Deliverance for Democrats?

Not so fast. It's going to take a lot more than indictments to defeat the GOP.

Published November 2, 2005 6:30PM (EST)

George W. Bush's season of defeats does offer the appearance of deliverance for Democrats. The notorious second-term jinx has brought him low in proportion to the heights of power he once scaled. Bush got what he wished for -- unbridled power -- and so succumbed to the ancient curse: May you get what you wish for.

But while Harry Reid's move Tuesday to throw the Senate into closed session to demand answers on Iraq intelligence was a good start, Democrats need a lot more of such fighting spirit to prevail, despite all Bush's troubles.

First the good ship Harriet Miers was torpedoed after movement conservatives rose up in righteous revolt (but for James Dobson, who was whispered who knows which sweet nothings to keep him in line). Then the cleanest of prosecutors galloped in, wearing the whitest of hats and astride the whitest of horses, as investigating judges have done in recent years to take down Italian corruption when political parties were on the take and journalists had more amusing fish to fry. Patrick Fitzgerald alleged numerous lies on the part of Scooter Libby, Dick Cheney's "Cheney," and couldn't say whether Cheney himself was culpable in the White House campaign to smear Joseph Wilson, a conscientious objector to their war campaign. In the process, Fitzgerald grazed awfully close to the vice president and simultaneously decided to keep a Washington grand jury in business while he looks into a whole stud farm of Augean stables: Karl Rove's, above all, but also the Italian secret services that in 2002 colluded with who knows whom to circulate forged Nigerien documents that helped Bush ease his way into the calamitous Iraq war. If it wasn't bad enough for Bush that Libby was out, Fitzgerald let it be known that he was not necessarily done cleaning out bad guys. And to add insult to injury, along came Bush's once-staunch ally, Silvio Berlusconi, his own reelection campaign looming nigh, to declare that in 2003 he tried to talk Bush out of going to war against Saddam Hussein. Berlusconi has been telling this story for at least a year. So much for the fervor of Bush's "coalition of the willing."

Meanwhile, Bush had to say farewell to the pliable Alan Greenspan, durable keeper of the Fed and sprinkler of holy water on Bush's immense deficit pileup. The president then decided to go respectable with Ben Bernanke as the replacement rather than go wild on the supply side with somebody else. Bush's dreams of dragging Social Security into the quagmire of privatization and consigning the inheritance tax to eternal hell are blasted.

Piling up in the background were a heap of other October surprises: Tom DeLay's appointments with Dallas prosecutor Ronnie Earle, Bill Frist's appointments with financial investigators, Jack Abramoff's appointments with prosecutors hither and yon (and who knows which of his cronies are facing their own showdowns), and New Orleans' many appointments with preventable misery and loss. Corruption and negligence have become the hallmarks of an administration that promised to install honor and efficiency where Democratic rascality and moral slovenliness governed before. Even senators of his own party have broken with Bush over the White House's laissez-faire policy toward torture.

Non-surprises also served to dash the president's aura of competence. There was that nasty little number: "American Deaths in Iraq Number 2,000." There was Bush's approval rating at least provisionally stuck on the wrong side of 40 percent. If Bush was still doing Bible study, he might have paid close attention to the Pharaonic plague chapters of Exodus.

No surprise, then, that George W. Bush's administration looks, this week, to be held together more by spit than cement. The lame duck quacks like a lame duck and walks like a lame duck so what else could it be? Presidents' second terms have a way of leaving a sick taste in their mouths, not to mention the mouths of many others, but it's hard to recall another administration whose second term has unraveled so far so fast.

Yet Bush is not without resources. His nomination of Samuel Alito to replace Sandra Day O'Connor on the Supreme Court may prove a stroke of intelligence in winning back offended movement conservatives, pundits and think-tankers who want a reliable judge. In any event, the nomination exhibits Bush striving to get back in charge -- or look as though he's already there. Stubborn as always, he resists with aplomb the calls, even from within Republican ranks, to clean up his inner circle. A man not devoid of cunning, even with Rove distracted, he prides himself on staying his course even when there is no obvious one. Bulldozer steadiness has worked for him before. (Perhaps it's the only thing that's worked for him before.) Blessed with a rock-hard faith in himself and whatever voices stay ringing within his ears as the likes of Brent Scowcroft and Lawrence Wilkerson bail out, Bush plunges on.

There is, however, some rational basis for his monumental self-confidence. He has long understood that politics is rarely a contest for ideological preeminence, lasting glory or a dare of the universe. Far more deeply and often it amounts to a crude contest between winners and losers. Politics is a zero-sum game. Schadenfreude may be fun, but it doesn't translate into victory. And victory is the only prize that matters.

Bush must know, in other words, that whatever liberals may wish and however fervently they may wish it, the party in power will not fall of its own weight. Its seams can open up into gulfs -- chiefly between the Christian right and those whose hearts beat loudest for deregulation and tax cuts -- but still the imposing Republican Party machine rolls on, in proud possession of every branch of the national government and the midterm elections a long, long year away. Bush can squander his mandate, can fail to cash in on his claimed accountability moment, but his enemies, the Democrats, cannot win power back by default, or indictments, alone.

They can only win power back the hard way, the way the Republicans did over the last three decades -- by merging the energies of movement and party, stitching together alliances, mobilizing ideas and running attractive candidates.

During the 2004 election campaign the Democrats demonstrated a (for them) unprecedented ability to move activists into practical politics, to raise money and discipline themselves. It was an impressive -- and insufficient -- effort. Still, the commitment they mobilized soon moved Howard Dean into the Democratic leadership on a platform of building up the party's withered infrastructure. One measure of Dean's success was that by the time the party made its choice, all his rivals were beating the drum for internal reform as well. No sooner was Dean in charge of the party than he began to deliver -- to universal applause. Even Democrats who deplored what they consider his foot-in-mouth disease were thrilled that, at long last, the national party had started to put in place, state by state, a funded national staff. It shouldn't have been a breakthrough to ensure that the party mustered permanent staff in transparently pivotal states like Ohio. Incredibly, it was.

At the moment, the Senate Democrats are off to a rollicking comeback, taking the Senate floor yesterday under Minority Leader Harry Reid to blast back at Republican tyranny over Congress by brandishing an obscure rule to insist that the Senate debate the prewar intelligence hanky-panky it somehow has failed to investigate. The Democrats may not know what to do about the war -- a thorny conundrum indeed -- but at least they are refusing to let GOP malfeasance off the hook.

But the next steps will be more challenging still. The Democrats have to offer a national face for next year's midterm elections. House races in particular are local. Americans may deplore the party in power, but they also deplore the party out of power. "The mess in Washington" doesn't look to them like a mess with a single author -- it looks like a mess for which both parties are culpable. Democrats have to offer convincing reasons for tossing out the party in power. Lacking those reasons, enough of the electorate may simply decide to sit on their hands and keep the Republicans in charge of all the levers of power.

The Democrats' most impressive sign of life is that, across the center-left political spectrum, they now recognize a need to put forth a national program -- their own "Contract With America." It's far from sufficient to talk incessantly about the value of "reframing the debate," as if the losing party suffers primarily from flimsy public relations. It won't do any longer to thrash away against "the mess in Washington." They have to look like a remedy for the mess. While American politics are stubbornly local -- the views and tones that win elections in New York are not necessarily the ones that win in Nebraska -- Democrats have to find their own heart of brightness.

One formidable barrier they face is their own inertia -- the weird, self-reinforcing passivity that makes them look spineless and inauthentic, too calculating by half. They need more of the daring that Reid showed this week.

(The unanswerable and decisive argument put forth by the Republicans in 2004 was that even if you didn't always agree with Bush, at least you knew where he stood. In countless ways this mood failed to correspond to the truth, but never mind -- Bush played a decisive president on TV, and that was enough to make up a critical margin of minds.)

On Iraq, the Democrats cannot permit themselves to stay their own wobbly course. With the country torn up about the ongoing debacle in Iraq, the Democrats have to sound like a governing party for a change. They have to recover from their appalling collapse of 2002-03, the one that led the party's senators to split down the middle on Bush's war resolution. As November 2006 draws closer, semi-dissident Republicans will make gestures in favor of partial troop withdrawals. If Bush continues to languish in the polls, they will pretend not to be from his party.

Democrats have to face the fact that Bush's recklessness has produced a situation in Iraq where there are no good options. Still, they should, at the least, renounce permanent bases and peg troop withdrawal to the achievement of substantive goals. The time is long past when the Democrats can delude themselves that they'll ingratiate themselves with the country by intoning in chorus that they support the troops while ducking the debate about how to do precisely that.

On the economy, with all the Republican debts coming due, Democrats have to stick up for rolling back Bush's tax cuts for the wealthy.

On the court, Bush having nominated a more judicious version of Antonin Scalia, the Democrats have a rendezvous with filibuster. Friendly extremism in the pursuit of states' rights is one hell of a vice.

The only way the Democrats can win back at least one house of Congress is to look and sound like fighters. And the only way to look like fighters and sound like fighters is to be fighters. Whining about the Republicans' structural advantages -- real as they are -- will not do. Whining about media skew and inattention -- real as they are -- will not do. Bush is not only a lucky politician but the chief of an apparatus of rule. He has three more years in the White House and it will take more than the force of gravity to bring the whole corrupt, thoughtless, mendacious lot down.

By Todd Gitlin

Todd Gitlin taught at Columbia University, wrote regularly for and Tablet, and was the author of "Occupy Nation: The Roots, the Spirit, and the Promise of Occupy Wall Street."

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