Is Corruption Enough?

The 2006 mid-term election will be among the most fateful in modern history. If the Democrats take back even one house, it will end the period of one-party rule and allow Congress to fully investigate the multiple embarrassments of the Bush administration.

These fall into five broad categories: deceptive and illegal use of presidential power, plain incompetence, outright corruption, needless assaults on liberties, and using government to benefit the few rather than the many. Ripe particulars include the bungling of the planning for the Iraq occupation, the abuses at Guantanamo Bay, the extra-legal spying on Americans, the mess at the Department of Homeland Security, and the sweetheart deal between the administration's Medicare drug program and the pharmaceutical and insurance industries.

Both parties understand the immense stakes. Real investigations of the above would frame how voters view the 2008 presidential election. They might even unearth impeachable offenses. In normal times, one would expect a tidal shift in the House, where every seat is up and a net swing of only 15 seats would shift party control (to take the Senate, Democrats would need to capture virtually every seat in play).

But these are far from normal times and it's not clear that even a steaming mess of corruption, by itself, is sufficient to shift party control. Republicans benefit from a structural tilt. Gerrymandering has made most House seats safe seats. As recently as 1994, when the Republicans picked up 54 House seats, a relatively small shift in public sentiment could translate into a massive swing in representation. Today, the reverse is true. A significant public revulsion against the Republicans might translate into only a modest change in House seats. Republicans also enjoy superiority in money and party organization.

Many Democratic strategists commend just letting Republicans drown in their own mess. But this is hardly the way the Gingrich insurgents took the House in 1994, or how the great generation of progressive Democratic senators won 16 seats in 1958, setting the stage for John Kennedy's presidential victory in 1960. In both cases, the out-party won by standing for something.

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Will the Democrats learn from history? Exhibit A is the “Innovation Agenda” unveiled by House Democrats to great fanfare last November. A common denominator for liberals and New Dems, it included benign ideas funded at modest levels like educating 100,000 new math and science professionals and bringing affordable broadband to every household. All that was lacking, amid the wonky detail, was ideological clarity or much to inspire ordinary voters.

Exhibit B is the chorus calling on Democrats to embrace fiscal prudence and Burkean conservatism against Republican radicalism. Reining in Bush's fiscal excess is certainly necessary. It just doesn't add up to a compelling program. If it did, Walter Mondale would have been elected president in 1984. Bill Clinton achieved fiscal probity, but he ran and won in 1992 on a program of honoring and serving the working family. In that election, the fiscal hawk was Ross Perot, who finished a distant third.

One emblematic issue is the Medicare drug fiasco, now frustrating tens of millions of senior voters and their adult children. The Bush program, costing more than $720 billion over a decade, was designed as a cynical boondoggle to the drug and insurance industries. It is a perfect example of why some programs are done more efficiently by government, and why the right sees the public sector as a trough for business allies rather than as a servant of ordinary people. It beautifully illustrates the core differences between the two parties.

There's a simple two-part fix: Replace Bush's plan with a comprehensive drug benefit under public Medicare; pay for the famous doughnut hole -- the gap in benefits -- by restoring Medicare's right to negotiate bulk-drug discounts as veterans hospitals do. Rep. Jan Schakowky has a bill to do this. Let's see whether it becomes part of the official caucus program.

In the 1952 election, Republicans seemingly did well with the slogan, “Korea, Corruption, and Communism.” In fact, the Truman administration wasn't especially corrupt, and Korea was less of a debacle than Iraq. But after the Democrats' 20-year run, voters were ready for change. Ike, a war hero and essentially nonpartisan figure, overwhelmingly won the presidency. The GOP barely took both houses of Congress, and for just one term.

If Democrats wish for a landslide repudiation of Bush and DeLay, convictions of corrupt Republicans could get them part of the way. Some convictions of their own could help even more.

Robert Kuttner is co-editor of The American Prospect.

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