Whatever slim hope that Democrats might have of extracting something positive from this weeks resounding defeat depends entirely on how much authentic introspection they are willing to inflict on themselves. To the degree that they look outward instead of inward to identify the causes of the 2004 debacle, the more certainly they are doomed.
The more we hear in the coming days and weeks about counting and re-counting in Ohio, about supposed voter intimidation and suppression, about fixed machines, about crooked and partisan secretaries of state, about unfair advertising, or Karl Roves dirty tricks, then the more anyone with something other than tapioca for brains should abandon any hope of rejuvenating or rebuilding this hollowed-out excuse for a party.
The Democrats lost this election fair and square and have absolutely no one to blame for it other than themselves. They dont even have pathetic Ralph Nader to scapegoat as they did four years ago. Sorry if I rush to hang the crepe. But the 4-million-vote margin racked up by Bush the first absolute majority since 1988 in a presidential election is an undeniable and clear victory that robs any other solution as unlikely as that might be of any moral legitimacy. At least it should after Floridas Hurricane Chad, in whose aftermath the Democrats screeched that Bush was an illegitimate president because he had lost the popular vote and was appointed, in effect, by the Supremes. Surely the Democrats would want to eschew any similar stigma, wouldnt they?
In locating the roots of this defeat, you are free to dig as deeply or as superficially as you care to. We could start this particular narrative, I suppose, in 1993, when a newly elected Bill Clinton gambled all of his political capital to bully and ultimately divide his own party, forcing passage of the pet project of Bush 41 the job-shredding NAFTA. Or perhaps youd prefer to begin this story three years later, when the same Democratic president signed the Republican abolition of federal welfare, thereby putting on the table the simple question of why we should even bother to continue having a Democratic Party. Or maybe in 98, when Democrats reassured America that all presidents lie, and why pick on you-know-who?
Yet, to unravel this latest tragedy, theres really no need to rehearse the ancient history of the Clinton 90s, now enshrined in official Democratic mythology as, perhaps, the peak moment of Western civilization. Going back to the fall of 2002 will suffice. I refer to the moment when Senator John Kerry joined with Trent Lott and Tom DeLay, among many, many others, in voting the same Florida-tainted George W. Bush full authorization to move toward a patently and brazenly unnecessary war with Iraq.
Not that Kerry really meant it, of course. He had opposed what was a significantly more justifiable war with Saddam a decade earlier. But, then again, Kerry wasnt contemplating a presidential run back in 91.
Or we could zero in on that frosty evening back in January when about 30,000 rosy-cheeked and gray-haired Iowa farmers and their neighbors decided that, among Democrats, only John Kerry was electable and millions of Democrats coast-to-coast immediately rubber-stamped that now rather discredited notion.
Maybe its unfair, however, to isolate any single catalytic moment. A cool-headed assessment of the entire Democratic response to the Bush presidency would herald the doom of Tuesday night regardless of the candidate. From the onset of his administration, the Democrats have combined a freakish accommodation to Bush with a shrill, sometimes paranoiac exaggeration of his evil. One moment they are part of his War Cabinet. The next they are demonizing him as an individual and warning that we are on the doorstep of fascism. And then we blame the voters for being confused.
But once so many Democrats had worked themselves into a frenzy with the mantra of stolen elections and Supreme Court electoral coups, the die was cast. If Bush was, in fact, the most dangerous, evil and demented president ever, as Democrats tirelessly reminded themselves (and apparently only themselves), then Anybody but Bush would do just fine and . . . well . . . the rest is now history.
Mr. Anybody turned out to be quite the loser that voters suspected he was before his miracle resurrection in the snows of Iowa. No one can, with a straight face, repeat just what was the precise message of his just-past and wretched campaign. Is there a reader out there who would like to write in reminding us of one memorable line to be extracted and preserved from the logorrhea that overflowed his campaign?
Could there possibly have been an incumbent easier to knock off than George W. Bush? A real-life opposition party would have been insulted to be matched with such an unworthy and frail rival. The Democrats, by contrast, got their lights punched out.
Think for a moment, if you can bear, just how fraudulent the party has become as a tribune for everyday, working Americans. John Edwards, it should be said, did a fine job of evoking the rude inequalities of the Two Americas. And its a pity that someone like Edwards couldnt emerge as the Democrats national rabble-rouser. For a brief historical moment, the unlikely Howard Dean flashed in that role and then was even more quickly extinguished. But when you ask yourself who are the great Democratic mass icons of our times, the two or three individuals who put a face and some heart on the core populist values, damned if we dont come up with literal clowns like Al Franken and Michael Moore. They may or may not be just dandy entertainers. But doesnt this say something rather startling about the state of the Democrats?
Once the whining over Ohio dies out, what will laughably be called the war for the soul of the once-again-defeated Democratic Party will commence a struggle so drearily predictable that the whole exercise can be easily scripted in advance. On the one side, the corporate shills of the Democratic Leadership Council, who will argue that the outcome demands a repositioning of the party to the right. On the other, the progressives, who will re-float their own formula that success resides in simply moving the Democrats leftward (as evidenced by what? The 2 percent primary draw of Dennis Kucinich). Both notions are simplistic and insufficient. The Democrats have not won the sort of absolute national majority pocketed by Bush in more than a quarter of a century. The party doesnt need to be reformed or repositioned. It needs to be rethought and reborn.
The re-election of George W. Bush is a tragedy for which we will all pay dearly some much more than others. And the only succor I cling to is the notion that the presidents punishment for being re-elected is that he will now have to manage the myriad catastrophes he has conjured. Good luck to him and to us.
In the meantime, I shed no tears for the humiliation of this Democratic Party only for those who suffer for having invested their hopes in it. But the Democrats richly deserve to go down no question. My deepest regret is only that the Republicans dont go down right alongside them.