NEW YORK--Live every day as if it were your last. It's good advice. Modified for politicians: Treat every term in office as if it were your last.
Republicans get political existentialism. When they campaign for office, they promise to be uniters, not dividers. Once they win an election, however, talk of bipartisanship promptly sails out the window. They freeze out the Democrats, elected representatives and constituents alike. Rather than compromise to accommodate the millions who voted against them, Republicans play to their right-wing base: racists and Christianists. The GOP belligerently promotes the most extreme items on its legislative wish list by declaring its victory to be a broad manifesto for radical change and wholesale rejection of the other side. They nominate judges whose conservatism is far to the right of the average Republican. Sure, they want to unite the country--by forcing everyone to go along with what they want.
"Back in December 2000," recalls Lincoln Chafee, a Republican senator from Rhode Island, "after one of the closest elections in our nation's history, Vice President-elect Dick Cheney was the guest at a weekly lunch meeting of a small group of centrist Republicans." Many people expected Bush, who'd received 48 percent of the vote and had been anointed after a controversial Supreme Court decision to halt the recount, to make good on his campaign promises to reach out to Democrats in a spirit of bipartisanship. But Cheney had something else in mind. "I was startled to hear the vice president dismiss suggestions of compromise and instead emphasize an aggressively partisan agenda that included significant tax cuts, the abandonment of international agreements and a muscular, unilateral policy."
Cheney and Bush understood that they might only have one four-year term to accomplish their goals. Knowing that they might never get another chance, they insulated themselves with a staff of like-minded ideologues and got to work at remaking America in their image. Drawing on bluster and hubris, they bullied Democrats into going along with the transfer of the federal tax burden from the rich to the middle class. Next, they skillfully exploited Americans' fear and anger following the September 11 attacks to attack Afghanistan and Iraq. By 2004, they had eliminated civil liberties that citizens of Western countries had enjoyed for hundreds of years, emasculating Congress and the Courts to create a "unified executive" form of government.
Most of the changes carried out by Bush's neoconservatives during his first term--new tax rates, USA-Patriot Act, two wars, pulling out of the Geneva Conventions, torture, domestic eavesdropping--will probably remain in force for decades. Their strategy of running roughshod over the Democrats worked. It helps to enjoy the complicity of the media. Whenever Republicans win an election, mainstream pundits cite the results as prima facie proof that the American people have handed them a mandate to do whatever they want.
When Reagan won in 1980, Newsweek hailed his triumph as "an idea whose time had come," "a rousing vote of confidence in him and his politics," and posited that the results spelled "nearly certain death for liberal causes." When Republicans picked up seats in the 1994 midterm elections, House Speaker Newt Gingrich drew upon media support to stampede Clinton into a year-long "copresidency," resulting in welfare reform and free-trade pacts.
When is a win not a win? When it's Democratic. When a majority of Americans cast votes for the Dems, the results are invariably interpreted by the media as a public desire for moderation and bipartisanship rather than some "radical left-wing agenda." Democrats are told to abandon their campaign promises and ignore their liberal base. The pain and divisiveness of the (Republican-ruled) past must be healed by big-hearted (and soft-headed) Democrats. Democrats don't get mandates.
The double standard isn't new. "For all the records it broke," Time editorialized in 1996, "[Bill Clinton's 49-to-41 percent win] was a victory for studied modesty; for a willingness to swallow his pride to preserve his power, embrace his enemies to steal their ideas and march into history as the first two-term Democrat since F.D.R., not with great leaps forward but one baby step at a time. It couldn't be clearer if they had spelled it out letter for letter: voters elected a moderate Democratic President to carry out a moderate Republican agenda."
Clearly. For the first time since 1994, Democrats find themselves in control of both houses of Congress. They picked up 28 seats in the House and six in the Senate--a stunning sweep, considering that congressional redistricting has made it more difficult to unseat incumbents. But the facts that a lot more Americans voted Democratic than Republican and that Bush's approval rating has hit a record low (31 percent) don't mean much to the official media--or, it seems, to the winning Democratic candidates.
Time's post-election cover story was called, "Why the Center is the Place to Be." The incoming freshmen representatives, reported The New York Times (house organ of the Clinton-style centrist Democrats) in its lead story on November 12, "say they were given a rare opportunity by voters, many of them independents and Republicans, who were tired of the partisanship and gridlock in Washington."
Ahem. Gridlock? Whether or not you support agree with them, no one can deny that Bush and Cheney got a lot of major legislation passed through their rubber-stamp Congress. Bush hasn't had to veto a single bill. Anyway, let's continue:
"Now, they say, they have to produce ... to find a bipartisan consensus ... to avoid the ideological wars that have so dominated Congress in recent years, to be pragmatists, and to change the tone in Washington after a sharply partisan campaign."
"They've set a bad example in not working with us," incoming Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said of the Republicans. "We're not following that example."
Blech. The fools are already running for reelection. The New-New Democrats need to study the calendar. Two years from now, they may well end up back in the minority, reading passionate speeches no one will ever hear to an empty chamber for the benefit of C-SPAN. Rather than triangulate or moderate their views, Democrats should take that two-year time limit seriously and go gangbusters, emulating Cheney and Bush's balls-to-the-wall style to pass as much legislation as they can before 2008. That means unraveling as many GOP accomplishments as possible. Cancel the tax cuts, close the torture camps, restore habeas corpus, get the NSA out of our e-mail, yank our troops out of Afghanistan and Iraq.
It's high time for vengeance. Impeachment is essential to cleanse our national soul, as a downpayment of good will toward the rest of the world, and because they did it to Clinton for far less. And we need investigations--lots of them. Special prosecutors ought to track down everyone, up to and including Bush, who lied about WMDs in Iraq, chose not to pursue Osama in Pakistan after 9/11, deliberately withheld help that could have saved lives during Hurricane Katrina, and signed off on warrantless wiretapping of American citizens. Law and order starts at the top.
At the same time, Dems ought to ram through such long overdue (and popular) liberal agenda items as national health insurance, pulling out of the failed NAFTA accord and a big hike in the minimum wage. If any Republicans object, do what they'd do: call them terrorists or traitors or some other smear that forces them to sit down, shut up, and vote yes.
Of course, there's an alternative. Bill Clinton wasted his entire political career placing short-term victory at the polls over achieving his political goals. Sucking up to moderates and Republicans got him eight years in the White House, but for what? He never signed a major bill that could be described as liberal.
If they govern like there's no tomorrow, Democratic lawmakers will be able to say that they represented their constituents, who will have gotten what they voted for.
That's how democracy is supposed to work. Remember?