The upcoming election year of 2008 should by all accounts be a Democratic year. From Capitol Hill to the White House, Republicans are on the ropes, struggling to overcome negative poll numbers that verge on catastrophic. The president is bogged down by an unpopular war and a long list of unmet needs at home; his party is plagued by scandal, corruption, and ineptitude.
Democrats, in short, should be poised for an historic victory on the scale of 1932 or 1964. But these are not ordinary times, and the presumptive winners seem unable to capture the prevailing public mood of anger and restiveness. It's very possible, in fact, that we may be witnessing a singular act of political legerdemain in which a silk purse is turned into a sow's ear. It hardly seems conceivable but the Democrats may yet contrive to blow another national election.
Since taking control of Congress, Democrats have, through the actions of their leadership, managed to discourage a large portion of their base and alienate much of the independent vote that provided their margin of victory in last fall's congressional races. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid appear intent on charting a course calculated to exasperate the electorate -- and not just on the war. The result is a popularity rating rivalling that of President Bush, himself in record-low territory.
Speaker Pelosi's backroom trade deal with the administration was a case in point; it flew in the face of a clear voter sentiment in favor of slowing the pace of economic globalization. It also ignored the express wishes of the new, populist Democratic senators and representatives elected explicitly (ending the war aside) to preserve domestic jobs.
Equally telling was the leadership's stubborn insistence on allying itself with the Bush effort to pass an obviously unpopular immigration reform bill. Polls indicated that the public regarded the business-backed legislation as essentially aimed at maintaining the flow of cheap labor from abroad. Nonetheless, the Reid-Pelosi team ignored majority opinion and pressed on in the apparent belief that any bill, even one labeled an amnesty, was better than no bill and any compromise was better than no compromise. Their maneuverings resembled nothing so much as the Republican chicanery in connection with passage of the flawed Medicare drug benefit four years ago.
The Democratic establishment's blind spot with respect to free trade and immigration was on full display when Speaker Pelosi appeared on the PBS Charlie Rose show in late June. According to the speaker, unrestricted global trade was a process with no downside. The US, in her words, "needs to benefit from globalization," not try to resist it. Pelosi was even more obtuse on the subject of immigration. "The future of America depends on the constant reinvigoration of people coming in," said the speaker, enunciating the conventional open-borders wisdom on the subject.
The failed Bush immigration initiative, which Pelosi hailed as "courageous," was supported in the Senate by two-thirds of the Democrats, roughly the same proportion of those opposing it in the country at large. That's a misreading (or disregarding) of public opinion that will come back to haunt Democratic congressional officeholders in 2008. Significantly, the small cluster of Senate Democrats who did reject the Rube Goldbergian immigration bill included the party's newly minted populists (Brown of Ohio, Tester of Montana, McCaskill of Missouri, Webb of Virginia, and Casey of Pennsylvania), all of them fresh from the hustings and in touch with the grassroots.
There's more perplexing news from Democrats on the presidential campaign trail, where the party seems intent on shooting itself in the foot. If nationwide opinion polls are to be believed, the 2008 nomination is on the verge of being awarded to Sen. Hillary Clinton, the one Democrat who could actually lose the general election. Cautious and conservative politically, Clinton is at the same time a divisive figure, unloved outside certain segments of the Democratic party. Her polling negatives nearly offset her positives. Women are said to admire her; men, for the most part, can't stand her. The Clinton persona (the arrogance, the shrillness, the hectoring) will not wear well over time, and no Democratic nominee is more certain to draw currently dispirited Republicans to the polls than Hillary.
Even should Clinton's campaign beat the odds and triumph, there remains the question of what her party will have achieved for the long run. Certainly the New York senator is not the agent of change or the break with the past Democrats and other Americans have been demanding. Her ascension would mainly guarantee a continuation of the commingled Bush and Clinton dynasties.
Above all, Hillary Clinton represents no threat to the corporate domination of American life that has become the dreary hallmark of our present era. Fortune magazine, the very journalistic embodiment of the Wall Street establishment, notes that Clinton has assembled, GOP-fashion, "probably the broadest CEO support among the candidates." No fewer than 150 company executives and fund managers have thus far raised money for her campaign, including representatives of some of the brightest luminaries in the big-business firmament: Anheuser-Busch, Comcast, Google, Sun Microsystems, Qualcomm, Verizon and Xerox. Among the shiny, new Clintonites is Republican John Mack, CEO of investment-banking and brokerage giant Morgan Stanley and a former Bush "Ranger" who raised $200,000 for George W. in 2004.
The candidate reportedly cautioned Fortune reporter Nina Easton not to take her recent corporate bashing at Democratic campaign appearances too literally. She was really dedicated, Clinton said, to what she termed a balanced economic program. That "balance" apparently includes a promise made openly to Silicon Valley executives to support a doubling of H-1B visas, the visas allowing the high-tech industry to hire two foreign workers for the price of one American.
So, here's where the Democrats stand heading into 2008: They support unpopular trade deals and unpopular immigration reform, they're dithering on the subject of war policy, and they're probably about to nominate the presidential candidate least likely to win and least representative of the interests of their liberal base. Welcome aboard the train to nowhere.
Wayne O'Leary is a writer in Orono, Maine.
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