10/13/2005 03:11 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Why Schadenfreude is Bad for Democrats

As the Bush Administration reels from self-inflicted wounds, Democrats seem convinced their day in the sun is near: “How to Succeed in Politics Without Really Trying.” It’s the survival of the least-unfit. They’re like jockeys waiting for the other guys’ horses to die. If it wasn’t for Republican bad luck – to paraphrase bluesman Albert King – they wouldn’t have no luck at all.

It may be fun to watch the slow-motion torment of Karl Rove and Scooter Libby, and wonder who on your enemies list will be the next to fall … (ah, what the heck! It is fun! Hey, I’m only human.) But schadenfreude is a dangerous addiction for Democrats. It can lead to a dependence on your opposition’s weaknesses – a dependence that is ultimately disabling, because it prevents you from developing strengths of your own. I hate to be a killjoy, but it’s time to stop partying and start working harder than ever.

Think I’m just being negative? To elaborate on comments from an earlier post: Richard Nixon’s Presidency was destroyed by Watergate, yet Jimmy Carter barely defeated his hand-picked successor (and pardoner) a mere two years later. Carter failed to win re-election, and was followed by 12 years of conservative GOP Presidencies. While Democrats regained the White House for eight years after that, they did so initially with only 43% of the popular vote, and lost control of Congress in the process. Bread and circuses may be entertaining, but they’re no substitute for a well-articulated party vision.

Leading Democrats seem determined to take the lazy, cowardly, and (so far) unsuccessful path of alternately imitating and deriding Republicans, without offering much in the way of substantive alternatives. They appear particularly fearful of addressing the war in Iraq, despite the widespread public rejection of that war, or of addressing the Republican assault on middle-class and lower-income Americans. They’ve forgotten or rejected Harry Truman’s famous comment: “In a race between a Republican and a Republican, the Republican wins every time.”

Republican scandals and missteps may deceive leading Democrats into thinking this timorous approach will succeed at last, if only because their opponents seem so determined to self-destruct. Dems are in danger of drowning in an orgy of self-congratulation over their opponents’ misery, despite having accomplished little on their own. Republican ineptness and corruption have given Democrats the historic opportunity to create a new majority, but only if they craft an articulate and honest message. Otherwise, any gains they realize may be short-lived, as they have been in the past.

To use self-help language, it would be tragic if corrupt Republicans became “enablers” for ineffectual Democrats. Here's a Democratic warning label for all those reports of GOP misery: Schadenfreude addiction may be dangerous to your health.

A Night Light