One State, One Party, One Leader

Bush and the GOP run into troubles--but serious political opposition is not one of them

At the hour of Bush's greatest vulnerability, there is, as usual, hardly a peep from Democrats. Every party apologist under the sun seems to think the Democrats are craftily letting Bush hang himself while they attend to the problem of refining their "message," a perennial puzzle complicated by many factors, chief among them that they have no message to refine. Ever since the 1984 reelection of Ronald Reagan, the Democrats have sought consciously to position themselves as less extreme, more sensible exemplars of the same values and goals as Republicans. That way lay the serious political money--and, they convinced themselves, the hearts of swing voters. But if "we're like them, only less" has proven repeatedly to be a lousy electoral draw, the party shows no sign of swerving from it. Hillary Clinton, an archetypal cynic and "centrist" who is as divisive in her own way as George W. Bush, is everyone's frontrunner for the 2008 Democratic nomination. The troublesome Howard Dean is effectively silenced. And the party intelligentsia, with the blessing of the Clintons, is still busy admonishing anyone who will listen to stay the course--now is no time to move left! Just last week a fresh screed on the subject was excreted by two old Friends of Bill, Elaine Kamarck and William Galston.

This tune does not change. No matter how badly they get clobbered, it is never time for the Democrats to tilt left on pocketbook issues in the view of party captains and, more important, party funders. The Democrats' money people, like the Republicans', are drawn mostly from the ranks of the less than 1 percent of the population that donates over 80 percent of total campaign contributions. Their differences with each other are slight compared to the differences between the 1-percenters and everyone else. The vast majority of the people whose money picks our political candidates and drives our government are in accord about the shape of the future they want: free trade, modest-to-minimal central government, rollbacks in any spending programs that redistribute income downward, and a continuing decline in the living standards of most Americans as world wage markets equalize. So the Democrats are left to sell themselves on a margin of difference that looks, and usually is, fairly trivial--at least until a genuine radical like Bush rises to power. And when he does, apparently, they are so far out of fighting trim that they fail to wage battles they could win even in the absence of any new ideas, such as the scandals stemming from cronyism and sheer incompetence in Bush's circle.

No matter how evil or ingenious you suppose the Republican brain trust to be, in the end they have our wondrously inert democratic institutions to thank for much of their operating room. It's no great hardship to flout public will and public interest consistently when the watchdogs of the press spend most of their time curled up in your lap, and there is no opposition party to rally foes or pose compelling alternatives. Certainly the Bush gang has exploited this vacuum to hell and back, but they did not create it. The system was broken when they got there, and it will still be broken when they're gone.

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