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Thank You, Mr. President, May I Have Another

March 25, 2001|Robert L. Borosage | Robert L. Borosage is a founder of the Campaign for America's Future and co-editor of the forthcoming book "The Next Agenda."

WASHINGTON — Democrats are clueless these days. They haven't recovered since George W. Bush stole the election, and Republicans ended up in control of the White House, Congress and the U.S. Supreme Court. Their presidential candidate, who won the most votes, has disappeared. Their former president is hiding in disgrace somewhere between Harlem and Westchester, leaving only for well-paid private gigs for corporate conventions. Senate Democrats rolled over for Bush's Cabinet nominees, and both houses of Congress got rolled by corporations pushing repeal of worker-safety provisions and consumer-bankruptcy protections. No wonder Bill Clinton's former Labor secretary, Robert B. Reich, has proclaimed the Democratic Party dead.

Can Democrats get their groove back? It won't be easy. Any party deprived of the presidential bully pulpit has trouble speaking in one voice, and for Democrats, unity violates the party's tradition, if not its rules. With Democrats in minority status in both houses, Bush need not traffic with their leaders. He can pick and choose among more pliable, conservative Blue Dogs or New Democrats who are happy to deal. The loss of the White House also means a devastating loss in research and policy capacity.

Moreover, despite the new president's continuing travails with the English language, Democrats shouldn't, as Bush put it, "misunderestimate him." This administration has mastered the ability to play Bill Clinton's music while marching to Ronald Reagan's drummer. The back-alley mugging of labor already underway is only the beginning of what will be a bare-knuckled, no-holds-barred assault designed to weaken the majority coalition.

This reality renders the advice Democrats have been hearing from pundits and pollsters virtually worthless. Americans, they've been told, want an end to partisan bickering in Washington, and Democrats should work to find common ground with Bush. "Internal consensus," they're told, is essential for the party to speak with one voice. Democrats, it is argued, can gain by being the responsible party, seeking bipartisan consensus, offering a smaller tax cut, a more reasonable budget and greater fiscal prudence.

Nonsense. The only hope for Democrats is if their progressive base leads the party into fierce opposition. For a play-book, they'd be smart to remember what conservatives did in 1992, when Clinton was elected and Democrats controlled both houses of Congress.

From day one, movement conservatives outside Congress declared open season on Clinton. They organized aggressive opposition research, scouring the countryside and the past for anything that might discredit him or throw the administration off its game.

Inside Congress, the conservative minority ignored Republican leaders who called for bipartisan cooperation. While then-Senate Minority Leader Bob Dole was endorsing the goal of universal health care, conservatives were joining with health maintenance organizations and insurance companies to plot its demise. Republicans voted unanimously against Clinton's first budget plan, even though it was virtually a rewrite of the bipartisan compromise signed by President George Bush years earlier.

Congressional conservatives, led by then-Rep. Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.), put forth their own agenda. Gingrich rallied the Christian Coalition and other radical-right groups to support tax cuts, deregulation, an end to welfare and term limits, which eventually became provisions of his 1994 "contract with America."

Finally, supposedly moderate Republicans were put on notice: If they strayed too often to vote with the administration or Democrats in Congress, they could anticipate a well-funded primary challenge--even if that risked losing a GOP seat in the general election. For the most part, the moderates got the message. Party unity was forged not from the top down in centrist compromise, but from the bottom up by right-wing muscle.

Progressives have every reason to learn from this playbook. Bush has presented himself as more moderate than he is. Now he is running a conservative takeover for which he has no mandate, endorsing policies--like reinstating the "global gag rule" on family planning overseas--that come as a shock even to some of his own supporters.

More important, Bush is paddling upstream against the tide of opinion. Voters didn't buy the president's agenda in the election; Al Gore's message and agenda were far more popular. Bush has no mandate for his tax cuts for the wealthy, his stealth cuts in spending, the oil industry's takeover of government, his rollback of women's right to choose or his assault on working people.

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