It seems like more than a year ago when George Bush took his second oath of office. Half the country thought things would go on getting better until Republicans died in a massive ejaculation and ascended to conservative heaven, while the other half got busy updating their passports. The connected Keepers of Conventional Wisdom nervously whispered phrases which hadn’t yet become embarrassing jokes, phrases like ‘privatization,’ and ‘nuclear option,’ and ‘Bill Frist.’ It seemed like a matter of time. What the hell happened? In a word, the Democrats became relevant.
How did that happen? It helps to start with how the Democrats became irrelevant. Beginning in 2000 Republicans set the agenda, made appointments and passed legislation, while simultaneously dismantling the traditional levers of minority power.
But still. Minority parties can have some influence, even after Orrin Hatch’s hackjobbery, but that only works when you have party discipline. If the GOP needed a few crossovers to make a particularly smelly bill appear ‘bipartisan’ they just picked up the phone and got what they needed. Think of the Medicare bill or the horrendous bankruptcy bill, a bill which freepers and Red Staters hated practically as much as kossacks. Maybe more.
If the Republicans hadn’t succeeded in peeling off Democrats those bills would be a much bigger problem for the GOP than they are now. 9/11, in terms of pure political advantage the greatest windfall of the Bush presidency, wiped out any chance the dems, led by arch-appeaser Tom Daschle, had to make any coherent response to practically any Republican initiative.
You can call the media craven, or you can call the media ‘liberal’ if you want to be wrong, but don’t call the media stupid. The media knew perfectly well that for the time frame bookended by 9/11 and Bush’s second inaugural, the debates that mattered in America took place between different branches of conservatism. Keith Olbermann has an illuminating anecdote:
I got called into a vice president‘s office here and told, “Hey, we don’t mind you interviewing these guys, but should you really have put liberals on, on consecutive nights?”
Franken was interviewed on September 2, and Garofalo on September 4. Apparently having them both on over three days–a period of time in which Olbermann’s show interviewed a total of 9 guests–was grounds for being called on the carpet at MSNBC.
I bet you could hear that conversation in every producer’s office in teeveeland, except for the part where the “talent” had the temerity to invite multiple liberals in the first place. Want to undercut your party? Here’s your mic. They loved Biden, and Lieberman. Just as often you had “panels” between two or three hacks with dubious rightwing ‘think tank’ credentials, and a journalist.
So if the Democrats ever want to become relevant they need to rein in the mavericks on important issues, and they need to pose a credible electoral threat (duh). In those terms things started going right at just about the same time as things looked about as hopeless as one of those spunky-but-inept youth-league teams in a low-budget kids’ movie. And you know how that always turns out.
Those great bugbears of January 2005, privatization (heh) and the “nuclear option” seemed like foregone conclusions. In the case of Social Security the Republicans merely needed to peel off enough Democrats to qualify (even barely) as ‘bipartisan,’ which ought to have been a no-brainer, and why the GOP failed says quite a bit about what changed. Think about the number of Democrats practically eager to meet Bush’s plan halfway – Josh Marshall’s ‘fainthearted faction,’ now a pale shadow of its former glory – despite the fact that any compromise involved in “meeting the president halfway” would would get strangled in committee. What happened? In a word, nothing happened. During those crucial first months while public perception gradually hardened against privatization, then ‘private accounts,’ then ‘personal accounts’ and ‘personalization,’ not a single Democrat took the bait and eventually, embarrassingly, the scheme died a quiet death.
A naïf could argue that voting to weaken Social Security constitutes a betrayal of the most fundamental values that define the party, but we’re talking about Democrats here. Other explanations? A ‘new media’ triumphalist would point out that blogs contributed by aggressively fact-checking each privatization argument before it could make a significant impact and by keeping the fainthearted in line a la Josh Marshall. I’m sure that’s true, but Reid’s almost DeLay-like ability to impose discipline when it matters shouldn’t be underestimated going forward. Rumor has it that Nancy Pelosi accomplished a similar change when she replaced Dick Gephardt, which would be very good for the Democrats if true.
When Frist tried to pull the trigger on the “nuclear option” the same thing happened. Which is to say, nothing. Frist got outplayed and eventually went down to a revolt within his own party. You could say that the resolution involved a Democratic revolt as well, but in the end Frist was seen as the bigger loser.
It’s true, that Reid didn’t have a proud moment on the bankruptcy bill. Was this an unwinnable battle that the many Senators bankrolled by MBNA couldn’t afford to fight? I don’t know, but it’s a significant caveat in my general enthusiasm for Reid’s leadership.
It stands to reason that if you want to matter you need to occasionally win an election. How is that going? Better than anybody would have guessed in Jan. 2005. Between Bill Frist’s hamfisted leadership, a deteriorating counterinsurgency in Iraq, the pervasive culture of corruption and idiotic antics like the Terry Schiavo spectacle the Republican electoral chances have dimmed so deeply that brilliant Republican pollmaster Frank Luntz predicts the house and the Senate could exchange hands in 2006 and Liddy Dole has practically struck out in recruiting Republicans to run in important races. Keep in mind that this comes before the Plame disaster fully arrived on the scene.
The Democrats, of course, didn’t accomplish all of this on their own. The first happened when Tom Daschle, always more of a compromiser than a fighter, was involuntarily retired by an upstart named Thune, some dishonest bloggers and a controversial Osama ad. Some unknown named Reid took his place, the Republicans made a halfhearted effort to swiftboat him and people moved on. The second, Republicans did to themselves.
So the Democrats discovered discipline, and the Republicans succeeded in murdering their own electoral chances. Or, if you believe the ideological-pendulum theory it was bound to happen no matter what. Anyway, it happened.
I said before that the media, rather than having a particular ideological bias, often serves as a good barometer for who matters and who doesn’t. Here is the part that I ellipsed out of Olbermann’s quote from above:
“Al, can you believe that the country was actually at that point that recently?” Later he would answer his own question, saying, “Thank goodness we have steered out of that time.”
KO’s producers didn’t suddenly un-wingnut themselves, because they never were wingnuts in the first place. They understood that Democrats didn’t matter in 2003 and that today, Democrats matter. And here I am, a liberal contributing to a conservative blog.
There’s much more to this story. Much, much more. What about Iraq, you ask. In my view Iraq contributed to the Republican fall from grace but it does nothing for the Democrats, who couldn’t form a coherent response before the war and can’t form a coherent strategy afterwards. We can’t win this issue simply by waiting for the Bushies to fully and completely screw the pooch. Also the Republican decision to focus on power over ideology or principle, coincident with the handover from Newt Gingrich to Tom DeLay, deserves a post of its own.
How about a larger Democratic agenda? A unifying legislative framework? That’s in the works, for better or for worse.
But for now, let me just reiterate the point that all the complaining in the world didn’t suddeny make the media care about liberals again. Harry Reid did, with a big assist from the Republicans themselves. If Democrats want that trend to continue we need to understand what we did wrong, and what we’re doing right.