“The voters have spoken–the bastards!” – Morris Udall
So George W. Bush has won a national election. He did it by an astounding mixture of war fever, money, and media manipulation. But that is beside the point. From now on, his presidency will carry weight that for many of us it did not carry before.
The Democrats are a party of failure and disappointment. Dick Gephardt, an honorable man, played his hand correctly after September 11, 2001 by lining up behind Bush at that time. But the decision to do the same over Iraq was wrong, in principle and also in political terms. Tom Daschle, an able leader, has proved that one cannot lead both a divided caucus and a national opposition.
And so, amazingly, in the last days the Democratic message became… nostalgia for Bill Clinton. But Clinton’s interventions in Florida, North Carolina and Massachusetts had no effect, except possibly to mobilize Republican voters. Clearly, they loathe Clinton, and even Democrats who like him do not want him back. We now know that Al Gore was plainly right in his decision not to use Clinton in the campaign two years ago.
The Senate is Republican again. Judgeships and eventually Supreme Court nominees will now go through. The estate tax will be repealed for good; over time America’s social landscape will be transformed. We will see a massive new tax cut for business very soon. Later on, the resulting deficits will be used to try to force the privatization of Social Security.
Against this, the Democratic Party must become again a Party that speaks plainly for health care, for the minimum and the living wage, for revenue sharing to save states and local government from collapse, for Social Security and for the public schools. These priorities must come well before tax cuts and the useless desire to balance the budget. The Democrats must be a Party plainly against empire, against the plutocrats and the corporate crooks and the zombie judges and tax levelers. A Party that speaks and fights for women and minorities and immigrants and working families. A Party that fights for civil and political and workers’ rights and for the environment.
This has not happened yet. My tireless correspondent Roger Baker explains why not: “If the Dems move to the left and tell the truth, then their corporate cash evaporates. If they move to the right to get more cash, they become quasi-Republicans, but remain less appealing than the real thing.”
An impossible paradox that will be resolved only by a ripening economic crisis. But there is a way out. We know now that cash, bereft of message, cannot beat the Republicans. We know from the 2000 election that a fighting populism can. We should know, too, that third parties offer no way out–the American public is not going to turn Green.
The economic crisis will surely ripen in the months ahead. It will deepen needs and grievances that were mostly absent two years ago and that are still not very widespread today. While the Republicans will move swiftly to stimulate economic growth with tax cuts and low interest rates, it is not a given that they will succeed.
Who, then, is to lead? The answer must be: the person who steps forward, like Charles DeGaulle in London, to organize the resistance. The next Democratic leader will be the one who forges, from this defeat, an opposition party. The Dick Gephardt of old, Ted Kennedy, Paul Wellstone–they are the models that we need now. Only from a resistance can a leader emerge.
Could it be Al Gore? Gore’s presumptive right to a rematch has now vanished. He must now earn his role as a leader from the ground up. And having broken eloquently with Bush over Iraq, he must also now break with Clinton, whose economics of tight budgets and easy money cannot be reproduced any more. Conditions have changed; Gore needs his own plan. Whether he has the stamina, the drive, the intensity–and most of all the vision–to produce an effective one is for him to prove, in the battles about to unfold.
In this moment of defeat, the resistance is undefined. Leadership is up for grabs. It could be someone old. It could be someone new. But someone must step forward and begin to organize if the Democratic Party is to survive. There is no alternative, sorry to say, despicable though our collective performance in the 2002 elections may have been.
James K. Galbraith holds the Lloyd M. Bentsen Chair in Government/Business Relations at the LBJ School of Public Affairs.