If we want to change the world (or save it), first we have to beat the Republicans. In our next three episodes, the regulars at the Last Chance Democracy Café will take a look at how this might be accomplished. Step one: Get our own house in order.
The Last Chance Democracy Café
Episode 43: Dump the Dinosaurs
by Steven C. Day
It was 9:00 pm on a busy Wednesday evening in The Last Chance Democracy Café. Following our usual custom, the lighting in the lounge was turned way down, making the Paul Wellstone candles in the center of each table the brightest features in the room. A dimly lighted room like this can, of course, provide the perfect setting for sinfulness, but the only sins being committed at the large round table were those against political orthodoxy.
I love this time of night: With the dinner trade finishing up, the pace slows way down. From now until closing time at 2:00 am, the business of the café will largely consist of cocktails and conversation.
The servers handle the cocktails, while I’m in charge of the conversation, one of the few perks to my position as manager and principal owner of the café under our strikingly socialistic business model.
On Wednesdays, 9:00 pm also tends to be about the time when Horace, Tom and Winston settle into what will become the topic of the evening. Until then, conversational anarchy often reigns; here’s a small taste from earlier this same evening:
Zach, our young college friend, who tends to become chattier the more beers he downs, was now on number three.
“Have you guys heard that Bush may have started drinking again?” he said with a snicker.
Tom, employing his best “tisk, tisk” voice, said, “Remember that report comes from the National Enquirer.”
Horace rose to Zach’s defense. “Hold on Tom. While I have no more use than you do for the tabloids, the truth is that the Enquirer has broken a fair number of news stories . . . We can’t totally discount it.”
“Which is kind of scary when you think of it,” I added from my usual spot directly across the large round table from Horace. “I’ll bet George W. is one hell of a mean drunk.”
“Balderdash!” Winston half shouted. “The possibility Bush may have started drinking again isn’t what’s scary: What’s scary is that he may actually be this bad when he’s stone cold sober.”
Zach, who was clearly enjoying himself, decided to lob another bomb onto the table.
“So what do you guys think about Laura Bush appearing on ‘Extreme Makeover: Home Edition?’”
Horace raised his eyebrows. “I guess if you can’t get the hang of running a compassionate administration in the real world, you can always play one on television.”
“The White House wanted to send Bush himself,” giggled Tom, “but they were afraid he’d hit his thumb with the hammer.”
I said, “Was that before or after the show decided to feature Religious Right lunatic James Dobson and his so-called Focus on the Family organization?”
“Hadn’t you heard,” said Winston sarcastically. “That’s what ABC stands for these days . . . Anything Bush Craves.”
And so on, and so on — fun, but unfocused. But now, at 9:00 o’clock, almost as if by cue, we settled into what would become the topic of the evening: And as so often happens, it was Horace who set things into motion.
“Winston, let me ask you something,” he began provocatively — in the sense that asking Winston to speak on any subject is inherently provocative. “What do you think of Hillary Clinton as a possible Democratic presidential candidate in 2008?”
I’m fairly certain Horace already knew Winston’s answer, since they’ve discussed this before. This was for Zach’s benefit.
“She’s a dinosaur.”
“How about Joe Biden?”
“Dinosaur who already had his chance.”
“Interesting possibility . . . He used to be a dinosaur, but he seems to have learned some important lessons during his wilderness years. But I’d really like to see some fresh faces . . . people who could bring some passion back into the process.”
Hanging on the wall, directly behind Winston’s head, by the way, was one of our new “George W. Bush throughout History” posters. It featured a painting of Custer’s Last Stand, with this message from Bush: “Custie, you’re doing a heckuva job.”
Zach drained his beer. “Okay, I’ll bite. What exactly is a dinosaur . . . I mean, aside from an oversized lizard?”
“Let me take a shot at that,” said Horace. “I think I have a pretty good idea of where Winston’s coming from . . . And if I’m wrong, I’m sure he won’t hesitate to let us know.” Horace gave Winston a small smile.
“Heavens no,” responded Winston in a perfect deadpan. “I could never take the chance of doing something which might cause offense.”
My guess is that even Diogenes of Sinope chuckled at that one.
“In any case, Zach,” Horace chuckled, “I’m going to approach this in a little bit of a round about . . .”
“For the love of Pete!” thundered Winston. “Not another one of your bottomless metaphors! Please Lord, I’m an old man; I don’t have much time left! Please don’t let Horace use it all up!”
Glaring in mock outrage, Horace replied, “I thought you said you could never bring yourself to say anything which might cause offense.”
“Good God, man, after five years of George W. Bush you still think you can take what people say at face value?! Wake up and smell the freshly cleared brush!”
At this point, Horace did what he nearly always does in the face of a sustained Winston onslaught — ignored him and pushed ahead with his point.
“Anyway, Zach, as I was saying . . .”
And Winston did what he nearly always does in the face of Horace’s cold shoulder strategy — refused to give up without a fight.
“You don’t mind if I take a little nap, do you? You know, just for an hour or two while you’re excavating your metaphor.”
“Actually, I’d be most pleased if you would.”
“You’ve obviously never heard me snore.”
Struggling to get back on track, Horace said to Zach, “Try to imagine that this table has been magically transported back to the end of the Cretaceous period . . .” Horace paused long enough to give Winston a preemptive glare.
“What did I do?” huffed Winston. “I’ll tell you what, when a man gets stuck with a wholly unjustified reputation for being a trouble maker, there’s just no living it down. But do be sure to say hello to the primordial world for me. Perhaps next you can visit Shangri-La.”
“. . . and off in the distance we see a Tyrannosaurus rex hunting for prey, while underfoot tiny shrew-like mammals hide, daring to come out to feed only at night. In the distant sky, there appears the first dim light of the approaching asteroid that will soon crash into earth, catastrophically altering the climate of the planet and bringing on the dinosaurs’ extinction . . .”
This time it was Tom’s turn to interrupt. “Horace, I’m afraid there are a couple of problems with your story. For one thing, not all paleontologists agree with the asteroid impact theory . . . many believe the mass extinction of the dinosaurs was, instead, caused by gradual climate change, possibly brought on by volcanic activity. And, second . . . and not everyone knows this, but while most mammals during the Cretaceous period were the tiny creatures you’ve described, at least a few weren’t. In fact, two mammalian fossils recently discovered in China are so large that scientists suspect they represent Cretaceous mammals that actually hunted certain dinosaurs!”
Tom reached over to pick up his beer, looking quite pleased with himself, seemingly oblivious to the “what the hell was that all about” facial expressions everywhere else around the table.
Horace ignored him, too.
“Here’s the thing, Zach: Viewing the world as it then existed . . .”
“In the Cretaceous period?”
“Right. Viewed from that perspective how unlikely would it have seemed that someday fairly soon the dinosaurs would disappear forever and that those scruffy little mammals would end up inheriting the world?”
“Pretty unlikely, I suppose.”
“So why do you think I’m telling you this silly story?”
“Can I answer that?” smirked Winston.
Zach smiled at this exchange, and then said, “I assume it has something to do with establishing that just because certain politicians are extremely powerful and seem unbeatable . . . the way the dinosaurs once were, doesn’t necessarily mean they won’t take a fall and their scruffy little opponents win out.”
“Smart boy. So tell me Zach: Why did the dinosaurs become extinct?”
“Well, according to Tom it was either . . .”
“Try not to listen to Tom.”
“Hey!” Tom sat up straight in his chair.
Horace slapped him on the back. “But seriously, don’t worry about details like whether it was an asteroid or something else that started the process. What I’m interested in is more generally, why were they unable to survive.”
“What I’ve always heard is that they couldn’t adapt.”
“Exactly. For whatever reason, the climate changed catastrophically, and the dinosaurs were unable to adapt well enough to the new circumstances to survive, while at least some of the mammals did. And that my friend, finally brings us to the answer to your question.”
“I think I forgot the question.”
This time everyone laughed.
“Then I’ll remind you: You wanted to know what Winston meant when he referred to certain political leaders as dinosaurs. Here’s the best answer I have: A dinosaur is a politician who fails to adapt to the changing political environment. And this can be true even for elected officials holding important offices . . . even for the most powerful political figures of a generation. Before the congressional elections in 1994, for example, the Democrats had controlled the House of Representatives for 40 years. At the time, given the tremendous advantages of incumbency, continued Democratic dominance seemed all but inevitable. But in truth many congressional Democrats had become dinosaurs . . . overfed, overconfident and dangerously out of touch with the voters. Then in 1994, a political asteroid hit, and the Democrats were swept out of power, with a full 52 seats changing over to the Republicans.”
“Aren’t people today saying pretty much the same things about the Republicans in Congress?”
“You bet they are, although it’s actually a lot worse today. This is almost certainly the most corrupt Congress in the nation’s history.”
“So does that mean that the Republicans are now the dinosaurs, and that it’s their turn to get booted out of power?”
Horace rubbed his chin thoughtfully. “Have they become dinosaurs? Yes, I think that’s very clear. Will they be knocked out of power? That’s only a maybe.”
“It won’t be easy, Zach,” added Tom. “The republicans are incredibly powerful: They have the money, they have the power of incumbency, they own K-Street and they have a docile major news media which shows little interest in digging into the cesspool of their abuse.”
Winston joined in, “May the great God of Succinctness forgive me for climbing on board with Horace’s metaphor, but it’s worth remembering that the asteroid that wiped out the dinosaurs, assuming for now that’s how it happened, could just as easily have missed the earth . . .”
“And if that had happened,” Tom broke in, “the dinosaurs might well have ended up ruling the earth for a thousand centuries more.”
“Excuse me,” said Winston curtly, “you’re interrupting me. God knows, I would never behave in such a fashion. I for one was raised better than that.”
Sometimes with Winston it’s best to just concede defeat — even when righteousness is on your side. Tom, apparently recognizing this, merely smiled and ceded the floor.
Winston continued, “So there’s no guarantee here. We can’t just lie back and wait for some asteroid to hit. We have to fight hard, and we have to fight smart. And part of fighting smart in this situation involves recognizing that before we can knock off their dinosaurs, we may first have to dump our own.”
“Dump them?” asked Zach skeptically.
“I see where you’re coming from. And no, of course, I’m not suggesting that we not support people like Kerry, Clinton, Biden and Bayh in their reelection bids. That would be stupid. On the whole, they’re good people and we’ll need them if we’re to have any chance of winning a majority in the Senate. But the sad truth is that absent a lot of unforeseen personal growth not one of them is the type of leader we’ll need to make the Democrats the majority party again.”
“You realize you’ve just ruled out most of the leading candidates for the Democratic presidential nomination.”
Winston shrugged. “Fine, if a ship’s top officers insist on repeatedly steering into the path of an iceberg, maybe it’s time to put the cabin boy in charge.”
“So is this about Iraq?”
“What do you think?”
“Well . . . I guess I’m assuming that it is.”
“Well, then you’re right. Being wishy-washy on Iraq isn’t the only characteristic of the modern Democratic dinosaur, but it’s a huge part of it. Think about it: Bush and Company committed what was arguably the worst fraud in American history in leading the nation into this Godforsaken war. And as though that were not enough, they then proceeded to execute the whole enterprise with less skill and professionalism than was seen in the average college panty raid of yore. And as a result, we’ve now lost more than 2,400 brave young Americans and have pissed away hundreds of billions of desperately needed dollars.”
Horace asked Zach, “You’d think the Democrats could make political hay out of that, wouldn’t you?”
“Yeah, I would.”
“But what have establishment Democrats done, instead?” Winston started up again in an increasingly angry voice. “Have they gone for the jugular? Have they shown Bush up for the fraud he is? Forget politics: Have they provided a little leadership on the biggest crisis facing the nation today? Hell, no! They’ve been far too busy chasing after their own tails trying . . . somehow, to explain away the fact that they themselves voted to authorize this moronic war in the first place!”
“Like John Kerry during the 2004 campaign,” sighed Tom.
“Here’s the bottom line.” Winston’s voice was quieter now, though still angry. “As far as I’m concerned . . . and I think I speak for Horace and Tom in this, any Democrat who voted in favor of the resolution authorizing use of force in Iraq who is unwilling to now state, in clear and unqualified terms, that doing so was a mistake . . . and more particularly a mistake brought on by lies told by the Bush Administration is by definition a dinosaur, unfit to be the Democratic presidential nominee, or to otherwise lead the party.”
Tom carried the point forward, saying, “And this isn’t about punishing anyone for a bad vote . . . It’s about good citizenship and good politics, which, by the way, amount to pretty much the same thing anymore given that the only way we can save the country from these bastards is by finally beating them at the polls. And one of the most important things we can do to get that job done is to nominate candidates for federal office who can attack Bush and the GOP on the Iraq debacle with full force and without apology.”
“So do you think we’re all nuts, Zach?” asked Horace with a quick wink of the eye.
Zach grinned mischievously. “About this conversation, or in general?”
Horace chuckled, “I think we’d better just stick to this conversation.”
“Then no. I think what you’re saying makes a lot of sense.”
“Good. But there’s more to it. Being a political dinosaur, from the Democratic standpoint, encompasses more than just taking the wrong track on Iraq. It also applies more generally to those Democratic politicians who doggedly insist on fighting yesterday’s battles, instead of adapting to new political realities. Do you remember us talking about the so-called New Democrats?”
“Sure. They’re basically conservative Democrats, right?”
“Well, they’d call themselves moderates, but certainly one of their goals starting out was to make the Democratic Party less liberal, something they believed would make the party more attractive to mainstream voters . . . not to mention corporate campaign contributors. And while I never liked the approach myself, I have to admit that it made some sense back in the early 90s at a time when the Democratic Party had failed to win the White House in five of the last six elections.”
“Bill Clinton was a New Democrat, after all,” offered Tom.
“But the problem” Horace continued, “is that a lot of Democratic politicians seem frozen in this line of thinking. They spend their time and energy trying to prove how moderate and nonpartisan they are, instead of providing a vision for a better America. And, maybe I’m wrong, but personally I think that’s just plain dumb. It’s stinking thinking, as a friend of mine used to say. The critical domestic political issue in the next two election cycles isn’t going to be about ideology at all . . . It’s going to be about corruption.”
Tom jumped in. “I agree wholeheartedly. But not just corruption in the sense of violations of the criminal law . . .”
” . . . corruption in the broad sense. The corruption of huge no-bid contracts in Iraq and for hurricane relief; the corruption of the K-Street Project; the corruption of filling critical governmental jobs, especially those requiring special expertise, with political hacks; the corruption of our whole cash ‘n’ carry political process; the corruption of refusing to revisit huge tax giveaways to rich Republican campaign contributors even in the face of war and natural catastrophe; the corruption of filling regulatory boards and agencies . . . bodies that are supposed to protect the public health and welfare, with industry insiders; the corruption of a so-called energy bill that dumped billions of dollars of goodies into the laps of giant energy corporations that were already raking in unconscionable profits; the corruption of . . .”
Horace cut him off. “Unfortunately, my friend, you could go on like this for hours. That’s how pathetic our government has become. But the good news is that despite the GOP noise machine, the American people are starting to get it. Poll after poll proves it. But forget the polls; you don’t need them to recognize something is up. You can feel it in the air, especially since the bungling of the Hurricane Katrina relief effort. People are fed up. They want change. And they want leadership that will make that happen. They’re looking for a modern day Teddy Roosevelt, someone to clean up the filth and make government work again. Unfortunately, so far, at least, the Democrats are giving them little more than dried up old talking points.”
“I agree with you,” said Zach thoughtfully. “Many of the kids at my school are fed up with the whole process. They know things need to change, but they don’t see how it will ever happen. Even some of my Republican friends are disgusted by what’s going on. But no one is offering them anything different . . . anything new to grab onto.”
“No. Faced with one of the greatest progressive political opportunities in a generation . . . no, forget opportunity, more like moral imperative, Democratic leaders are falling flat on their faces. And I’m not talking about Howard Dean. I mean the party’s real leaders, our elected officials.”
“They’re scared. Scared they’ll be viewed as being too liberal; scared they’ll be accused of class warfare; scared because they just can’t bring themselves to believe that the political world is changing in profound ways.”
“Well, they had better get used to it fast,” said Winston, “because they have a choice to make: Adapt or die. And they better not take too long in deciding either, because the world . . . and for that matter, the Democratic rank and file, aren’t going to wait for them much longer.”
When not busy managing a mythical café, Steven C. Day lives with his family in Wichita, Kansas where he has practiced law for 25 years. Contact Steven at [email protected]
© Copyright 2004, Steven C. Day. WGAw #974001