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The Rorschach Revolution: Fish Sticks, Spin, and The Fight For the Democratic Soul

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When I was making the circuit of mid-Atlantic country/western dives and dude ranches in the 70's, my pedal steel player took great amusement in a TV ad for "Mrs. Paul's Fish Sticks." He'd repeat the tag line endlessly: "They're great, Mom - and they don't have that fishy taste."

The power-for-power's-sake wing of the Democratic Party is busy today making sure that America understands that its Democratic victory won't have that Democratic taste. America is being battered by a barrage of soundbites from Rahm, Hillary, Schumer, and a mainstream media eager to resist genuine change whenever possible.

Yesterday's election was the Rorschach Revolution. Observers are free to read any meaning into it they choose. Look and listen to them if you like, but beware: As with any Rorschach test, what they claim to see tells you more about them than it does about reality.

The battle for the Democratic soul is being played out hour-by-hour in the media. The next few days of spin could well shape the Party for years to come. It's important to get the truth out before it gets buried in the new Democratic/reactionary noise machine. If the cynics win, this victory could carry the seeds of destruction for the Democratic Party in 2008.

Hillary, Center Staged

As always, Hillary Clinton led the charge for the win-at-any-cost wing of the party. Yesterday's victory speech kicked off her Presidential campaign with these words: "The message couldn't be clearer that it is time for a new course, beyond all the partisan, ideological division, back to the vital, dynamic center."

She went on to say: "The vice president said regardless of the outcome the administration would go full speed ahead in the same direction. Well, the American people have said not so fast."

That's the manifesto of reactionary Democratism in a nutshell. After six years of a radical shift to the right, she's staking her claim on a mythical "dynamic center" (an oxymoron for the ages), and has pledged "not to go as fast" in that rightward direction.

She and her allies are taking word-parsing to new heights in the misplaced belief that equivocation, not leadership, is the wave of the future. That's a much riskier course than they realize. Undecided voters are unlikely to be swayed by wishy-washy leaders, and "undecided" is not synomymous with "centrist." At the same time, a bruised and battered party base may well desert the Democrats in droves if they don't articulate clear positions in 2008.

As several observers noted, Hillary also advocated "a new course in Iraq" - but declined to suggest one.

Re-Pression

The press rode the myth of Republican dominance straight into oblivion. Now they're jumping on the bandwagon of the reactionary Dems. Howard Fineman is a prime example of the breed. He wrote:

"Rahm" is a one-word Washington synonym for action; "Schume," as the tabloid headline writers sometimes call him, for shrewd authority.

"Preparation is everything," adds Fineman, "in their view."

That's certainly true of the way they worked the refs. Fineman wrote these words before the election. It's deja vu all over again: the press, ever ready to accept predigested spin, had already decided what this election "means" before it even took place.

So how correct is the spin? Let's take a look.

Howard's End?

Howard Dean isn't getting much press today, but Rahm is already hard at work undercutting Nancy Pelosi, Howard, and the rest of the party. He's claiming full credit for this victory - and, by extension, for his strategy of packing the Democratic Party with right-leaning candidates.

His theory is that only right-wingers (or, in the new parlance, "centrists") can win in swing districts. It sounds plausible - but it's only a theory, and there's data to suggest it's wrong. Liberal-leaning Tim Kaine did better in downstate Virginia that right-leaning Jim Webb, for example.

Emanuel's strategy of concentrating resources on "winnable" seats had some merit to it - but so did Dean's 50-state strategy. In retrospect, it's Dean - not Emanuel - who looks like a visionary. The true story of the '06 election lies in all those seats the Emanuelites told us were unwinnable: McNerney over Pombo, Shea-Porter over Braley, Bradley over Whalen.

So why isn't Howard getting the guru treatment from the media? Because, when it comes to ruthless jockeying for power and attention, the reactionary wing of the party has got game.

Neutralizing the Netroots

Were the netroots and progressives irrelevant to this victory, as the reactionaries are claiming? Chris Bowers effectively puts that misconception to rest - although, as always in American politics, perception is everything. Yesterday's House victory was a massive triumph for the progressive cause, but that message is getting lost in the reactionary/Dem spin.

I'll take my Rorschach test right now: This vote was a referendum on Iraq, economic fairness, electoral integrity, and corruption.

Right-wingers in all three parties (Democratic, Republican, and Media) disagree. They're trumpeting Lieberman's victory as the ultimate repudiation of progressivism and the netroots. So what about that?

Waking Ned Lamont

Don't get me wrong. Ned Lamont is a great guy, and he did a good and noble thing by running. But he was not a natural politician, and once he got into the three-way race he lost his way. He didn't dance with the ones that brought him, but with mainstream Democratic politicians and consultants.

To paraphrase Harry Truman: In a race between a Republican, a Republican, and a Republican, one of the Republicans wins every time.

The very "centrists" who are using his loss as a repudiation of the netroots are the same Democrats whose advice cost him the election. A strong and effective DSCC campaign could have swung this election the other way. Speaking of which ...

Pride of Chucky

Why is Chuck Schumer out there seeking garlands? If his party wins the Senate, it will have been a cliffhanger. His indecisiveness and ineffectiveness in Connecticut leaves his power base at risk even if he squeaks through to a thin majority, since Lieberman's vulnerable to defection or a Cabinet appointment.

Then there's Virginia. Why didn't they properly vet their candidate there? Jim Webb's a good man, but an effective DSCC would have known about his vulnerabilities (the books and the issue of women in the military) and would have had an effective set of countermeasures ready.

And they let the Republican voter-suppression calls go on for days without demanding an immediate stop. That oversight alone may cost them control of the Senate. (Emanuel was more aggressive than Schumer on the general topic of robo-calls, to his credit.)

The Next Battle

The next battle has already begun. The fight for control of the Democratic Party is now playing out in the media, in backrooms, and in the flickering mirage of public perception. If the reactionary Dems win this battle, yesterday's triumph could turn into Pyrrhic victory.

There is every reason to believe that we'll still be at war in 2008, that the American middle-class will still be losing ground to the wealthy, and that health care for all children will still be an unfulfilled promise. A struggling and war-weary nation will not be moved if, as it calls out for leadership, it gets only calculation and posturing in return.

The Democratic Party should reach out to moderates, undecideds, and reasonable Republicans. The Hillary/Rahm/Schumer Democrats are right about that. They're just going about it the wrong way. And their spin - which is quickly going to harden into "conventional wisdom" if we don't counter it - is simply wrong.

(next: Chicken Soup for the Democratic Soul - it's better than fishsticks!)

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