by Richard S. Russell
OK, I sure don’t want to rain on anyone’s parade, because goodness knows it’s been a long time since we on the left had much to feel good about, so we should relish the moment while it lasts.
Whoopee! We won!
All right, celebration’s over. Let’s face some facts.
Democrats barely control the US Senate. They had a big surge in the US House of Representatives, which was significant mainly because a big surge was what it took to overcome the big hole they were in. This has resulted not in overwhelming dominance of the House, only in a majority with a very small cushion. Speaker-in-Waiting Nancy Pelosi can’t afford more than a few defections from the ranks on any given issue. And, given that Bush the Lesser is standing by with veto stamp in hand, this is not a prescription for a raging liberal activist agenda.
And just because Democrats hold a bare majority doesn’t mean that liberals do. The Democratic majority in the US Senate includes people like the 2 Senator Nelsons (Florida and Nebraska), Wisconsin’s Herb Kohl, and technically Independent (but Dem-leaning) Joe Lieberman of Connecticut. Wisconsin’s Congressional delegation now has 5 Dems to only 3 Republicans, but of the 5 only Dave Obey, Gwen Moore, and Tammy Baldwin are reliable lefties. Ron Kind is, to be charitable, a centrist, and newly elected Steve Kagen is a self-made millionaire whose appeal to his naturally conservative constituency relied heavily on his pro-business attitude.
As we learned in 2000 and again in 2004, the American public is split pretty much down the middle. And the new Congress reflects that split. Republicans remain a force to be reckoned with.
Was this a sea change in American public opinion? No. Flat-out no. It was not.
The election results were not a repudiation of the Republican Party or of the conservative worldview. They were an expression of disgust at the venality, corruption, hypocrisy, cruelty, and most of all incompetence of this particular bunch of lying assholes who happen to be Republicans.
If the Republicans can come up with an honest, principled, hard-working set of replacements, or if the Democrats get caut with their hands in the nation’s till (or some kid’s pants) the way the ousted Republicans did, Tuesday’s victory will go up in smoke just as fast as it arrived.
Remember that 1 person out of 3 still thinks that the incredibly incompetent George W. Bush is doing a good job. We will never get thru to these people, as they are manifestly oblivious to evidence.
A bare fraction under half of the voters in the Commonwealth of Virginia think it would be just ducky to be represented in Congress by an overt racist. This is 42 years after the Voting Rights Act was passed, and racism is still seen as a political advantage next door to the nation’s capital. (And ignore the racism for a moment and consider how just plain dumb it is to stare straight into a camera being operated by somebody working for your opponent and voluntarily offer up a racist comment.)
Wisconsin liked conservative Democrat Jim Doyle for governor but rejected liberal Democrat Kathleen Falk for attorney general. And, by almost a 3-2 margin, it rejected the idea of equal human rights for gay people and those straight people who, for reasons of their own, choose to live together without the “blessings” of marriage. At the same time, the voting public of the Badger State said it was a swell idea to execute people — this in a state that has banned the death penalty for longer than any other political jurisdiction on the planet.
So we on the left have to be on our very best behavior for the next 2 years. We have to keep our noses clean and prove that we can actually get things done. We have a very delicate hold on the reins of power, and we must use them responsibly.
We cannot go gallivanting off on the left-wing equivalent of such symbolic but meaningless crusades as those the right wing waged against flag burning or school prayer or partial-birth abortion. (I’m thinking in particular of the left’s mindless obsession over guns.)
We can’t just jerk the troops out of Iraq. We can’t immediately introduce a motion to impeach Bush for all his many (well documented) war crimes. We can’t expect national health care by the 4th of July.
What we can do is be open and honest — to say what we mean and mean what we say — without doing everything behind closed doors (the way Cheney did with our pro-oil-company national energy policy). We can hold public hearings on everything. We can be humble in asking for advice from our constituents.
What we can do is deliver on a minimum-wage increase. We can openly compare different plans for getting out of Iraq, pick one, enact it, publicize it, and stick to it. We can repeal the idiot provision of the prescription-medicine plan that prohibits the government from negotiating prices with the drug companies. We can extend the Social Security tax to incomes above $90,000 and solve the Social Security deficit for eternity. We can repeal the subsidies for oil companies, which have set world records for quarterly profits. We can sit back quietly and let the Bush tax cuts for the rich expire on schedule and return to the Clinton days of balanced budgets with modest surpluses paying down the national debt.
Every one of these proposals provides direct financial benefit to the average citizen, and we should not be bashful about pointing this out.
For the symbolic value, we can repeal our government’s official approval of torture and dare Bush to veto it.
Most of all, we can put real campaign-finance reform at the top of our domestic agenda. The whole process has been so corrupted by special-interest money — delivered by the millions to candidates in return for billions returned to the investors — that the phrase “the best Congress money can buy” has long since ceased to be a joke and is now widely recognized to be a perfectly accurate description of reality.
Let me be specific here. Jim Doyle is a whore. He ran for governor 4 years ago promising to work hard for campaign-finance reform. 5 minutes after he took the oath of office, he was already trying to drum up money for his 2006 campaign war chest. He is part of the problem, not part of the solution. I don’t give a damn that he’s a Democrat, he’s an obstacle. (Not that Mark Green would have been any better, but Doyle’s the obstacle we’re stuck with.) We can’t go around him, so we’re gonna have to go thru him.
We on the left can prove best to the American public that we have their interests at heart if we’re willing to criticize our own guys at least as enthusiastically as we do the righties.
Conventional political wisdom holds that the way to win elections is to spend the 4-month run-up to each election rallying the base. This is only half a strategy. What we really need to do is spend the other 20 months of the cycle trying to build the base. We do this in 2 ways: by performing well in public office and by doing grass-roots organizing and education.
Professional politicians (including party staff and officers as well as elected officials) focus on elections to the exclusion of education, to sound bites instead of thotful discussions, to bumper stickers over white papers. That’s not gonna cut it in the long run. We have to reach out to those who don’t agree with us as well as to those on the fence.
So, let’s enjoy the moment while it lasts.
Then let’s roll up our sleeves and prove we deserve a sequel.