Tuesday was an outstanding day for the Democrats. A solid majority in the
House. And, depending on the outcomes of tight races in Virginia and
Montana, the possibility of a Senate majority as well. Given the daunting
obstacles that Democrats had to overcome - gerrymandering, dirty tricks,
incumbency - it is pretty clear that things could not have gone better.
Or could they?
After all these years in exile, it may seem wrongheaded to speculate about
what could have been. But the very factors which made it so difficult for
Democrats to prevail will again doom the party to minority status if the
mistakes of the past are repeated. In particular, some Democrats have
been afraid to draw attention to Republican policies which are not based
on facts. As a result, Democrats have been vulnerable to
divide-and-conquer tactics that pit one wing of the party against the
Consider perhaps the most egregious illustration of this phenomenon: the
Democrats' failure to present a unified front against the Bush
administration's 2002 campaign to rush the country into war in Iraq. The
experts knew in 2002 that Iraq could not be governed. On September 22,
2002, a group of 33 of the nation's most distinguished national security
specialists published a statement in the New York Times in which they
predicted that, "Even if we win easily, we have no plausible exit
strategy. Iraq is a deeply divided society that the United States would
have to occupy and police for many years to create a viable state." Even
if Iraq had had weapons of mass destruction, the experts knew that going
to war was unwise: only a fool would destabilize the enemy of her enemy
(Iran); put her troops in the line of fire of WMD; and create a power
vacuum that might someday be filled by another dictator seeking WMD.
Democrats could have rallied around these messages. And some, of course,
did. But the party allowed itself to be divided between those who told
the truth about the impossibility of victory, and those who were afraid to
point out weaknesses in the Administration's case for war. As a result,
the war split the Democrats down the middle. After Congress considered a
resolution authorizing President Bush to use force against Iraq in October
2002, 29 Democratic Senators voted for the measure while 21 Democrats
opposed it. In the House, the Democrats split 81 for, 126 against.
As far as the Bush White House is concerned, the Democratic rift has been
the gift that keeps on giving. For almost four years, from 2002 to 2005,
the party was unable to formulate a coherent message on the major
headline-generating issue of the day - Iraq. Even as late as May 8, 2006
New York Times columnist Bob Herbert took Senator Hillary Clinton to task
for embodying both sides of the rift. Herbert noted that, on the one
hand, "After more than three years of fighting and more than 2,400
American deaths, you still need a magnifying glass to locate the
differences between Mrs. Clinton and the Bush administration on the war.
It's true," Herbert adds, "that she has been a frequent and sometimes
harsh critic of the way the war has been conducted. But in terms of
overall policy, she seems to be right there with Bush, Cheney, Condi et
al. She does not regret her vote to authorize the invasion, and still
believes the war can be won."
Clinton's dilemma is a metaphor for the trap that the party faces when
some of its members run away from frightening evidence. She cannot
distance herself from her original vote for the war without looking
indecisive and wishy-washy. Yet she cannot embrace her original vote if
she expects to appeal to the liberal base of the party, which she needs
attract in order to win the Democratic nomination. As a result, and not
unlike John Kerry, she tries to thread a needle whose eye is so small that
she simply cannot do it. No one could. Clinton says that she stands by
her original vote, but that, ''I have continually raised doubts about the
president's claims, lack of planning and execution of the war, while
standing firmly in support of our troops.'' Whether or not this
constitutes flip-flopping, her position seems dead on arrival. Markos
Moulitsas, founder of the ultra-liberal blog Daily Kos, wrote in a
Washington Post op-ed that Clinton is, "behind the curve or downright
incoherent on pressing issues such as the war in Iraq."
If the Democrats had presented a unified front from the onset, they might
have suffered even more disastrous losses in the 2002 midterm elections.
But by leveling with the American people, they would have positioned
themselves for the long-term dominance of the political landscape as soon
as the facts on the ground proved them to be right.
It is easy for Democrats to say that they support the troops, that they
think Donald Rumsfeld should be fired, and that they believe that sexual
predators should not serve in Congress. But they will not satisfy the
public's yearning for honesty, integrity and authenticity unless they tell
the truth, even when doing so is scary. While Tuesday's vote can be read
in many ways, one plausible interpretation is that the public grew tired
of the Bush administration's failure to base public policy on data.
If the evidence indicates that gay marriage is good for kids; that
emergency conservation measures are needed to prevent global warming from
causing the seas to rise; that the war in Iraq is not winnable; that
high-quality health care is affordable if the system is re-organized; and
yes, that slightly higher taxes for everyone would save lives and improve
all of our collective well-being, then the party should say so.
The public will forgive Democrats for being too liberal. But it will not
forgive them for being timid about what is true. Surely, Tuesday was a
sweet victory. But if Democrats had been more courageous in 2002, Tuesday
could been much, much more.