By John E. Guiniven
A friend was bemoaning what she feels is the sorry state of American politics. “Sounds like you’d like to have a third party,” I said.
“Actually,” she said, “A second party would be nice.”
I know how she feels. The Democratic Party – her party and mine – has all but disappeared as a player in public policy, emerging every so often to attack the performance or policies of President Bush but offering nothing substantive on its own.
We rank-and-file Democrats do pretty much the same, criticizing the President without holding our own party accountable for its lack of leadership.
The President suggests changes that would drastically alter Social Security. The Democrats’ response? A photo op in the Capitol, where Democratic representatives bravely signed a large cardboard placard pledging “to save Social Security.” No details, of course, because those entail making decisions and taking stands. A nominee to the Supreme Court is named, and Democrats scramble to show he is really more conservative than he appears. The goal becomes to find a peg on which to justify opposition that was decided upon before the identity of the nominee was known.
On economic issues, Democrats cross the aisle to join Republicans in supporting corporate tax cuts and even supply the winning margin on a bill that makes it harder for ordinary citizens to declare bankruptcy (while still protecting corporations’ right to do so). Democrats feed at the same corporate troughs as the GOP for their campaign contributions; then they wonder why their attacks on the President as a friend of the rich are greeted with snickers and yawns by the decreasing numbers of citizens who pay attention.
Look at the people wading through the filthy floodwaters of New Orleans. They once were a Democratic Party constituency, their plight a genuine Democratic Party concern. They may still vote for the party, but the party does precious little for them. In the last presidential election, John Edwards sounded the alarm about “the two Americas,” the haves and the have-nots. It resonated in the primaries and won him a place on the Democratic ticket. But does anyone remember that theme being prominent in the general election, or the word “poverty” or even “lower middle class income people” being addressed by a party that once prided itself on representing ordinary citizens? Candidate John Kerry did criticize tax cuts that benefited people earning over $200,000 but didn’t concern himself too much with those making $20,000 or less.
Instead of relying on conscience, politicians of both parties now rely on handlers like Democrat James Carville and Republican Carl Rove, who see things as issues to be exploited rather than problems to be solved. The party that finds itself on the outside, as the Democrats are now, is left with a strategy of hoping the President makes a mistake.
A truism about American democracy is that we get the kinds of political parties and government we deserve. Democrats have given their party leaders and elected officials free passes for too long, and the result is a party sliding toward irrelevance. Time is running out for Democrats to recognize the difference between loyal opposition and knee-jerk opposition.
How bad is it for the Democrats?
This summer I spoke with a number of former Democratic Senate aides, and, in discussing appealing presidential tickets, the names that came up most often were John McCain and Chuck Hagel, both Republicans.
So maybe we do have two viable parties – it’s just that both of them are Republicans.
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