Monday, November 08, 2004

Right? Left? How about this...

We've had a week now to catch our breath following the body blow delivered to us by the electorate. In many respects, the progressive blogosphere’s reaction to Kerry’s defeat and our losses in Congress has been an elegant affirmation of Elizabeth Kubler-Ross’s observations about the stages of death. Needless to say, we haven’t been nearly as linear or as coordinated in our reactions as the textbooks suggest they should be, but hey, we’re Democrats.

One debate that anyone and everyone seems to be having at the moment is whether the Democratic party needs to move further left or further right to win in the presidency in 2008. Briefly stated, those who advocate moving left argue that we need a Howard Dean to fully re-embrace the socially progressive policies of the party and re-energize the base. Those who advocate moving right—er, sorry, to the “center”—argue that northeastern liberals like Dean and Kerry scare the hell out of the heartland and are easily taken down in a general election. Names for 2008 kicked around by these folks include Evan Bayh, or maybe Tom Vilsack.

Let’s set aside for a moment the notion that it’s far too early to have a valid clue as to how to proceed two or three years down the road. My feeling, admittedly not shared by many I’ve talked to, is that the Democrats were positioned just about right this time around. I think John Kerry put forth a fundamentally solid, if not optimally progressive, message championing real health care reform, tax policies that valued work over wealth, and multinational coalitions to deal with terrorist threats. The message got washed out by the (irrational and unfounded) fears of gay marriage, terrorist celebrations should Kerry win the White House, and communist-like redistribution of the wealth, all churned up by the right-wing smear machine. Some—but far from all—of Kerry’s difficulties can also be chalked up to what appeared to be weak campaign strategy at times. All of these things happen during the course of any campaign, but none should be necessarily taken as indicators that the positions themselves were all wrong.

Unless and until the Electoral College is relegated to the ash heap, I don’t see much political value in running further to the left. The increased turnout for the Dems along with the anemic vote totals amassed by Darth Nader suggest that we may be pretty close to the point of diminishing returns in getting swing-state progressives to the polls. How many progressives do you know that woke up in Ames, Iowa last Tuesday and said, “Vote?…Nah, I don’t think so. Too much to do today.”

Moving right—er, sorry, to the “center”—doesn’t seem to be any more promising as a strategy. To take the exemplar, Evan Bayh is a decent, committed and well-meaning guy who represents his constituency very well. He is, at first blush, “electable,” could peel some votes off the center-right and would have a much better chance of nabbing Ohio and Iowa than did Kerry. However, it’s hard to imagine his presidency as advancing a progressive agenda in any fundamental way. We’d be looking at a holding action or incremental gains, at best. Moreover, a candidacy like his would run the risk of alienating the left wing of the party, leaving someone enough elbow room to pull a Nader.

Rather than moving our party one way or the other, it would be far simpler to highlight the inherent virtues of Democratic positions by daring the Republicans to legislate as radically as they campaign. They’ve got the keys to the car in both houses and the White House, so of course they’re eager to deliver legislation supporting the positions on abortion, marriage, tax policy and other goodies they dangled in front of selected constituencies on the campaign trail. Let’s help’em out. Let’s find out just how cohesive their perverse coalition of theocrats, corporate greedheads, gun-loving libertarians and Paleolithic Rockefeller Republicans really is. Credit goes to countless others around the ‘sphere for the following ideas; I just thought it would be nice to round some of them up:

I think that Chuck Schumer should reach out to Tom Coburn to cosponsor the Sanctity of Human Life Act of 2005. This legislation would define life as beginning at conception, and any process that willfully ends or treats with reckless disregard the viability of a fertilized egg would be murder under federal law. This includes abortion, even in cases of rape and incest, and in vitro fertilization procedures. Criminal penalties for persons carrying out or abetting any such actions—physicians, pregnant women, parents or partners who assist in any way—will be defined in the legislation. I want to see Olympia Snowe, Susan Collins, John Sununu, Judd Gregg, Arlen Specter, John McCain and even guys like John Warner and Gordon Smith explain their affirmative votes to the folks back home. House Republicans from those infamously radical right bastions of upstate New York, Long Island, southern California, suburban New Jersey and the oh-so-libertarian New Hampshire similarly would have some explaining to do. And if the legislation falls flat on its face, I want to see Bill Frist, Tom DeLay and Denny Hastert explain to their religious base why they couldn’t get the bill to the floor or the votes to pass it. Put up or shut up.

Hillary Clinton should reach out to...geez, do the Republicans have anyone on the far right who hasn’t been married three times?…to cosponsor the Sanctity of Marriage Act of 2005. Hillary’s perfect—whatever else you want to say about her, she’s the walking exemplar of “stand by your man.” Gay marriage? Of course, you should just fuggedaboutit. But we’ve got to do something about rampant divorce as well. Most of the marriage ceremonies I’ve been to mention something about “for better or worse;” I can’t think of one where I heard that it would be OK to dump a spouse undergoing chemotherapy for cancer (that’s Gingrich), or to carry on a very public extramarital affair before telling the press, and then your spouse, that you’re abandoning the marriage (that’s Guiliani). We can’t eliminate it completely, I suppose, but we sure can impose some stiff financial buy-out penalties along with mandatory wage withholding for the kids—if a middle-management bureaucrat in Washington decides that the marriage cannot be saved (extensive documentation required, thank you). Of course, adultry would be criminalized, too (sorry, Big Dog).

How about the Tax Fairness Act of 2005? It is one of W’s wet dreams, after all. This one would mandate that no state shall receive in federal aid more than, say, 105% of the money they kick into the federal kitty….no, no, wait—that’s not the tax fairness W has in mind. Flat tax—yeah, that’s the one. Pick a plan—Forbes’s, Armey’s, whoever. Charitable contributions wouldn’t be deductible, and most folks in the heartland won’t have quite as much pocket change as a result, but religious groups really shouldn’t worry about financing their pseudoPACs and arena-sized telecathedrals—those wealthy Wall Street guys and megacorporations will more than make up the difference, won’t they? And nobody really depends on their mortgage and health care deductions, anyways.

You get the idea. There are countless more possibilities. Some of these ideas, particularly the one about abortion, make Mrs. Dr. Bloor very, very nervous. Hell, all of them make me nervous, and I’m happy to be talked out of any of them. But my feeling is that if any of these things actually came about following Democratic prodding, well, they were going to happen anyway. If America has really come so far right that the Republicans don’t pay for their legislation at midterms or in ‘08, our discussions are moot and the only realistic action we have is to Think Toronto. If it hasn’t, we can effectively drive wedges among the various factions in the Republican coalition, force poison pills down the throats of at least some of their representatives, and minimize the hits we take on these high-profile issues during the ’06 and ‘08 campaign cycles.

It’s not at all clear to me that the current leadership in D.C. is up for this sort of knife fight, anyway. Pelosi, sure. But Harry Reid? Dick Durbin? Solid, respectable and wise legislators who have served their constituencies and their country admirably well, but their fundamental sensibilities and styles may be of a bygone era. Bill Frist and Mitch McConnell are across the aisle now, and they don’t give a rat’s ass about the legacies of guys like Jake Javits, Mike Mansfield or Mark Hatfield. They also don’t give a rat’s ass about anyone else’s views or constituencies. Time to step up, guys.


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