May 13, 2003

Chicken or Egg?

I find myself constantly asking what has happened to the Democrats. Where is the Loyal Opposition? Is everyone in the party brain dead? Do Democrats no longer have any ideas of their own? Why don’t they just come out and say that George W. Bush is a reckless cowboy who stole the Presidency, conducts foreign policy with the subtlety of Attila the Hun, who is running the country for the benefit of his rich cronies, and who doesn’t give a damn about the average American or about civil liberties? Isn’t this obvious to anyone who isn’t in a coma?

Joe Klein, in his latest report in Time, “How to Build a Better Democrat,” has some good suggestions to help Democratic candidates get noticed (recapture the flag, lose the frown, kill the consultants). He neglected to point out the Catch-22 that seems to restrain the Democrats, however. They are reluctant to criticize President Bush because he is so popular. But Mr. Bush’s popularity is enhanced by the fact that there are so few credible, national voices opposing him. When the opposition party does not take on the President, people conclude that our leader must be doing things right and deserves our support. The result is that his popularity increases, and the Democrats become ever more timid. By the time George W. Bush ruins the country, there may not even be a Democratic Party to pick up the pieces!

The Democrats should immediately begin a program of truth telling. When the President does or says something of which they approve, they should say so. In this case, some measure of the President’s popularity may actually rub off on them. When the President does something damnable, however, his policies should be attacked unmercifully. Democrats will take some abuse for this from the Republican right, from the columnists, and from the radio talk show hosts. Eventually, however, people will begin listening to that wee small voice in their heads that has been telling them all along that something is seriously wrong in the land, that perhaps the nakedness of the Emperor is really an indication that he has no clothes on. Especially should the Democrats not let President Bush get away with claiming the moral high ground when he is being most partisan, while accusing the Democrats of partisanship whenever they express even the mildest disapproval.

What comes first, decreased presidential popularity or an atmosphere in which it is easy to criticize the President? The answer is the former. Unless the Democrats are willing to attack a popular President, however, that President will remain popular, and neither expressing dissent nor winning elections will become any easier.

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