Outside Chance

There are two kinds of Democrats in George W. Bush's America: those who are on the outside and know it, and those who are on the outside and don't. And the peculiar fascination of the Democratic presidential campaign is to watch the interplay between these two groups.

It is the Bush White House and the Republican Congress that set up this dynamic. By winning office with a negative 540,000-vote margin and then proceeding to govern in the most relentlessly partisan fashion from the right, the president has made unmistakably clear that the concerns of Democrats are of no interest to him. On Capitol Hill, meanwhile, the Republican leadership relies solely on Republican votes to get its measures passed, going so far as to exclude mainstream Democrats from conference committees. When America's new laws are to be negotiated, Republicans talk only to themselves.

Disastrously, it's been the Democrats in Congress who've been the slowest to pick up on their new marginality. Some of the Democrats who voted to authorize the Iraq War in October 2002 did so -- or say they did so -- in hopes of prodding Bush to embrace a more multilateral approach toward Iraq.

Call this the Tony Blair Fallacy -- both the prime minister and our own legislators failed to realize that Bush wanted only their permission, not their advice. And this year it was Ted Kennedy -- long the wisest liberal head on the Hill -- who calculated that the Medicare bill would grow more palatable the longer it was deliberated. In any previous Congress, that could well have been the case. In this Congress, however, no Democrats are allowed into the deliberations that matter.

Today the Democrats finally have a legislative leader -- San Francisco's Nancy Pelosi, who heads the party in the House -- who understands that dealmaking with the likes of Tom DeLay is a chimera, and that the business of the Democrats is to oppose. The overwhelming vote of House Democrats against the Medicare bill is testimony to her success. Her tenure casts a cold light on that of her predecessor, Dick Gephardt, who, in his eight years as minority leader, never assembled a united opposition to the malignant follies of Gingrich and DeLay.

While the nation's Democratic leaders were unable to understand just how marginal they'd become, however, millions of rank-and-file Democrats and just plain disgruntled Bush-haters intuitively grasped what was going on. Bush was bent on repealing the New Deal and replacing the internationalist order that the United States had erected after World War II with a more nationalist vision of his own. If you weren't with him, you were against him. And he was against you.

Howard Dean's initial appeal has been to those Americans who always knew they were on the margins of George Bush's America. Not the socioeconomic margins, not the African-American and Latino communities, but the political, cultural and existential margins -- the young, urban, white middle class in particular. Dean's are the people who were bowling alone -- not churchgoers, not union members. They shared a set of beliefs on which they'd never before had an opportunity to act collectively.

The secret of Dean's success has been twofold. Alone among the serious Democratic candidates he understood that the party was shirking its obligation to oppose -- indeed, that the grass roots was furious at the failure of its leaders to realize this. Second, his campaign became the real Meetup for millions of Americans who'd had no place to go to affect politics in the age of Bush. Dean's edge is that his campaign has provided thousands of young Deaniacs with a dimension of meaning that their hitherto disaggregated lives may have lacked. No other candidate is within light-years of offering that.

In a sense, Al Gore's decision to endorse Dean is emblematic of the growing realization of the party's establishmentarians that they're outsiders after all. But Gore's been on this path for some time now. He was, we should remember, the first major Democrat to oppose Bush's war, speaking out against it in August 2002. Since losing the presidential race at the Supreme Court, he's also called for single-payer health care and recently come out against renewing our new-age version of star chamber justice, the USA Patriot Act.

Gore's old entourage, however, remains, literally and figuratively, on K Street, from where his former chief of staff, Ron Klain, helps steer the insider-dominated Wesley Clark campaign. There are no outsiders on K Street; it's where Democrats go when they want to make deals even when they're otherwise on the outs. Gore clearly has decided that K Street's not for him, and so much the better for Gore.

Can a band of outsiders beat George W. Bush? Clearly, the congressional wing of the Democrats can only benefit from embracing its outsider status, but is the same true for the aspiring presidential wing? There are limits to the Meetup approach to building a presidential majority, but no one's ever tried it before, and we don't know what those limits are.

Harold Meyerson is the Prospect's editor-at-large.

This column originally appeared in Wednesday's Washington Post.

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