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Democrats as the loyal opposition

By Bruce Walker
web posted October 20, 2003

Democrats are the minority party in America today. Most state legislators, most governors, most senators, most congressmen and our president are all Republicans. The Battleground Poll recently released shows that a clear plurality of Americans considers themselves Republicans rather than Democrats.

Democrats have lost the popular vote in House of Representative races nationally for the last five straight general elections. And since the end of the Second World War, only one Democrat - Lyndon Johnson in 1964 - has received a majority of all the votes cast in a presidential election (Carter only got a plurality in 1976, when discarded votes were counted) while Republican candidates have gotten a majority in six presidential elections during the same period.

The configuration of House districts, combined with Republican strength in state legislatures, means that the House of Representatives will be Republican for a long time. Most states are conservative, rather than liberal, and that will give Republicans a strong institutional edge in controlling the Senate.

American party politics needs to move in one of three directions. The parties could simply end the de facto authority given to political parties by, essentially, asking politicians to drop party labels. This is unthinkable only because few in Washington have an interest in this. But nonpartisan government works in Nebraska and in many cities.

The second alternative is for the Democrat Party to essentially cease to exist as a significant political party. This almost happened to the Republican Party in 1937, but because Republicans were united behind certain principled themes, that party was able to survive and eventually become a serious contender for political power.

The third alternative is for the Democrat Party to become the Loyal Opposition. This would mean remaining a minority party, but no longer standing for policies and philosophies that are failed and cynical. Why might that be a good thing?

As a serious minority party, Democrats could challenge the ethical behavior of Republicans when Republicans grew jaded at having power for too long. That most certainly does not mean hunting for tiny flaws and pretending that they are grand conspiracies. The Republican Party still does not have the same amount of political muscle that Democrats had during the first two years of Clinton's rule or the four years of Carter's rule.

When Democrats challenge Republicans on ethical issues then they perform more than a disservice if Democrats treat small lapses as if those are serious problems, because soon the public and the Republican Party will correctly assume that this potentially valuable activity for the Republic is simply made to regain power. Then, if Republicans really did become as corrupt as, say, the Democrats had become in the decades leading up to the 1994 election, no one will listen.

Democrats could also offer genuine alternatives to proposed policies of the Republican Party. Again, this must be done seriously and sensibly. In the Vietnam War, for example, Republicans supported the war, but believed that it could best be won with the use of overwhelming and unrestricted air power and the mining of Haiphong Harbor. Republicans also believed that it was wrong to micro manage tactics from Washington. They did not pretend that the North Vietnamese were - to use a favorite phrase of Ann Coulter - "agrarian reformers."

Bob Graham
Graham

Bob Graham probably came closest to this after September 11. Although Senator Graham also appeared basically disingenuous, he did at least come close to resembling the function that Barry Goldwater and Everett Dirksen performed during the Vietnam War.

A Loyal Opposition which has been in opposition also presents the opportunity of putting differences aside and so demonstrating to the American people and the rest of the world our true resolve. When Winston Churchill became Prime Minister of Great Britain during the fall of France, Labour Party leader Clement Atlee became a member of the cabinet. Churchill and Atlee would later fight it out in a general election which Churchill lost in 1945 - but that was after victory in war was certain.

Imagine how much it would have helped our nation if after September 11, Democrats had gathered together Bill Clinton, Jimmy Carter, Al Gore, Tom Daschle and Dick Gephardt and said something like this:

"We are at war now. We are in a war for the very survival of our nation. Whatever differences we have with President Bush and the Republican Party, those differences are microscopic compared to our common purpose with the President to win this war. As a consequence, we will refrain, by choice, from public criticism of our nation's conduct of this war until the war is won."

Instead, of course, Democrats sent exactly the opposite message. They began sniping at President Bush as soon as polling data indicated that it was not political suicide to do so. They inflame insane conspiracy theories. They nitpicked tough choices.

Imagine how Americans would have felt if, after the infamous remarks by Cynthia McKinney and Barbara Lee, Gephardt had announced that these two congresswomen were stripped of any committee assignments and would no longer be welcome in the House Democratic Caucus. That would have been a powerful message not only to the American people, but to the people and governments of the world.

There is nothing wrong with opposing the policies and politics of the majority in a free and open democracy. But this opposition must be serious, it must present real alternatives and it must know when patriotism trumps politics. Democrats had better learn that soon, or they may end up as the political equivalent of the Cheshire Cat.

Bruce Walker is a senior writer with Enter Stage Right. He is also a frequent contributor to The Pragmatist and The Common Conservative.

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