The Democrats must not think they speak for America

By Martin Kettle (THE GUARDIAN, 04/11/06):

This is a good weekend to be a US Democrat – and next weekend will be an even better one. The only serious question as America’s midterm election campaign reaches its climax is the size of the Democratic victory over George Bush’s Republicans on Tuesday. Will it be at the bottom end of the scale – which means only narrowly recapturing the House of Representatives and making insufficient gains to overturn the Republican majority in the Senate? Or will 2006 be one of those wave elections where everything comes together in a sweeping rejection of the party in power, in which case by this time next week the Democrats may find themselves sitting atop a 40-seat House majority and a four-seat Senate advantage too?

Whatever the exact outcome it is important to understand what the Democratic victory of 2006 will say about the American political mood. Unlike the presidential election of 2004, these elections are primarily about Iraq. The accumulated miseries and humiliations of the past 24 months have irreparably broken American confidence in Bush’s approach. In a New York Times/CBS poll on Thursday, just 8% of Americans said the US should continue with its current Iraq strategy. For every American who thinks Bush has a clear plan for Iraq, three others think he has not; Bush’s defiant determination to stand by Donald Rumsfeld until 2009 – and he means it – can only widen that divide.

Americans will turn to the Democrats on Tuesday because they think they are more likely to bring the troops home from Iraq. It’s as simple – and, once you start thinking how this might actually be done, as complicated – as that. If it is in control of Congress, the NYT/CBS poll asked, which party do you think is more likely to bring US troops back from Iraq more quickly? The response was Republicans 12% and Democrats 76%. It is all there in those two figures.

November 7 will tell us two things. The first is how badly Americans want this to happen. The second is how confident they are that the Democrats can deliver. A lower-end win will say that Americans want to get out quite badly, that they also have other things on their minds and, perhaps, that they aren’t entirely confident that the Democrats can deliver. An upper-end win will say that this is urgent, that Congress must deliver and that the president must obey.

A high-stakes chapter is now opening for the Democrats. Next week’s victory will be a huge catharsis, especially if they capture both houses. It won’t make up for everything, but don’t be in any doubt that for many Democrats this will feel like payback time – revenge for the Gingrich revolution, for the Clinton impeachment, for the supreme court ruling in Bush v Gore, for Tom DeLay’s lobbyists and gerrymandering, for the Swiftboating of John Kerry, in short for the entire way in which the Republicans have tried to shape an America of corporate greed, cultural conservatism and disdain towards the rest of the world through the past decade and more.

This will be a moment, therefore, that taxes the Democratic capacity for magnanimity to the utmost. On Capitol Hill, the single most important consequence will be access to congressional subpoena powers that will be ruthlessly deployed to expose the Bush White House’s failings both before and after 9/11 – a process in which, by the way, Tony Blair may find himself a collateral casualty. But the momentum could go even further. Do not underestimate the appetite in some parts of the party for the ultimate partisan eye for an eye – the impeachment of George Bush.

Yet the aftermath of November 7 will also pose a larger political challenge for the Democrats. The 2006 midterms will be best understood as an Iraq-led defeat for the Republicans, and for the president in particular, rather than as a victory for the Democrats. Americans will express their disillusion with the conduct of the war by electing Democrats in larger numbers than before. But this does not mean that the Democrats can be confident that they speak for America on other issues. If they want to crown this comeback by recapturing the White House in 2008, the Democrats must be clever, careful and clear.

The danger is that too many Democrats will draw the wrong message about themselves from their victory. It’s very easy to beat up on the Democrats for their many recent failings, ironically not least on Iraq, and sometimes those criticisms go impossibly over the top. Yet Tuesday may lull the party into thinking they are suddenly more in tune with American opinion on issues other than Iraq than they really are. The perils of blundering into excessive partisanship over the next two years are enormous. The process of fixing the Democratic party that Bill Clinton started a decade ago remains unfinished business. Yet somehow it needs to go on.

A generation after Ronald Reagan inspired large numbers of white working-class voters into the Republican camp, the Democrats are still struggling to reach out beyond the disadvantaged and those who sympathise with them. They are doing so in part because they have been so consistently out-organised by the Republicans. But it is also happening in part because they have failed, like progressive parties elsewhere, to renew the capacity of the welfare state to absorb economic risks on healthcare, education and pensions that modern societies have increasingly placed on the shoulders of individuals.

In the end, those failures of purpose and philosophy had at least as much to do with the inability of Al Gore and John Kerry to capture the presidency as any undoubted Republican dark arts. And there is a well-founded nervousness throughout the party that they could similarly undo the candidacy of the divisive and cautious Hillary Clinton. That’s why so many suddenly see the charismatic Barack Obama as the party’s saviour figure in 2008. But the rapid rise of Obama says as much about the Democrats’ existential floundering as it does about the man’s obvious talents.

It will be a big week for the Democrats. But there will be less time from now on for thoughtful books and elegant articles about the future of American progressivism and the nature of the common good. Politics is about to get real again for the Democrats. The question is whether they are properly equipped for a task which has such large consequences not just for America but for the rest of the world too.