E.J. Dionne / Syndicated columnist
Democrats begin waiting for George W. Bush to fail
WASHINGTON, D.C. - Democrats are beginning to feel a certain gratitude toward the incoming Bush administration.
With his controversial appointments at the Labor, Justice and Interior departments, George W. Bush has done what Democrats themselves could never have accomplished on their own. The new president has energized core Democratic constituencies that were seething about the way the 2000 election was decided, but had no immediate way of organizing their discontent.
These nominations have instantly mobilized civil rights groups, environmental organizations, the unions and abortion rights activists. Even before liberals and Democrats had figured out an affirmative strategy, the confirmation fights gave Democratic-leaning interest groups a way of pivoting off the Florida recount battle into a struggle over principle.
The Bush nominations may be seen in the long run as comparable to President Clinton's early move on behalf of gays in the military. Clinton was forced into a partial retreat after conservative groups discovered their strength and the administration's political weaknesses. Especially in the case of John Ashcroft's nomination as attorney general, conservatives may come to feel that Bush did right by their cause, but in a way that only strengthened their adversaries.
But before Democrats crow too much, they need to consider their long-term prospects. The fact that the 2000 elections produced a country divided into closely balanced political halves means that neither political party has any claim to representing a durable political majority.
The Bush presidency can thus be seen as a time when each side will be trying to establish itself as politically dominant for the long haul. That's what William McKinley helped the Republicans do at the turn of the century, as Bush's top strategist Karl Rove sees things. It's what FDR did for the Democrats during the Great Depression and World War II.
Among Democrats, there are two views as to how to pull this off now. The popular view is the one that looks to Bush making mistakes and, perhaps, to an economic downturn that will make swing voters long for the days of Democratic prosperity under Clinton. It's certainly a tested method. Jimmy Carter's troubles were essential to the rise of Ronald Reagan and the conservative ascendancy.
But wishing for a downturn is hardly uplifting politics, and it may misunderstand how change happens. As Democratic pollster Guy Molyneux notes, conservatives during the 1970s both prepared for the Reagan years and helped bring them about.
"They really changed what the political dialogue was about, in a way that benefited conservatism," he says. The anti-tax movement and the battle against the Panama Canal treaty, Molyneux notes, helped change public attitudes on, respectively, domestic issues and foreign policy.
During the 2000 campaign, Democrats gained ground with such issues as a patients' bill of rights and a prescription drug benefit for the elderly. The surest sign these causes were helping Democratic candidates was the eagerness with which Republican candidates said, "Me, too." Pushing hard on both projects in Congress - and forcing Bush either to give ground or to battle on unpopular terrain - will no doubt be a Democratic priority.
But Molyneux argues that "as long as we're still squabbling about the same issues, we'll probably stay at rough parity." That means Democrats and liberals will need larger themes and bigger ideas (as, for that matter, will Republicans and conservatives).
Here, both the positive and negative lessons of Newt Gingrich's Revolution may be instructive. Gingrich clearly profited from the failures of the first two Clinton years, especially the defeat of Clinton's health care program. But through the "Contract with America," Gingrich also argued, shrewdly, that Republicans had a different way of governing. When his party swept the 1994 election, he then made the fatal error of overestimating how far the country had moved in his ideological direction, opening the way for Clinton's comeback as a moderate.
The lesson to Democrats? They need to combine greater boldness (on, for example, work-and-family issues, political and voting-rights reform, the global economy, child poverty and health care) with a rhetoric that emphasizes practical and achievable goals. Simply waiting for Bush to fail would not only be uninspiring politics. It would also amount to a concession by progressives that they lack faith in their own ability to govern differently, and better.
E.J. Dionne's email address is email@example.com