A year after George Bushs re-election, every days news trumpets the opportunity for the Democrats. The question I posed in an openDemocracy article on 31 October (The death of American politics) is: can they take it?
President Bushs approval ratings have slumped to 40%, their lowest point, and his credibility with the political elites is even less. A president maintains his effectiveness in Washington by trading with his political capital at a profit. Bush has spent much of his own capital on a whole series of hubristic schemes: on an ill-conceived reform of social security, on promoting cronies like Harriet Miers his nominee for the Supreme Court who had to withdraw because not even her fellow conservatives could see her on the bench and on all the incompetencies, minor and major, the Washington press corps long ignored and now avidly chronicles. The cumulative result is that Bushs authority in Washington has been weakened.
Also on George W Bushs difficult second term in openDemocracy:
Godfrey Hodgson, Gimme Five! US Republicans amoral minority (June 2005)
Terry Lynn Karl, Bushs second Gulf disaster (September 2005)
Godfrey Hodgson, After Katrina, a government adrift (September 2005)
Sidney Blumenthal, George W Bush: home alone (October 2005)
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In the country, beyond the Washington beltway and the TV studios, voters are concerned with more down-to-earth worries: the continuing casualties in Iraq and the obvious lack of an exit strategy there, the price of gasoline, the fear of unemployment and the other worries that take the gloss off the economys continued growth.
Bush is potentially discredited. But he still has an immense fund of political capital. In November 2004 he won re-election convincingly. His party controls the Senate, the House of Representatives and now, in spite of the Harriet Miers fiasco, the Supreme Court as well. Over a quarter of a century, moreover, Republican conservatives have won many of the policy battles, persuading a majority of Americans that liberalism is a dirty word and that as Ronald Reagan put it big government is the problem, not the solution.
The long ascendancy of conservative Republicans, which goes back to the widespread perception in the 1970s that the Democrats had lost coherence and political direction, cannot end until the Democrats are once again in a position to take advantage of the Bush administrations real difficulties.
Can they recapture control of at least one chamber of Congress in the 2006 mid-term elections? Can they win the presidency itself in 2008? Both, in the present volatility of American politics, are possible. Neither is yet as likely as it would be if the Democrats could get their own act together.
Three steps to victory
It can be done, and in the past it has been done. In 1958, when an ailing President Eisenhower had lost momentum, and unemployment was over 12%, the congressional Democrats led by House speaker Sam Rayburn and Senate leader Lyndon Johnson won more than a dozen Senate seats and more in the House to provide the platform for the civil-rights victories of the Kennedy and Johnson administrations.
In 1976, only four years after Richard Nixons 1972 landslide, the Democrats capitalised on Watergate to win back the White House and install a whole new generation of liberals in congress. In 1982, when Ronald Reagans popularity was at its height, the Democrats took advantage of economic worries to win twenty-six House seats.
Those victories, though, could be won because the Democrats had a measure of unity, able leadership, and a coherent political strategy. Todays Democrats have not yet shown that they possess any of those three preconditions for success.
Unity is perhaps the least necessary, in one sense. After all, the triumphant Democratic Party of Franklin Roosevelt or Lyndon Johnson embraced wildly different interests and ideologies. In particular, it found room for civil-rights insurgents, and for turtle-necked southern reactionaries. What it did have in the past, and what it does not seem to have acquired, is the confidence that if all Democrats work together, the walls of the conservative Jericho can come tumbling down.
Leadership is perhaps the most crying need. Senator Harry Reid of Nevada, the Democratic leader in the Senate, is no Lyndon Johnson. And Representative Nancy Pelosi, his opposite number in the House, is a woman of brains and character who is also divisive and in some ways just the kind of Democrat the Republicans find easiest to run against.
The party took the risk of installing Howard Dean, the much caricatured loser in the 2004 presidential primaries, as chairman of the Democratic National Committee, and Dean has proved a colourful and effective figurehead. But the party is bitterly divided by the jockeying for position ahead of the 2008 presidential elections.
So far no convincing figure has emerged among Democratic governors or mayors, and it is in the Senate that the tipsters are finding the runners. Senator Hillary Clinton is well clear in the lead, perhaps dangerously so with three years still to polling day. She has shown herself an able, cautious, calculating politician, but she does not wave the banner of leadership like an oriflamme. It may have been prudent to say so little about the Iraq war, but it has not been inspiring.
The losing running-mates of 2004, Senator John Kerry and former Senator John Edwards, are both considering challenging for the Democrats nomination, though in the slow-bicycle race tradition of American politics where it is unwise to reveal your ambition too early, both are reticent about their plans. Other candidates could conceivably emerge: Senator Joe Biden of Delaware, or Senator Barack Obama of Illinois, an African-American lawyer with glittering gifts. But at the moment Senator Clinton is an odds-on favourite.
Her candidacy, though, highlights the two problems the Democrats have got to overcome. The first concerns 9/11 and the war in Iraq. Senator Kerrys campaign, many are convinced, was crippled by the fact that he had voted for the war. More broadly, Democratic politicians conceded the high ground of patriotism and national defence to President Bush, and so find it hard to fire a whole arsenal of their most promising weapons. They are only now slowly coming to question the wisdom of the Iraq war, the truthfulness of the administrations case for starting it, the morality of the administrations use of torture and offshore prisons, and the unilateral spirit that has deprived the younger Bush of the coalition his father assembled to defend Kuwait in 1990-91.
Senator Clinton, in particular, may have been wise to keep silent, or almost so, on the war until now. She must find the right moment to put herself at the head of all those Americans who are coming round to the view that the war was wrong, or mistaken, or both.
Godfrey Hodgsons most recent book is More Equal Than Others: America from Nixon to the New Century (Princeton University Press, 2004)
Behind this failure to speak out about the war on terror and its unnecessary extension to Iraq, however, there lies a second, deeper dilemma for the Democrats. For the middle third of the 20th century, from 1933 to 1968, they were a social-democratic party, restrained or constrained by a conservative southern wing. In the last third of the century, much of that southern wing defected to the Republicans, leaving the Democrats to the left of the mainstream, and in particular a party in which conscious minorities, especially feminists and African-Americans were over-represented, or at least perceived as over-represented by many of their traditional working-class and rural supporters.
The only time since 1980 that the Democrats have enjoyed a modicum of national success was when they were led by Bill Clinton, an exceptionally skilful politician and also a southerner, who knew how to mix uplifting appeals to the American creed with distinctly conservative policies on such issues as welfare.
The Democrats have expended immense intellectual energy for a generation in arguing about how they can recover from the loss of the southern wing and the break-up of the Roosevelt coalition, and restore their hegemony. Senator Hillary Clinton, an intensely intelligent politician, has been thinking for three decades about this issue. Yet her personal attributes she is a northerner, an intellectual, and a policy wonk with a cold and elitist persona very different from her husbands will make it harder for her than it was for him to revive the Democratic party. Only the fact that she is a woman may, at long last, work in her favour.
So much can happen, so much can go wrong, for Hillary Clinton in the two years or so before the 2008 campaign gets seriously underway. Yet for now, the opportunity is hers. Sooner, rather than later, she must break cover and draw the fire of the now wounded but still dangerous Republicans. And she must break out of the limitations of the political and media elite and show she can hear the troubled voices of her potential majority.
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