Goodbye To All That

The Democrats' soft spine has been impaled on the party's steering column. Now it's time to say some symbolic goodbyes. Sadly, we do so at a time when we had to say an actual good-bye to Sen. Paul Wellstone (D-Minn.), who was heading for yet another uphill victory by running on liberal principles and raw integrity.

Let's pan the national scene once more. The economy's worse than it's been in a decade. The surpluses have vanished. The health care system's a mess. The White House is arrogantly pursuing a costly war. The president and vice president are directly tied to front-page corporate scandals. Legislation has been passed by the Republican House that is tailor-made for disloyal companies. Sneak attacks on the environment have been launched in executive-branch submarines. It was a midterm election, in which the opposition party usually does well. And wealth disparity in America is so extreme that we are experiencing a second Gilded Age.

So goodbye to the party leadership that blew an easy opportunity for victory, just as it bungled a similar one in November of 2000. Goodbye Tom Daschle, Dick Gephardt, Terry McAuliffe. We are left with a conservative federal government that not only has no real checks and balances between its branches but will surely now have increasingly fewer means for protecting the public good from the excesses of the market.

Goodbye DLC dominance. The "vital center" strategy has landed the party in the mushy middle, pitifully trolling around for illusive suburbanites, astonished that its subtle rhetorical dance wasn't enchanting busy voters. The middle should never be a destination for a political party. The middle is a byproduct of the tug-of-war of ideas. Politics has been trending conservative because the right has been tugging harder than the left. Political territory has to be created through argument and combat. It's not static space. Civil rights activists understood this when they started out in the 1940s. The founders of the modern environmental movement did, too, in the late 1960s, just as America's founders did almost 300 years ago.

Goodbye to those in the accommodation wing of the party who have forgotten this proud democratic history. There will always be politicians who are less gutsy than others, more inclined to uphold the status quo than to challenge it. That's fine. But such mainstream preservationists shouldn't be stifling the contentious and creative elements within the party that animate politics, breathe life into the ground troops and ultimately end up changing the flow of that mainstream. On NPR this morning, Bill Clinton's former press secretary Mike McCurry said that this was no time for the Democrats to go "sulk with the left wing of the party." McCurry obviously hasn't been in touch with that wing because if he had he wouldn't find much sulking. He'd find anger, certainly, but he'd also find a policy-based experimentalism that is waiting to be unleashed.

Goodbye, too, to the attack dogs who are all bark and no bite. How many times have we watched countless Democrats squirm on "Meet the Press" as Tim Russert tried to get one of them to say that the Bush tax cut needed to be repealed? Goodbye to the cynicism that allows them to think that they can say one thing and then vote another because neither the press nor the electorate will ever call them on it. It was sad to watch James Carville and Paul Begala choke down bloody crow in front of the snide Tucker Carlson and the grim Bob Novak on CNN Tuesday night. "You are right, Bob Novak," Carville proclaimed. "You are right. The Democrats are a party in search of anything."

It's time for party bigwigs to be big thinkers again. The opposition's leaders are: Sack Baghdad and maybe break up OPEC; build a missile defense shield in space; make permanent the tax cut for the wealthy; shrink the government down to a size such that it can, as conservative strategist Grover Norquist once said, be drowned in a bathtub.
Bush didn't win the election for the Republicans, the Democrats lost it for the American people. Politics is, as Wellstone used to declare, "What we create by what we do, what we hope for, and what we dare to imagine." Political consultants obsess over polls aimed at divining not what's daring but what's impossible: what can't be done and can't be hoped for. And imagined? Forget that. It doesn't poll at all. Goodbye to the dreamless pollsters who recommend caution over inspiration.

Dozens of columnists have said today what CNN commentator Mark Shields said early Wednesday morning: that the Dems are "without a face and without a voice." Well, it's time to scan for new faces and new voices, and to say to the sleepy leadership, "Goodbye to all that."

Nick Penniman is an associate editor of the Prospect.