Comment: Happier Prospects

As we go to press, the prospect of Vermont Senator Jim Jeffords switching parties has cheered despondent Democrats. However, it's not clear where a party-switch free-for-all would end, since several maverick senators in both parties would be in play.


Of course, having Tom Daschle as majority leader, and having the power to orchestrate hearings, could be very important for Democrats, in setting agendas, exposing abuses, blocking extremist nominees, and restoring morale and momentum. Loss of the Senate would be a personal as well as a philosophical rebuke to Bush, and a broader warning to the White House about the risks of overreaching. But before we break out the champagne, remember that four or five Senate Democrats still seem inclined to vote with Bush, and Jeffords doesn't change that.


The fact remains that Democrats, hobbled by defectors in their own ranks, are still fighting mostly a rearguard action. There is no coherent alternative program rousing popular excitement, and a paucity of plausible presidential candidates for 2004. Having enjoyed short-term control of the executive and the legislative branches, the Republicans are aiming for a long-term lock on the judiciary. It remains to be seen how much nerve Senate Democrats will show in blocking right-wing judicial nominees, especially to appellate courts.


If the economic slowdown turns out to be a normal recession, the recovery could come just in time for the midterm elections. That timing would allow Bush to claim, falsely, that his tax cut revived the economy while tax-and-spend Democrats quibbled. Passage of the tax cut is the death knell for the Democrats' disastrous strategy of making debt-paydown their centerpiece.


So what's a liberal to do, other than drink some of Bush's arsenic-laced water?


There are actually some bright spots, and one of them is the subject of this issue's cover piece by Harold Meyerson. Even if national politics seems both dangerously conservative and dangerously disconnected from the electorate, a lot of encouraging activity is happening locally. Its epicenter is in California, until recently one of the most Republican of major states. Washington, D.C., it turns out, is precisely the wrong place to look for signs of progressive life.


As Harold Meyerson demonstrates, California is trending not only progressive but grass-roots progressive. The soul of California's progressive shift is a dynamic alliance between immigrants and a newly animated labor movement focused on organizing low-wage workers. This trend is complemented by powerful environmentalist, gay-lesbian, and other socially liberal currents ascendant in California. Yes, the electricity crisis is hurting the Hamlet-like Democratic governor, Gray Davis; but as William Bradley points out in a companion piece, California Republicans peddling the free market remedy have even less credibility or support.


As always, California is sui generis. But living-wage movements and immigrant political activity--often together--are also evident in the heartland. In short, progressive politics will revive not because Democrats in Congress manage greater unity or tactical cleverness, but because something genuine is happening at the base.


By a happy coincidence, this month Harold Meyerson is joining The American Prospect as executive editor. He has long been one of our virtuoso political writers, in addition to performing his day job as executive editor and chief political reporter for the L.A. Weekly. Harold is something of an underground hero among liberal political junkies, and his L.A. Weekly columns have a large secondary national readership via the Internet. We are thrilled that he is now joining us, full time. In addition to serving as executive editor, he will continue to write regularly for the Prospect on politics.


Scott Stossel, who has performed the executive editor job since 1997 with grace and skill, is shifting to the newly created senior position of culture editor. Scott will have responsibility for further enhancing our back-of-the-book offerings. And as of August, TAP's main editorial offices will be located in Washington, D.C.


We are making this move because, for better or worse, the national capital is also increasingly the media capital, at least for political news. In relocating our home office to Washington, however, we emphatically recognize that most of what energizes progressive politics necessarily happens outside the Capital Beltway. In this respect, the relocation of our offices to D.C. and the new role of Harold Meyerson are good complements, since Harold, while an astute analyst of national politics, is a creature of the grass roots rather than the Beltway.


It is with mixed feelings that I also report that this magazine is having a very good year. Our paid readership now exceeds 40,000, our Web sites--Prospect Online and the Electronic Policy Network--are generating record traffic, and mentions of Prospect articles in other media are at an all-time high. I'd like to credit this success to cogent writing, trenchant analysis, improved graphics, and deft marketing. Perhaps so.


But having Bush in the White House is also, perversely, energizing for liberals and their reading habits. Of course, the larger point is not to sell magazines but to transform American public life. Right now, America is experiencing a political transformation in precisely the wrong direction, and little in Washington seems to stand in Bush's way. At the level of national politics, our impoverished democracy is allowing a millionaires' raid on public funds to forestall social investment indefinitely. Yet what goes around comes around, and the seismic stirrings in California are a hopeful sign that George W. Bush and his allies do not quite have a lock on the country.

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