Big Tent. Big Plans?

Bush-bashing gave the Dems a majority. Now it’s time to make something of it.

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I started counting blessings mid-afternoon on Election Day, sitting at a table in the Volunteer Firehouse in Stockport, New York, population 2,941, a town four counties due north of Manhattan where Republicans outnumber Democrats by 30 percent. I was a poll-watching volunteer, charged with keeping track of likely Democratic voters (so that phone calls could be made to those who hadn’t yet voted) and remaining watchful for any vote-suppressing hanky-panky (none materialized). I sat, yellow highlighter in hand, chatting amiably with my Republican counterpart, a fiftysomething trailer-park resident named Sue who wore a substantial cross around her neck and told me about the recent baptism of her 13th grandchild. In front of me were two copies of a list of registered Democrats in the precinct, all 239 of them, supplemented by the names of 32 other people identified as likely to vote Democratic this year. As our people voted, I crossed off their names. Later, an emissary would whisk the list off to another volunteer who would call the remaining prospects.

I’d been recruited for this job all of 60 hours before the polls opened, and I wasn’t the last one by a long shot: On Monday night, poll watchers were still scrambling and troubleshooting, getting shunted from one polling place to another, receiving last-minute instructions from the lawyers. Thus came together a lumbering Democratic counterweight to the fearsome Republican get-out-the-vote machine.

Still, the volunteers did volunteer, the assignments were made, the information got out, and so we were in place with our markers on a cold Election Day. To while away the hours, I kept count and realized that our outnumbered Democrats were turning out at a significantly higher rate than Republicans. Not vastly higher, but enough to win if this kept up.

It did.

Why go to all the trouble of poll-watching? Statewide, Hillary Clinton and Eliot Spitzer, at the top of the Democratic ticket, were in about as much jeopardy as the Adirondack Mountains. Ditto Republican incumbent John Sweeney here in the 20th Congressional District, a classic work of gop gerrymandering. A four-term George Pataki protégé, Sweeney was best known for (a) shouting, “Shut it down!” to a Republican mob the day before Thanksgiving 2000, stopping the recount of Miami-Dade ballots, and (b) bringing home local bacon. In 2004, the district went for George W. Bush 54 percent to 46 percent, a margin of 25,018 votes. This time, when the votes were counted, Kirsten Gillibrand, a Democratic lawyer and first-time candidate, had left Sweeney in the dust.

There were local reasons, as there always are: Sweeney, with a reputation for boozing, was revealed by the Albany Times Union a week before Election Day to have “knocked around” his wife (her words to a police dispatcher) last year. But many of Sweeney’s peers with no domestic baggage went down on November 7. Around the country, Democrats were on fire. So were disillusioned Republicans and fed-up independents. Sheer, shared hatred of Bush—of his war, his criminal negligence, his useless moralism, his fiscal recklessness, his corruption and all-around malfeasance—set off a backfire that started to isolate the still somewhat solid South, the region that Karl Rove and Bush believed to be the base of their base, the core of an enduring Republican majority.

There is an irony here. The Republicans ran, as they have since 2002, as the party of fear. Vote for us, or evildoers will blow up your cities. But by election time they were seen as the orchestrators of fear, and fearsome themselves, menacing those who would differ about how to protect the nation. It became cliché to quote Machiavelli: “It is much safer to be feared than loved, when, of the two, either must be dispensed with.” But perhaps when Rove underlined his edition of The Prince, he got so excited at this point that he skipped the following paragraph, which begins: “Nevertheless a prince ought to inspire fear in such a way that, if he does not win love, he avoids hatred.”

Seemingly indifferent to the hatred he courted, Bush gave the opposition a heckuva raison d’être. When I made get-out-the-vote calls to various states for, and (as the script requested) asked Democratic-leaning voters which issues weighed with them, they insisted to the last woman and man that there was no particular issue—it was “everything.” When I asked one woman the boilerplate question, “Do you think the country’s on the right track?” her response was an extended, throaty laugh. These people had had enough.

The consequences are potentially enormous. What with Bush’s overreaching and underperforming, the Democrats have willy-nilly become the big-tent party. In alignment with the nation, they are on their way to overcoming most of the cultural cleavages left over from the ’60s, making room for a progressive pragmatism on many issues. Fueled by both the netroots and a party apparatus coming to life, they have availed themselves (teeth-grittingly, at times) of all the anti-Bush currents in American life. All of them—the liberal (progressive, if you like), the conservative (in the rock-ribbed fiscal sense), the keep-out-of-the-bedroom sorts along with the hands-off-my-gun types—plus the swarm of frowners who, on one score or another, couldn’t be happy-talked out of the evidence of their senses. Together, these strands of discontent do not add up to a liberal majority—let alone a lock on 2008—but rather a “thumpin'” for those who thought they were building a permanent reign of the right. As Salon‘s Tim Grieve noted, there was not one Senate or House race where voters evicted an incumbent “in favor of someone more conservative.” Not one.

The United States of America is not a left-wing country, but it no longer has 28 Republican governors. It now has 28 Democratic governors. As for the state legislatures where leaders try out policies and where (crucially) redistricting happens, the gop has lost control of five, leaving Democrats to control both houses in 24 states, Republicans in 16, and a House/Senate split in 9. (The remaining legislature is Nebraska’s, which has no party designation.)

The 2006 majority defines the Democrats’ challenge in the years to come. First, they have to convince this majority that George W. Bush is not a lone crackpot who derailed an ordinarily sensible Republican Party, but the living incarnation of Republican logic, the culmination of its trajectory over the past quarter century—a fusion of plutocracy and dark moral rapture.

Second, the Democrats have to contain the tensions already evident under the big tent: netroots vs. apparatchiks, free traders vs. fair traders, red-staters vs. blue-staters, Hillaryites vs. anyone-buts. With due credit to Nancy Pelosi and her “mother-of-five voice,” don’t trust anyone who claims to know whether they can manage this political feat.

Don’t bet that the cracks are fated to deepen into fault lines either. Political pros and amateurs alike know that a widening base requires more than “enough is enough.” To build such an alliance, a majority that doesn’t have to rely on winning by margins so skimpy they invite vote fraud, Democrats need to take care of both the immediate no-brainers—minimum wage up, drug prices and college costs down—and the common-good programs that will endure for more than one season. My own middle-term wish list is fourfold: a rapid exit from Iraq along with real Middle East diplomacy; universal health insurance; a return of progressive taxation; and real R&D on energy alternatives, a twofer that creates jobs while addressing global warming. All of these embody liberal principles and skirt what’s left of the culture-war morass.

Despite the occasional well-publicized spat, Democrats mostly learned to play nicely together in 2006. They had better go on in that vein, for Republicans will not relinquish their wedges—starting with the possibility of another Supreme Court nomination. If stem cells, gay marriage, and even abortion continue to wane in utility, Mexican immigrants could be useful demons.

One early postelection canard is that Democrats moved right to win. In fact, all kinds of Democrats won (and lost). Some of the winners, such as Missouri’s Claire McCaskill, drove their own wedges through the Republican base on issues such as stem cell research. Many of the newcomers are pro-labor economic progressives rather than pro-corporate hacks. On social issues, surely there will be some Democrats who are more conservative, and why not? Let them fight it out inside the party and be defeated (on abortion) or not (on guns, perhaps). The tough question for down-the-line liberals is: Who else but cultural conservatives could win those jurisdictions?

In 2000, the Democrats had their own thumpin’ administered by George W. Bush, Karl Rove, Katherine Harris, and five members of the Supreme Court. After that, they too often acted like a feeble minority—defensive and retro, nostalgically gazing backward at the golden years. But the exemplar for their resurrection is not FDR, Truman, Kennedy—or Clinton. The shape of their next model remains to be argued out, and the place for that debate is the big tent. Six years after the trauma of Florida, the Democrats have entered the 21st century.


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We have about a $170,000 funding gap and less than a week to go in our hugely important First $500,000 fundraising campaign that ends Saturday. We urgently need your help, and a lot of help, so we can pay for the one-of-a-kind journalism you get from us.

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