Sunday, March 19, 2006

"The Democrats' Disciplinarian"

In a new Newsweek essay titled "The Democrats' Disciplinarian," Jonathan Alter writes about Rahm Emanuel, chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, who's the point man for the Democrats' efforts to regain a Congressional majority. In the middle of an otherwise-neutral report, Alter not only reports, but seems to accept as a "given," one of Emanuel's erroneous views:

Emanuel knows that if Democrats turn the election into a referendum on how to punish Bush (censure, impeachment) instead of on the Bush record, they'll get clobbered.

Link. And there, in a nutshell, is the fundamental weakness of Emanuel's strategy: he misunderstands both hardball politics inside the Beltway and the way voters think outside it. He wants Democrats to play if safe because he fears that voters won't like the image of Democrats tossing the drowning President a brick. He has no clue that what voters really want -- and would want even more, if Democrats would just stand up and speak out -- is an opposition party that defends the rights of the American people, offers both security AND freedom from intrusive government, sticks together and is willing to fight for what it believes in. Emanuel is perfectly willing to win by default, as the Republicans stumble -- but what will he do when the Republicans, as they will, get their act together again?

Feingold's censure resolution is fast becoming a referendum on the Democrats, not on Bush: what I call "The Big Question." It certainly has nothing to do with "punishing" Bush, and voters didn't think it did (at least, not until Democrats started reinforcing the Republican talking points). Holding accountable a President who campaigned on accountability and who admits breaking the law -- and doing it by the least disruptive mechanism, censure, rather than impeachment -- should be terrific politics. But not in Emanuel's world.

Maybe Democrats will win back one or even both Houses in November under Emanuel's direction. But I'm convinced neither that his strategy is the right one for electoral success nor that a marginal win in November would be good for the Democratic Party or the country. We -- meaning both Democrats and Americans -- need more than a short-term, tenuous success:

(1) Emanuel's "picking the lock" approach is a recipe for achieving a marginal win in 2006, not for winning back the hearts and minds of the American people. A slim victory based on triangulation rather than principle will do nothing to re-establish the kind of dominant majority the Democrats will need to pass legislation when some Democrats vote with the Republicans (do Emanuel's calculations really count Henry Cuellar (V-TX28) as a Democrat?), let alone override vetoes (which would finally make their appearance if there were a Democratic Congress), let alone reshape public discourse along progressive principles. While it's obviously a good thing to retake Congress even by a small margin as the first step towards building a solid Democratic majority based on progressive principles, gaining a weak majority without a visionary platform may do as much harm as good -- and will squander a prime opportunity to demonstrate that Democrats really do stand for something.

(2) Ah, you'll say, but Emanuel promises to deliver a visionary platform in his book next summer! Ah, I say back, you really want a young, second-term Congressman, good at winning elections but relatively inexperienced at governing and, more importantly, representing the accommodationist wing of the Democratic Party, to deliver a party platform that all Democrats must follow? I don't buy it. Emanuel may provide a "Contract With America"-style campaign platform, but he can't produce anything like a philosophy for governing -- and without a coherent governing philosophy, Democrats will remain as disorganized and disunified after the election as everyone says they are.

(3) Why do I believe that Congressional Democrats will be disunified, easy to split and unable to govern even if they win narrow majorities in November? Because, while Newsweek calls Emanuel "The Democrats' Disciplinarian," he isn't a disciplinarian; nor is he a leader; he's merely the triangulator-in-chief. Party unity AFTER the election will depend on true leadership, enunciating a long-term philosophy of governance, and enforcing party discipline when key votes require it (remember "The Hammer"?). Emanuel offers none of the above, and so long as the Democratic Party is led by triangulators instead of warriors there will be no one to fill a true leadership role after the election.

In fact, Emanuel's leadership may itself be a source of division within the Party as the 2008 Presidential election draws nearer. Unlike Howard Dean at the Democratic National Committee, who personally is liberal but who is running the DNC neutrally, Emanuel doesn't represent all Congressional Democrats: he is a Clinton (Bill and Hillary) loyalist who may be hijacking leveraging the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee to advance the DLC agenda and, longer-term, Hillary's presidential ambitions.

Battle lines already are being drawn between the pro-Hillary DLC (represented by Emanuel, Harold Ickes and, it appears, George Soros), on the one hand, and Howard Dean, the DNC and every Presidential candidate besides Hillary, on the other hand. Remember that the DNC represents the party as a whole -- it IS the Democratic Party, where all Democrats are welcome -- while the DLC is a private organization representing only one set of views. Hillary and her backers should be working with the national party at this point; instead, however, they're working to outspend and outmaneuver the DNC as if it were a competitor in order to position Hillary as the frontrunner for the 2008 election.

Far from holding the party together, Emanuel is likely to overtly align himself with Hillary and the DLC against every other Presidential contender and the DNC as soon as the elections are over, thus becoming one of the primary wedges splitting the party apart. That doesn't bode well for anyone hoping that Democrats might actually govern effectively after winning power. But winning elections, not governing, is the DLC's goal, so no one should be surprised; it's just another way in which they mimic Republicans.

(4) I wrote that Emanuel represents "the accommodationist wing of the Democratic Party." Note that I didn't say "centrist wing" or "conservative wing." "Centrism" these days doesn't mean what it used to, and there are conservative Democrats who are much better party members, and essentially more progressive, than Emanuel and those whose interests he represents. The problem isn't one of "right" vs. "left," but of principles vs. opportunism and accommodation. The Clinton-DLC philosophy Emanuel subscribes to is an electoral loser when coupled to candidates who lack Bill Clinton's personal charisma. Most voters are savvy enough to identify, and detest, political opportunists who run to the center because that's where they think the votes are. The perception that a candidate believes in something and will fight for it goes a long way, especially in a nation at war, and those fabled "swing voters" will choose the candidate with strong beliefs -- even if they disagree with some of those beliefs -- over a wishy-washy opportunist every time. That's why pro-life Republicans are in the majority even though most voters oppose abortion: at least they stand for something, and voters respect that.

Only one politician ever won election based squarely on DLC-style, Emanuel-style calculated centrism: Bill Clinton. But we're no longer trying to win back the "Reagan Democrats" the way Clinton was, and lesser politicians can't turn triangulation into a winning platform the way he did. The truth is, since the Clinton-DLC crowd came to power in the Democratic Party, Democrats have LOST ground electorally. Unprincipled centrism of the kind represented by the DLC, Emanuel, Hillary Clinton, and, yes, even Bill Clinton, does more harm than good. That's not the Conventional Wisdom, but it is the truth.

So I'm not sure that Emanuel's "leadership" will bring Democrats electoral wins in November; if Democrats do take back one or both Houses those victories will be attributable much more to Bush's missteps than to any strategizing by the Democrats; and even if Democrats do obtain a tenuous majority in Congress, I predict things will be far from rosy for them or for the country. We need a new vision articulated by strong leaders, and Emanuel offers neither.

I'll end by cribbing something I wrote earlier, which sets forth my vision for what America COULD be and the role Democrats could play in getting us there:

[U]ntil our “leaders” start listening to their constituents and acting like Democrats again, they (and we) don’t deserve to be in power. Until we have our act together and are prepared to govern in a coherent, articulate, unified way, we should stay the hell out of it.

Our nation is facing tremendous problems; only a drastic change in course can possibly reverse them. If we Democrats are not prepared to change America's course, however, then it’s better for the inexorable collapse to occur on the Republicans’ watch than on ours. My preferences, in this order, are: (1) a dialed-in, unified, energized, liberal Democratic Party in power, correcting American's course and restoring her fortunes; (2) a faltering, dissipating, weakening Republican Party in power, living or dying with the consequences of their past actions while real Democrats continue to rebuild our party in the wings; and (3) a faltering, dissipated, weak Democratic Party in power, demonstrating once again to voters that we aren’t ready for prime time and possibly being blamed for a nationwide economic, military and social collapse created by the Republicans but foisted on us.

A lot of intelligent, energetic grassroots activists are working to make sure that (1) above comes true. Most of the Democrats in Congress are working hard to see that (3) above comes true, even though they're too struck with Beltway Blindness to realize that's what they're doing. If they don’t catch a clue and start working with us, (2) above is going to occur again in November, and then either (2) or (3) will occur in 2008. And that’s simply not good enough. Democrats deserve better. America deserves better.

*****
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1 comment:

Fight Back said...

I would suggest checking out two articles regarding the spineless behavior of the Democrats. Both are on "Counterpunch" The first is: "Only Millionaire Fence Stradlers Need Apply" and "The Democrats: an Impotent and Tolerated Oppostion Party".