There’s blood in the water, and the sharks in the Democratic Party have begun circling. Unfortunately, they have no teeth.
Eleven years ago, the seething machine the Republican Party constructed to oust the Democrats from power was a wonder to behold. It blustered, blew, and tapped into a growing frustration in the American public that the Democrats had little idea existed.
The Contract with America was the culmination. Released shortly before the midterm elections of 1994, it helped to seal the Republican victory.
Also, one of the most effective weapons the Republicans used to swing power to their side was polarization. It’s hard to imagine today that there were great ideological conflicts within, as well as without, the two dominant parties in American politics.
For the Democrats, the battle within was between the liberals in the north and the segregationists in the south. Lyndon Johnson decided this battle, and ceded the south to the Republicans.
In the Republican Party, it was liberals vs. conservatives, Rockefeller vs. Goldwater, Lindsay vs. Buckley, Nixon vs. Reagan, even Ford vs. Reagan. In the end, the conservatives vanquished their intra-party foes and initiated the outward hostility between liberals and conservatives that today typifies American politics.
Creating these divisions was a means to an end. A consolidation before the final triumph. Us vs. Them, creating a divided America and tapping into the common, generally misplaced, feeling among American individuals that they are being oppressed by the powers that be. It was a victory which used anger, rhetoric, and accusation as its most visible weapons. The Republicans also used an extreme type of conservatism typical of the religious right to motivate a solid base. But more than anything, their victory was the result of planning, and offering a genuine alternative to the Democratic Party.
Today, the Republican Party operates under a cloud. The pall of corruption and incompetence is tainting the party from the chambers of Congress, to the White House, to the bustling patronage machines of the lobbying firms on K Street (the very idea that in many ways Republicans and lobbyists have become synonymous is disturbing in its own right). Now that the time seems right to press the Republicans on their actions, the Democrats are coming up short. They studied what happened in 1994, and they remember the accusations, the taunting, the calls for morality and justice in government, but right now, the best the Democrats can do is echo those calls from a decade ago. They level the same accusations of crony politics, fiscal irresponsibility, etc., on the Republican Party that was so effective against them.
But the planning is missing. The proposals for genuine reform are missing. At this point, the only alternative the Democrats are offering to the Republicans is that they will be less of a disaster than the GOP. That strategy didn’t work in the elections last year, and it certainly won’t work in next year’s midterms. A colossal number of people voted less for John Kerry than against George W. Bush, and yet the president walked away ahead by three million votes. Just showing up and being willing to take the reins from an incompetent is not enough to gain power.
As bad as leadership in Washington has been, the voters will not replace even the worst elements without some idea of what is replacing them. In addition, the Republican smear machine has been so effective for so long, that the Democratic Party carries a taint of weakness and immorality with it that will be hard to shake off.
If the Democrats truly are interested in regaining their hold on Washington, the first step towards that end will not be in emulating Republican rhetoric, but in emulating the incredible unity and long-term planning that has been the hallmark of their success. These are not just the realms of conservatives, but the realms of successful leaders. Most importantly, the Democrats must stay away from cronyism, lobbyists, and whatever else will come to be the cause of the future transfer of power from Republicans to Democrats.