Politics & Media
May 15, 2009, 05:47AM

This Time, It Could Work

Democrats have a history of ruining their most opportune moments in power, but Obama could be different if he focuses less on simply sidelining Republicans.

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Photography by bobster855

The Democratic Party, best known for its self-destruction and infighting, has found itself at the end run of across-the-board electoral victories in 2006 and 2008 and opposite a marginalized opposition party in a lather of directionless ire. The political environment is less like the era of LBJ and more that of Carter: deep widespread public disenfranchisement with a previous Republican administration. To extend the general parallel, Carter’s near-Herculean effort with the Middle East peace process mirrors President Obama’s recession. But that’s where the similarities end. Public policy, in the end, moves minds and feet more than foreign policy, and, with the Obama Administration in the lead, the Left has a very real opportunity to seize the country’s reigns in such a fashion as to affect the political landscape for a generation or more. But such a shift won’t grow from simply campaigning on the ghost of President Bush and the stimulus package.

The Republican loss in the special election in New York's 20th district was thought by many to be a symbolic breaking-point moment for the GOP: the party lost a normally comfortable seat; its Chairman looked more the part of bumbling leader; and the Democratic Party gained another notch in its already sizable House majority. While the 2010 elections are well over a year away, the political climate in states such as Florida, Pennsylvania and Kentucky show a GOP willing to cauterize its best candidates in the name of ideological purity. In Florida, former governor Charlie Crist (R) boasts strong statewide popularity numbers, and yet his support of the stimulus package has drawn considerable fire from conservative radio, Fox, the conservative blogosphere, Club for Growth and National Review. Arlen Specter's party switch was in no small part due to the Club for Growth's support of Pat Toomey and its whipping of Specter over his moderate votes. Kentucky's incumbent senator Jim Bunning is widely regarded as dead weight in the Republican Party, and yet he refuses to step down, ridiculing Senate Minority leader John Boehner along the way.

(Conversely, the Democratic Party pillar Chris Dodd's reelection is in serious jeopardy due to his baldly unwise decisions as Chairman of the Banking Committee. If Dodd should lose the primary, the seat would almost certainly stay blue. If not, all bets are off.)

The political dialogue on the Right is fraught with legitimate concerns over the Administration’s economic plan and the draining spectacle of polarizing figures such as Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck and former Vice President Dick Cheney. The frenzy is manic enough for the Administration and the Democratic Party to leave sizeable policy signpost for the public at large. As 2010 draws closer and the Republican Party further alienates it moderates, more House and Senate elections will look like Florida, Pennsylvania and Kentucky. Assuming Al Franken is seated sometime in the next few years, the Democratic Party will be looking at anywhere between a 63- and 66-seat majority in the Senate.

No matter how positive the political headwinds looks now, the Democratic Party is sitting on its hands when it should look to using this election cycle not just as a chance to further marginalize the Republicans, but as a means to add depth and nuance to its own platforms. Health care reform has kicked off on a strong, if cautious, foot—the White House needs to bring the Democratic caucus on board as much as possible in disseminating the brass tacks of its plan for health care. The Clinton effort in the nineties was a wash, in no small part due to its backroom nature. With energy reform, dialogue on cap and trade and carbon taxes has barely graced the country's A1s since the election. With the stimulus package, the Administration has laid the initial groundwork in galvanizing alternative energy industries, but it's going to take a calm but persistent message control to move the public on this swath of dense policy.

As President Obama switches head coaches in Afghanistan and integrates the US military alongside the CIA in Pakistan, the Democrats will see virulent attacks based on the closing of Guantanamo Bay and the safety of everyday Americans. This fight cannot wait; the debate over torture is slipping away from the public and into the fog of pundit discourse and political hemming and hawing, but the issue of Guantanamo can be met head on and reversed. Pundits on the hard right grudgingly approve—and the liberal left soundly condemns—Obama’s reversal on the release of photos of widespread prisoner in Iraq. What is missing, perhaps, is the notion that Obama is holding all the cards here. Releasing these photos now could possibly render all future grand juries unfit to judge any and all responsible for the war crimes. Or, Obama is simply biding his time on the issue, letting Cheney’s “doth protest too much” vitriol wither on the vine.

Health care, energy reform and national security are the Big Three waiting in line behind the economy. All four are, to some degree, integrated. The Democratic Party is slowly but (agonizingly) surely framing the debate on each.

Looking to the long term, The Atlantic’s Marc Ambinder wrote this in regard to Obama’s university commencement tour:

The enormous advantage among young people for Obama in particular and Democrats in general matters for two reasons. The more immediate is that this generation, which is generally defined as the 93 million people born between 1983 and 2002, will comprise a rapidly increasing share of voters through the next decade. […] If Obama maintains anything near his current strength among Millennials, they will produce a substantially larger vote surplus for him in 2012 than they did in 2008-leaving Republicans a larger deficit to overcome with older voters.

My generation cut its political chops under George W. Bush, a president who gave us a solid template of what we don’t want in government: intemperate ideology, a Cold War complex, financial architecture as artifice, and a flagrant mixture of church and state. Blame him for some or all of that, he was there when it happened. And now Bush is playing the Teller to Cheney’s Penn as the Democratic Party has its first chance in nearly fifty years to move the country toward the left for another fifty or more to come.


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