Monday, December 04, 2006

Democrats won in spite of themselves

The midterm election of 2006 is one for the history books. Democrats, the perennial bridesmaids of American politics, managed to win the whole thing.

They hit the jackpot, winning not only both houses of Congress, but the majority of governorships and many state legislatures. Could this be a seismic shift that will bring the Democrats out of the political wilderness or is it an anomaly? I'm leaning toward an aberration.

The 2006 election will go down as a footnote in U.S. history. It was a no-confidence vote on a president who led us into an unpopular war. The clock is already ticking on the Democratic Party.

Nancy Pelosi, the soon-to-be Speaker of the House, has already made a major blunder. She was rebuffed by her own members when they rejected John Murtha, Pelosi's hand-picked choice for majority leader. And Pelosi is having a difficult time controlling the oddballs in her party.

Take New York Congressman Charlie Rengel. He wants to re-institute a military draft, a move that would be political suicide for the party in power.

And how long will the far left fringe element of the party remain silent? The liberals control the party leadership and the money. They want to steer the country toward their own extreme agenda and expect Pelosi to start catering to them. Will she risk alienating her coalition of conservative Democrats from the South and West to appease the liberals from the East Coast and California?

Just before the election, I finished a book by Joe Klein, a well-known Democratic Party cheerleader. Even with the success the Democrats enjoyed Nov. 7, I suspect Klein would still say that the Democratic Party is headed nowhere.

A political columnist for Time magazine, Klein has written five books, the best known of which is “Primary Colors,” an inside look at how Bill Clinton won the White House in 1992.

Klein's latest, “Politics Lost: How American Democracy Was Trivialized by People Who Think You're Stupid,” takes a look at how both major political parties have veered off the deep end in the past decade.

Klein pulls no punches in describing the sad state of American politics.

“The Republican Party, once the home of a prudent conservatism, has gone foolishly radical — fiscally irresponsible at home intemperate and bullying abroad, purveyors of an intrusive religiosity that is shockingly intolerant of science or reason,” Klein writes.

Klein saves the harshest criticism for Democrats.

“The Democratic Party, once the home of democracy's more gracious impulses, has become a reactionary bastion — its signature issues of health, education and welfare held hostage by teaching and social-work bureaucracies that are utterly resistant to change; its spiritual vigor sapped by vehement secularism and an overdependence on the judicial system, symbolized by the fanatic defense of abortion rights; its soggy internationalism spineless in the face of a dangerous world,” Klein writes.

Klein sees both parties on the edge of precipice, with extremists on both sides ready to push the party faithful into the abyss.

“Both parties swan toward their extremes, since the extremists are the most adept at raising money and crowds, using direct mail, negative advertising, and the other dark arts of political consultancy,” Klein writes. “And individual politicians, ever mindful of the dangers on all sides, terrified that the next thing they say will become fodder for a thermonuclear negative ad, grow ever more cautious. We are drifting, I fear, toward a flaccid, hollowed-out democracy where honest debate is impossible — a democracy without citizenship.”

Much of the book is an insider's look at every presidential campaign from 1976 to 2004. Stuff only a political addict would be interested in reading. There are occasional gems, such as Klein's explanation of why Al Gore lost a presidential race he should have won in 2000: “He lost the election — actually, it was a dead heat — because he did not seem a credible human being.”

The next two years will be fascinating to watch for anyone who has even a mild interest in politics. It's the first time in 12 years that the Republicans have had to share power with the Democrats, who have steadily veered to the left.

Can the parties work together in a spirit of bipartisanship? That's what most of us hope for. But don't hold your breath.

Klein's book is a bit anti-climactic. He poses a lot of questions, but doesn't have many answers to the problems facing American politics. His advice to politicians is to get rid of the pollsters, consultants, focus groups and just “be themselves.” Not very profound.

I do find myself agreeing wholeheartedly with this observation in Klein's book: “Politics is no longer about governing. The political parties are the same in one regard. Politics today is about how to gain and keep power.

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