershot hearings but nothing sustained and comprehensive.
Even with the new revelations that Bushâ€™s CIA destroyed videotapes of alleged torture of terror suspects, the Democrats have mostly confined themselves to calls for the Bush administration to investigate itself.
To put it mildly, the Democratic behavior over the past year has not been inspirational.
Now, the Democratic leaders are acting as if theyâ€™ll be guaranteed more seats in Congress and a return to the White House if they donâ€™t offend anybody over the next 11 months.
But the Democratic base is edgy. Theyâ€™ve seen this wishful thinking before -- and it usually ends up with another muddled Democratic campaign and another Republican victory.
Since Hillary Clinton is seen as a chief practitioner of this politics of principle-avoidance, many rank-and-file Democrats are turning against her.
Some would have preferred Al Gore, who combines a depth of experience on key issues like the environment with the foresight to have opposed Bush on the Iraq War and his assault on the Constitution. But Gore has opted for a life as an acclaimed private citizen.
That has caused many Democrats who are uncomfortable with Sen. Clintonâ€™s obsessive pragmatism to shift toward Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois, despite his limited experience and his own tendency toward conciliation over conflict.
While Obama received high marks for his eloquent keynote address to the Democratic convention in 2004, it was striking, too, in its failure to criticize Bush by name or to articulate why the country should fire its sitting President.
As other Democrats joined Obama in pulling their punches, John Kerry emerged from the convention with an extraordinary zero bounce.
Still, a growing number of rank-and-file Democrats appear ready to gamble now on what they hope will be an uplifting Obama candidacy, over the prospect of a grim-and-grinding Hillary Clinton campaign.
More than anything, many in the Democratic base want to send a message to the Democratic leadership that â€“regardless of what the professional pollsters might say -- principles do matter to Americans.