Dems' Fightin' Words

There it was, the first Fourth of July after September 11: The majestic swell of a patriotism associated more with the era of the Andrews Sisters than the age of Destiny's Child. The ritual exultations of American values. The worry, yes, that something bad might happen somewhere, but even this concern only enhanced the solemnity of the moment. A splendid time, in other words, to be a president with a 70 percent approval rating.

But the moment was fleeting. For this was the very point at which the spokes starting coming off the wheels for George W. Bush. No Democrat would ever have summoned up the courage or imagination to plan it that way. For that we needed Paul Krugman, the merrily insubordinate New York Times op-ed columnist, who chose July 2 as the iron-hot moment to familiarize Times readers with the now-infamous Harken Energy stock sale.

Many elected Democrats had never even heard of it until the Krugman piece, but that didn't stop them from moving quickly to seize the moment. By July 7, Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle was on Face the Nation, demanding the release of Securities and Exchange Commission documents relating to Harken and taking, symbolically, an adventurous and important step: The Democrats' first real stab at cutthroat politics post September 11.

Ever since, a lot of the same people who spent eight years trying to pin everything up to homicide on the Clintons have been bawling about the unfairness of it all. But the chief complaint from liberal partisans about the newfound mettle of Daschle and his fellow Democrats is, what on earth took them so long? While it's satisfying to see Democrats playing some offense now, it's a fact that, over the past nine months, the party has been afraid of its own shadow. Let's put it as bluntly as possible: Never in modern American history has a party so failed its core constituents as the Democratic Party has during this period.

This wallflower pose has not been an accident, but a conscious strategy. For months now, Democratic operatives have debated whether to go after Bush personally and drive his poll numbers down to obtain an advantage in the midterm elections. Until recently, Bush stood at 75 percent, 80 percent, even higher. What on earth could Democrats do about numbers like that? They did some polling and found out -- phew! -- that they didn't need to go after Bush's numbers, that the president lacked coattails, that voters in discrete congressional districts and states were unlikely to cast their votes for Congress based on how they felt about Bush. There were internal arguments over this question -- some very much wanted to go after Bush more aggressively and personally -- but the numbers said what they said, and Democratic operatives concluded that they could succeed this fall without the risk of going after the president.

And so the Democratic Party embarked on its systematic project of, well, of letting itself be pushed around. To the Washington Democratic insider, that assessment will no doubt seem a harsh one: Hey! We held Enron hearings, we assailed them on Social Security, we stood our ground on oil drilling in Alaska and the estate tax repeal, and we've stepped up the attacks on corporate perfidy. All true. All good. On these and other policy questions, Democrats have won, or at least stand a good chance of winning.

But strong Democratic partisans -- exactly the people the Democratic Party needs to push to the polls this November -- will know exactly what I mean. They shook their heads when congressional Democrats buckled at Vice President Dick Cheney's (not one but two student deferments during the Vietnam War) questioning of their patriotism, and each time Attorney General John Ashcroft charged that harboring even the slightest doubt about his methods put one on the side of the terrorists. Until July 2, Democratic loyalists saw the party's leaders pass on chance after chance to expose the hypocrisies and double-dealings of this boodling, Hardingesque administration. Earlier this summer, as party leaders bickered over how aggressively Congress should investigate the administration's pre–9-11 preparedness, hard-core Democrats saw that the side cautioning prudence and restraint won the day, and nodded their heads ruefully.

So things stood, until July 2. But now the sword has been unsheathed, and the vital question is whether the Democrats know how to wield it. Certainly, there are risks in going after Bush. He remains personally popular, for now. The White House can still use the war on terrorism to its political advantage, and it may turn out that nothing hard can be pinned on the president with respect to Harken. The media could tire of the story when no smoking gun turns up -- or when our divisions hit the soil of Iraq -- and revert to the reflexive flattery that characterized coverage of this administration before July 2. Even so, the latest polls suggest the emergence of a new political reality in which public trust in Bush and his fellow multimillionaires is fading. The Democrats may not have done much to create this opening, but it's there. And if the Democrats fumble this one, their patient, long-suffering loyalists may not be able to stand it any longer.

But the main risk to Democrats in becoming more contentious doesn't emanate from the Republicans or the press; it comes from within the Democrats' own tenuous psychic equilibrium. Because their DNA makes them so preternaturally cautious, we are compelled to ask: Can the Democrats really play hardball politics anymore?

For the better part of two decades now, Democrats have operated according to so timorous a model of partisanship that they no longer know how to fight. They know how to argue policy. They do that quite well, and indeed they often win those arguments, if for no other reason than that so many of the policies Republicans support harken back (if I may) to the Gilded Age. But when it comes to hardball partisan politics, they've been fighting a raging fire with a garden hose. They've been afraid, even petrified, of arguing politics, of stepping outside the comparatively safe zone of policy and assertively debating the core principles that are the reason many of them enter the civic sphere to begin with. Arguing politics means challenging not only the other side's positions but the very moral and cultural underpinnings of those positions. It means using emotional arguments to link the opposition to a set of values alien to this country's best traditions. It means finding the symbolic representations of the enemy's masked agendas and exposing them. It means not only attacking the other side but defending one's own side (and not with statistics, but with moral arguments advanced with conviction). And, finally, it means doing all this on a permanent basis, day after day, with lots of warm bodies standing next to one another, saying the same thing over and over, until the media has to cover it. But all these are things the Democrats no longer know how to do.

A telling and pitiful moment along these lines arrived on Thursday, June 27, a week before the Harken news. That's when a piece of campaign literature was published by the National Conservative Campaign Fund, which donates to and makes expenditures on behalf of GOP candidates nationwide. It delivered the staggering claim that Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle presented a "far greater danger" to the republic than American Taliban member John Walker Lindh. One might have thought that such an outré attack on their leader would embolden Democrats to stand as one and answer back. Well, they did stand as one -- literally: Poor Harry Reid of Nevada was the only Democratic senator to respond. Why weren't 15 of them up there, with a list of every dollar the fund had donated to GOP candidates in the last two election cycles, demanding that those same candidates -- a lineup that includes, speaking of cutthroat partisan politics, Florida Secretary of State Katherine Harris -- return their donations and that the White House denounce the flier and distance itself from the group?

You can bet that if a liberal fundraising organization had essentially called Senate Minority Leader Trent Lott a traitor, his colleagues would have damn well known what to do with it. Exploiting such opportunities, after all, is the sort of thing Republicans have been doing to Democrats for years now, from Ronald Reagan to Newt Gingrich to Dick Cheney and Bush consigliere Karl Rove. They've done it extremely well. Democrats have done it miserably. In fact they haven't done it at all. As a result, domestic politics for much of the last 20 years has looked like a boxing match in which, under a new set of rules that permits kicking and throwing punches below the belt, one pugilist voluntarily tells the ref he'll just play by the old rules, thanks. Republicans, for all their caterwauling about how they're outnumbered in Washington, how nasty liberals are and how beastly the media is, recognize that spewing out a lot of hooey about those dominant Democrats keeps the blood percolating among the true believers, so they keep doing it. But privately, how they must chortle about this state of affairs! They've been fighting a one-armed man.

What Democratic leaders have forgotten is this: Partisanship is good in and of itself. Yes, legislation often needs bipartisan support to pass. Yes, too much partisanship is a bad thing. But intelligent, assertive partisanship is a civic virtue. It symbolizes a party's confidence and belief in itself. It fires up core constituencies -- and in the past nine months, a vast chasm has developed between the party's leaders and its fiercest (but most exasperated) partisans. And, contra conventional wisdom, it can even win over swing voters. Democratic operatives live in ceaseless fear of offending soccer moms or office-park dads, and so they lack the imagination to understand that partisanship, when done right -- with optimism, a joyful spirit and a touch of swagger -- can signal to such voters that at least the party believes in some principles and is committed to a vision of society that is a function of something greater than the latest round of poll results. Two generations of Democratic leaders have let themselves be cowed into forgetting all this.

It's time that changed.

How did this happen to begin with? There are many reasons, but they fall into three general, and firmly intertwined, categories. The first and simplest set of reasons is logistical. If you discuss this problem with Democratic operatives, they will say that it is impossible for them to control the terms of argument because they don't have the propaganda network Republicans do. It starts with the foundations and think tanks, funded with millions of Scaife and Olin foundation dollars. It spins out to conservative editorial pages, to the vast network of talk-radio shows and, finally, to the Fox News Channel. Democrats have very few aggressively partisan think tanks, the endowments of which are nothing next to the Heritage Foundation. Democrats also have virtually no talk-radio presence. They do have the backing, most of the time, of some major editorial pages, although not nearly to the extent that conservative papers support the Republican Party. Again, the policy versus politics distinction: The New York Times and The Washington Post usually land on the Democrats' side on policy, but when it comes to politics, both papers habitually bend over backward to prove that they can be just as tough on Democrats as on Republicans. (They murdered Bill Clinton on Whitewater and Monica Lewinsky, and while the Times, at least, has been pretty tough on Bush in regard to Harken, both papers have issued repeated post–9-11 warnings to Democrats to play nice.) And, lastly, unlike the right, Democrats own no cable network. There is no place for them to dump their message and watch it travel out, more or less unfiltered, into the national bloodstream.

The fact that this imbalance exists, however, is partly the Democrats' fault. Democrats don't have the money Republicans have, and they never will. They can never match Republicans dollar-for-dollar on message creation and dissemination. That said, it's also true that they have not set up the structures to do that. Republican backers slowly and methodically set out to build those structures in the 1970s, knowing full well that they wouldn't bear fruit for a generation or two. Democratic money people, and party leaders, have not been as engaged in such long-term thinking. As one leading Democrat told me not long ago, they'd rather spend their money on a full-page ad in the Times than seed and water a long-range, partisan strategy group or think tank. Accordingly, Democrats have developed no organic relationship with the intellectuals and activists on their side, while Republicans have.

Why they haven't done these things brings us to the second reason for Democratic timidity, and it is much more interesting and layered. It has to do with the psychological construction of each party. Republicans -- more specifically, movement conservatives, but now that that tendency commands the party, we may apply the description to the party as a whole -- have a vanguardist or cadre mentality that the Democrats lack. It's not for nothing that Grover Norquist, the conservative caudillo whose weekly meetings are the nerve center of the American right, frequently quotes Lenin, according to David Brock's Blinded by the Right: "Probe with bayonets, looking for weaknesses." Movement conservatives, as The New Yorker's Hendrik Hertzberg maintained in his review of Brock's book, think very much like communists: They take the long view of history. With iron certitude they are convinced that their interpretation of the world is the only legitimate one; as such, achieving it through virtually any means is justified. They have a movement's way of seeing themselves: embattled, outnumbered, humanity's last hope for slaying the decadent liberal Democratic dragon. The contemporary American left has something of this mind-set, too, although because it has no actual power, the impulse manifests itself differently, in the "spoiler" urge. Because the left is too small to win anything politically, the only thing it can do is prevent its perceived greatest enemy from winning anything. And, for the same psychological reasons that the communists scorned the socialists more than they did the fascists, the American left -- the Nader left, if you prefer -- perceives its greatest enemy to be liberalism.

The long march of the right started in the late 1950s, when conservatives began to organize to take over the party. It is very much not a coincidence that F. Clifton White, an early movement conservative and one of presidential candidate Barry Goldwater's top strategists in 1964, learned some of the agitating techniques he would later use to rouse conservatives from the Communist Party. In these initial phases of the movement, conservatives such as White and Goldwater were fighting as much with their own party as they were with liberalism. They considered Dwight Eisenhower a sellout and an internationalist; Goldwater himself claimed to have heard "the siren song of socialism" as he read through Eisenhower's proposed budgets. On October 8, 1961, White explained to 22 supporters how Goldwater could capture the GOP nomination without taking a single state in the Northeast, and "they understood," writes Rick Perlstein in his recent book, Before the Storm, "that he was describing a revolution." That revolution took a big step forward in 1980, beheld a great triumph in 1994 and, two years ago, finally gained a firmer purchase on the White House than it had even under Reagan.

But if vanguardist discipline has animated Republican leaders, what has driven their Democratic counterparts? They are the opposite of vanguardists. Instead of employing sensational metaphor, they prefer arguing the facts. Rather than enforcing discipline among the troops, they believe in letting all their voices have their own sweet way. Against the idea that you defeat your opposition with arguments that appeal to raw public emotions, they believe you win arguments with superior reason. Reason: C. Wright Mills, the midcentury radical critic, once defined liberalism as "control by reason of man's fate." Throughout its history, liberalism has been indelibly linked to the idea of reason. There are the intellectual progenitors such as John Stuart Mill and Auguste Comte, not to mention Thomas Jefferson and Thomas Paine. More than that, there is the relationship between liberalism and social science. The creed of liberal state interventionism was built on the foundation of social science -- on the idea that when a social problem arises, the best minds can apply themselves to the problem and solve it. This paradigm for liberal action took hold in the Progressive Era under Teddy Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson. It remained in force through the New Deal, although by then liberal reform had a rougher edge, pushed chiefly by a growing and newly militant labor movement. The 1935 Wagner Act, for instance, was less the result of social science than of street heat.

It's no accident that liberalism's decline began when problems popped up that proved resistant to government intervention as liberals imagined it, or when those problems proved downright insoluble. The standard interpretation of liberalism's fall -- that it crashed on the shoals of racial tensions, crime, urban decay and related problems -- is true enough. But within that interpretation reposes a social scientific one: Liberalism sought "solutions" to these ills through methods that had often produced positive results in the past, but those solutions no longer worked. And not only that: Neoconservatives such as Irving Kristol and Nathan Glazer started using social-scientific analysis -- liberalism's own device, turned against it! -- to "prove" that the Great Society, and this or that government program, had failed.

The collapse of social-scientific reason in the 1970s -- which is to say, the collapse of the Democrats' fundamental worldview for at least the previous 40 years -- rendered the party passive, motionless, idle. Their fortunes have waxed and waned since that time. Obviously, Clinton saved the party from possible extinction, but his Democratic Party, while it was able to unite its quarrelsome elements around the act of voting for him two times, was also a hornet's nest of ideological contradictions that have yet to be sorted out.

Which raises the third set of reasons for today's partisan imbalance. They are about ideology: That is, the Republicans have one. They know exactly what they're fighting for. The Democrats do not. However the various constituencies within the Republican Party might differ, they are unified around a central idea, which can be expressed in both positive and negative language: that they are the conservators of liberty and morality, and that liberals are sending the country to hell in overdrive. Whatever Republicans do or don't believe, they believe in those two hypotheses. This unity gives them their passion.

Democrats have no such unity. they are pretty well united around a negative expression of their identity: the belief that the right wing is dangerous. But they lack a cohesive positive idea about what they're here to do. In some ways, Democrats have never had such unity. The Democratic Party of Franklin Roosevelt, for instance, took in at once both blacks and the country's most vile segregationists. But those iterations of the party -- Roosevelt's, and his successors up through Lyndon Johnson -- could at least claim unity around the idea of government using the tools of social science to solve social problems. (By the way, it's no accident that when they had an ideological unity, Democrats also were much tougher partisans, with obstreperous shit-kickers such as Johnson and Hubert Humphrey and lesser-known though important figures, among them Adolf A. Berle, whose classic book, The Modern Corporation and Private Property, today's Democrats would do well to seek out.

But now the party is split into two distinct camps on the question of the utility of government. It's not the same party that it was 60 or even 30 years ago. Its class composition has shifted dramatically. With deindustrialization, a weakened labor movement and a stronger professional middle class, the power relationships among the party's constituencies have changed. The Democrats have become a more corporate party, too, as a consequence of our campaign-finance system. And the clash of interests between its core voting bloc and its donor base is chronic and not easily reconcilable. (Recall Daschle's refusal to take up stock-option reform, a popular cause, which he delayed chiefly because of pressure from the party's high-tech contributors.)

Thus do the contemporary divisions within the Democratic Party reflect a problem that is historically unique: When Democrats can no longer agree on the central proposition that informed their conduct for the better part of a century, there really is nothing left except an amalgam of interest groups, with different agendas and disparate passions. This makes it easy enough for the other side to construct arguments built around the indictment that the Democratic Party doesn't really represent "America," but instead represents these and those distinct groups of Americans.

In this light, it makes perfect sense that there is one, and really only one, circumstance under which Democrats truly do play hardball: the nomination of federal judges. This happens because most of the Democrats' key interest groups -- women, blacks, labor and even liberal business elements -- can find common ground in opposing a judicial nominee whose ideology stings all of them. Here and only here do the party's sundry passions unite. When it came to Clarence Thomas, Robert Bork or recently defeated circuit court judge nominee Charles Pickering -- against whom Democratic senators used rhetoric of a sort they rarely employ in other situations -- the Democrats function with a single, passionately partisan voice.

But aside from judicial battles, the Democrats don't have much fight in them. It was true while Reagan and Bush Senior were president, until a point was reached during each's tenure -- the former's on evidence that actual crimes may have been committed in the White House, the latter's because of the 1992 recession -- when American public opinion absolutely demanded that they play some offense. It was even true of the Clinton era. Clinton played tough occasionally, but he relied far more on charm and cajolery and his imposing talent for deflecting criticism, changing the subject and controlling the agenda than he did on force. It was true of Al Gore's campaign. And how woefully, undeniably true it was of the Florida recount debacle! The culminating event, the logical end point, the Bay of Pigs of two decades of Democratic passivity, played out both symbolically (in the clashing images of the Texas-tough, nail-spitting Jim Baker against the pasty and flinching visage of Warren Christopher) and actually (in that the Gore legal strategy was designed less to win the election than to win the approval of The New York Times and The Washington Post editorial pages).

And finally, it has been true of the party, at least until July 2, since last September 11. Obviously, there were some very good reasons after 9-11 to unite behind the president. The Democrats' strategy of "hugging" Bush on the war appears to have been successful: The Republicans can't attack the Democrats as soft on terrorism this fall. But being pro-war is one thing. Permitting the administration to convert legitimate and necessary disagreements about war policy and aims into manifestations of disloyalty is something else entirely.

To those who say that in wartime it has always been thus, the retort is simple: It hasn't. After the attack on Pearl Harbor, Republican Sen. Robert Taft delivered a speech in Chicago that offered a ringing defense of criticism as patriotism ("As a matter of general principle, I believe there can be no doubt that criticism in time of war is essential to the maintenance of any kind of democratic government") and ample condemnation of fdr's domestic policies. He didn't give the speech in May or July of 1942, after the initial shock had abated. He gave it on December 19, 1941.

Democrats should not try to ape Republicans. They shouldn't put partisanship ahead of, oh, the Constitution, as Republicans did in 1998, a year that hurt the GOP and proved there can be such a thing as too much partisanship. There are times -- during media feeding frenzies -- when you don't need to attack. And anyway, it's just not in the Democrats' genetic makeup to be like Republicans.

But they do need to remember that partisanship can be a virtue and a necessity. And let's face it: 1998 aside, aggression generally works. If Democrats had shown more of it when it mattered, President Gore might well be sitting in the White House. Democrats need to think about the three fronts on which they haven't fought or organized successfully -- logistics, psychology and ideology -- and get cracking. The logistics will take time, as will the ideology, clearly the most important piece of the trifecta, which is likely to be contested terrain into 2004 and beyond. There are no uncomplicated ways to resolve it, and it must be resolved, because ultimately you can't cultivate a zest for the fight unless you know what you're fighting for.

But Democrats can start to change their psychology right now. Certainly, the time is right: The palette of issues is getting Democrat-friendlier with each passing week. And while Democrats may not know exactly what they're for, they do know what they're against. They need to develop a bit of a cadre mentality -- ideally, to find arguments and a rhetoric that will put the Republicans on the defensive, but at the very least to strike back hard when their patriotism or integrity is attacked. The self-flagellation show has to end. It's been running, after all, for 20 years.