Comment: Springtime for Democrats?

As this election year begins, one can imagine two equally plausible scenarios. In the first, George W. Bush wraps the whole Republican Party in the flag. He outflanks the Democrats' latent advantage on virtually every domestic issue; the Republicans dominate the agenda and keep control of Congress. In the second scenario, Bush's wartime popularity fades; the sense of a prolonged siege, economic unease, and unequal sacrifice all play to the Democrats' advantage. And the Dems take both houses and some governorships besides.

Which scenario will prevail? To some extent, the outcome will reflect
forces beyond either party's control. If the post-Taliban phase of the war on terror goes badly or if the economy keeps tanking, Bush will pay the same political price that his father did. Unanticipated consequences could include deepening India-Pakistan conflict, escalating instability on the Israel-Palestine front, or trouble in Iraq.

Yet much will depend on the Bush administration's own steps or missteps. How deftly will the administration deal with escalating troubles on the Indian subcontinent? Will Bush continue to push Star Wars at the expense of alliance with Moscow and amity with China? Will the Iraq hawks prevail? Will the International Monetary Fund and its American architects continue to drag down third-world economies?

At the same time, a vague sense of permanent war could prolong the national psychology of rally round the flag (with the role of flag played by George W.). A true paranoid might conclude that the best possible scenario for Republican hopes in the 2002 election would be another successful terrorist attack, say on the anniversary of September 11. That would certainly silence John Ashcroft's critics.

But if a psychology of permanent low-level war would enervate
the opposition party, the Democrats are not without resources. What they lack is resolve.

More than anything else, the Democrats need a narrative that criticizes this era's unequal sacrifice and calls for a wartime unity that also addresses the needs of ordinary Americans. Patriotic rhetoric and a vague sense of common vulnerability can take the Bush administration only so far--if somebody has the gumption to offer a different story. Michael Lipsky's article in this issue of the Prospect ["The War at Home," page 15] offers a good starting point. Even during Vietnam, there was not such a sense of unequal sacrifice and plain opportunism. Democrats can appeal to the deeper patriotism of genuine civic rebuilding and shared prosperity--and overtake Bush.

But the Democrats need to seize that opportunity or it will be lost. They need to get over their fear of challenging a wartime president. The fact is that wars are seldom good for incumbents. From Bush the elder back to Lyndon Johnson and to Woodrow Wilson, the party of wartime presidents was unceremoniously dumped in the next election. Even the one exception, feisty Harry Truman, who narrowly prevailed after WWII in 1948, presided over the Korean War and saw his party trounced by Dwight Eisenhower in 1952.

The ultimate example of an electorate turning against one of history's greatest wartime leaders occurred in June 1945. Winston Churchill had literally saved Britain. Yet the war created a sense of national solidarity that transcended class--something that Churchill, as an arch-Tory, failed to grasp. Despite his nation's gratitude, Churchill was trounced by the Labour Party, because Labour and its leader Clement Attlee offered a convincing vision of what the country's ordinary citizens were owed after the war.

This is not World War II, and Tom Daschle is no Clement Attlee. But given the undertow of big money and the conservative Democrats nipping at his heels, Daschle is doing a decent job of preventing the Republicans from looting the Treasury of what they didn't get in the upscale tax giveaway last spring. The Republicans' campaign of vilification against Daschle is testament to his effectiveness. So far, however, Daschle has been effective mainly at playing defense. The Democrats need a positive vision for the economy and society, one wholly different from what Bush, Enron, and the permanent corporate lobby is offering. If they can do that, terrorism will cease to be the defining issue in the next election.

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