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 other.
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.