The Democrats' Feel-Good Guy

Posted: Dec 12, 2007 12:01 AM
The Democrats' Feel-Good Guy

Who would have guessed that running on the politics of hope was a smart move after all?

From 2000 to 2006, Democrats enjoyed unprecedented party unity. Their combined outrage over the Florida recount, Ralph Nader's spoiler role and the Iraq war, along with their omnibus Bush hatred, forced left-wing activists to rally around the Democratic banner. They believed that they constituted a broad "movement," that they embodied the authentic voice of the people, that they would "take back" America and, once in power, transform it. If only Democrats ran things, there'd be no war, our allies would love us, global warming would be brought to heel, and we would have universal health care, happily married gay neighbors and embryonic stem cells for everybody.

As counterintuitive as it may sound, this was the perfect environment for Hillary Clinton. Any Democrat would deliver a New Politics, she argued, so why not vote for the most experienced one with the best chance in the general election?

Meanwhile, Barack Obama's airy rhetoric about hope inspired people, but voting for him seemed like a luxury, a self-indulgence. Meanwhile, Hillary could win, and winning was all Democrats needed.

Now the climate has changed. Twice since the Democrats took over Congress with a much-trumpeted "mandate" to end the war, they've ended up voting to fund it, and it looks like it will happen again. The Bush and Maliki administrations have announced a long-term partnership that will permit military bases in Iraq for years, if not generations, to come. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi's antiwar point man, Rep. Jack Murtha, accidentally admitted last week that the surge was working. And we've now learned that Pelosi and other leading Democrats have known about CIA waterboarding since 2002 and were apparently fine with it then.

If I were a Nader-ite, I would be mad enough to drive my Prius over the family cat.

Meanwhile, on the domestic front, the myth that the Democrats' 2006 victory represented some sort of tidal wave of good-government reform is laying on the ground in a battered heap of implausibility. Senate Democrats recently abandoned the canard of "paygo" - a budgeting gimmick that requires paying for tax cuts or spending increases with spending cuts or tax increases elsewhere. Pork-barrel spending - the GOP's Achilles' heel in '06 - is now the Democrats' problem.

Three stories from Monday of this week tell the tale. The headline of a front-page Washington Post article on House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer: "Hoyer Is Proof of Earmarks' Endurance." And there's the Los Angeles Times' front-pager on Hillary: "Clinton rolls a sizable pork barrel." And Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said it best himself in Monday's Roll Call: "Have we stopped the war in Iraq? No. Have we gotten health care? No. Have we improved education? No. But we have been able to do what we've done. We've done a lot of things."

If I were a netrooter, I'd be so frustrated that I might post a really, really angry comment on a blog in ALL CAPS.

The re-emergence of traditional rifts on the left was inevitable. Years of powerlessness obscured the divides between, for example, liberal internationalists, left-leaning realists and ideological opponents of American "empire."

Still, Democrats are doubling down on their 2006 promises even after a year of coming up short. If Democrats win the White House and more congressional seats in 2008, they vow, then suddenly the world will change.

But that's a delusion, too. They may pass more legislation, but increased Democrat power will further highlight the party's fault lines. And the emotional oomph that self-described progressives draw from their rallies, protests and blogs cannot be sustained as a governing program because our government is blessedly designed to siphon off such excitement.

The lesson that Democratic victory isn't magically transformative is a grievous one for the activists who'd dreamed of a fairy-tale deliverance from Bush. And the first stage of grief is denial - that's why they're flocking to Obama.

As Washington politics grow more disappointing, Obama's appeal grows because not just any Democrat will do anymore. As Oprah put it over the weekend, "You got to step out of your box. We can step out of our box and dream America anew again by supporting Barack Obama."

Translation: Voting for Hillary will keep you in the box. The first female front-runner for president is, amazingly, the candidate of the establishment. For all except a few feminists, she's a buzz-kill. Voting for Clinton just doesn't make Democrats feel good about themselves.

They still want a victory that will magically change the world. Unfortunately for her, neither "Democrat" nor "Clinton" nor "Hillary" is an abracadabra word anymore. But "Obama" is.