One thing about the gang at the large round table is they can be a little hard to satisfy. It seems, for example, that the Democrats victory in 2006 wasn’t good enough for them. No, they have the audacity to insist that Democrats can do even better.
The Last Chance Democracy Cafe
Episode 54: Democrats: Be audacious or die
by Steven C. Day
Horace set his beer bottle gently down on the table and began caressing it lovingly — well, lovingly may be a little strong, let’s say likingly — with his forefinger. As any experienced Horace watcher will tell you, this almost always means he’s ready to get down to business. The light banter about sports, movies and the like that usually consumes the first hour or two of our Wednesday night confabs at the large round table was clearly coming to an end.
The political part of the evening (the next six hours or so) was about to begin. And as so often occurs, Horace would be establishing the main topic of the night.
“Zach . . .” he began.
“Un-huh,” our young college friend replied fatalistically, no doubt assuming that he was about to face another Socratic session, where Horace, Tom and Winston would pepper him with questions.
“. . . are you familiar with the phrase a one-hit wonder?”
Zach perked up: Music is one of the loves of his life. “Of course,” he began, “it happens a lot. A musician has one big hit, then nothing. One day you’re at the top of the charts. Two years later you’re frying burgers never to be heard from again.”
“Except for Meat Loaf . . . some people called him a one-hit wonder,” announced Tom to the table’s general disbelief. Somehow Tom just doesn’t strike one as a Meat Loaf fan. “But Meat Loaf’s so-called one-hit wonder never died. Bat Out of Hell spent 474 weeks on the UK charts!” Tom was verily gushing with excitement. “I have personally seen him perform in concert seven times!”
Winston’s mouth was hanging open far enough I was actually a little concerned his teeth might fall out. And he doesn’t wear dentures.
I couldn’t blame him though. Tom as a groupie isn’t the sort of image it’s easy to get your head around.
Horace merely raised his eyebrows, before returning to his original point. “So here’s the $64,000 question . . .”
Or at least he thought he was returning to his original point.
“The $64,000 question?” huffed Winston. “Good God man, no one says that anymore. It’s the million dollar question now. You know, Regis Philbin and all that. Seriously, is it too much to ask for you to keep your clichés updated?”
If music is one of Zach’s great loves, being a royal pain in the ass is one of Winston’s. But then I guess we all tend to like the things we’re good at.
From the look on his face, I think Horace was considering possible avenues of retaliation, but he apparently decided just to ignore Winston — generally the wisest course. It’s an inexorable truth of the universe that no one ever gets in the last word on Winston.
Horace began again, “As I was saying, here’s the . . . let’s just say, here’s the critical question. Is that an okay way to put it Winston?” There was just the slightest edge to Horace’s voice.
“Don’t mind me, I’m just an old man quietly enjoying the company of friends,” Winston purred in response.
Horace let that one pass too.
“Great, then the big question is this: Was the 2006 election the beginning of a long-term trend of the American people turning against the right-wing machine, or was it just a one-hit wonder?”
“So you’re suggesting the Republicans may end up winning in 2008,” replied Zach.
“They may, although to be honest, I doubt it. I suspect that everything will still be screwed up enough in Iraq that the Democrats will do fine . . . probably increasing their numbers in both the House and Senate. And while the presidency is less certain, since the candidates’ personalities obviously come into play, we have a good shot at picking that up too.”
“So how can you call that a one-hit wonder . . . I mean, if they win two elections in a row?”
Horace smiled in concession. “Good point. So maybe they’ll be a two-hit wonder. But either way the issue remains: Was the Democrats’ success in 2006 just a transitory bleep on the political radar screen, or the beginning of a true political realignment . . . you know, something that might conceivably continue for 20 or 30 years or even longer?”
Tom, who had been carefully studying the color of his Scotch on the rocks, holding it up to the light of the Paul Wellstone Memorial Candle in the manner of a wine connoisseur inspecting an expensive glass of merlot, spoke up: “You have a point. It isn’t like the Democratic Party has never been down that road before . . . like in 1974, right after Watergate, when they won 49 new seats in the House and several in the Senate. Then two years later they built on their success by taking the presidency with Jimmy Carter . . .”
“Only to be blown away in the Reagan landslide four years later,” agreed Winston, “thereby ushering in the conservative era that has dominated the nation’s politics ever since.”
Zach asked, “But what about Bill Clinton? He was elected just, what . . . four years after Reagan left office?”
“That’s true,” nodded Horace. He paused momentarily for a sip of beer. He does this sometimes as a way to buy a few seconds to collect his thoughts. This time, however, I think he was just thirsty. “Don’t get me wrong,” he began again. “In many ways, I loved having Bill Clinton as president and God knows I miss him when I think of what we’re stuck with now. I miss his intelligence, his political genius and his mastery of the art of communication. But his presidency brought about no long term change in the political balance.”
Tom added, “If anything, right wingers were more powerful when he left office than when he came in.”
Zach rubbed his thumb and forefinger across his brow, looking confused. “I’m sorry, but I don’t get it. Everyone always says that Clinton was a political genius. You just said it yourself, Horace. Now, you guys seem to be saying he sucked at it.”
“He was a political genius, alright,” said Horace. “Unfortunately, he was the only one who ever seemed to benefit from it. He totally bombed out at growing either the Democratic Party or the progressive movement in general.”
“In fact,” Winston said mournfully, “a good argument can be made that he’s largely responsible for finishing off what little was left of liberalism in American politics. In many ways he was a superb president, but he left no political legacy at all.”
“This time we need to do better,” added Horace.
“Much better,” agreed Tom.
Zach hesitated for a moment then said, “Okay, I’ll bite. Just how are we supposed to do that?”
Horace stared at his beer bottle for a few seconds. “By being audacious,” he said.
Winston straightened up in his seat, and then half-bellowed, “Now there’s a pleasant thought: Democrats being audacious, actually fighting for what they believe in, instead of quaking in fear . . .”
“Stop, Winston,” said Horace. He was smiling, but in a scolding schoolmarm sort of way. “This isn’t about Democrat bashing. In fact, I’m declaring this a no Democratic Party bashing zone for the rest of the evening.”
“No Democratic bashing?!” gasped Winston in mock horror. “I suppose next you’re going to tell me that I can’t make fun of Tom.”
Horace laughed. “No, you can still do that.”
“Hey, don’t I get a say in this?” sputtered Tom in theatrical anger.
“Have you ever had any say in it before?” hooted Molly, who had just finished serving a new round of drinks.”
Tom couldn’t recall that he had.
Horace, attentive, as always, to his duties as the table’s unofficial den mother, tried again to bring us back on topic. “So, tell me, Zach, how would you say the Democrats did in the last election?”
“They kicked ass . . . right?”
Horace paused for another sip of beer. This time I think he was stalling to collect his thoughts.
“They did okay,” he said pensively as he set the beer down on a coaster. “Picking up 30 seats in the House is nothing to sneeze at. But given how angry the public was at Bush and the Republicans, the Democrats should have done a lot better, 50 or 60 seats at a minimum. We shouldn’t let our excitement over finally getting back a piece of the action in Washington cause us to forget the huge structural advantages the Republicans have.”
“I’m afraid he’s right,” said Tom ruefully. “Their biggest advantage, of course, is money.”
Horace continued, “It goes back to what we talked about that very first night you came to the café, Zach, about economic inequality, about how . . .”
“About how as the superrich continue to get even richer in this country they also become more powerful politically . . .” Zach cut in.
“. . . and the more politically powerful they become, the more they’re able to manipulate the system in ways that make them even richer, right?”
“You’ve got it down cold. That’s the other thing about Bill Clinton, of course. He was a New Democrat, which means he wanted to appear very pro-business. Now, without a doubt, the Clinton presidency was a much better deal for poor and working class Americans than any recent Republican administration, no contest. But it isn’t like reducing economic inequality was one of his biggest goals in office.”
But, as Tom then told Zach, this isn’t just a Republican versus Democratic thing anyway. This is about how our nation’s growing economic inequality distorts every aspect of our culture. It plays a huge role in whose story gets told. Media consolidation under corporate ownership, for example, has a lot to do with why economic stories are almost always told from a conservative, pro-corporate perspective today.
Horace frowned deeply. “And then, of course, there’s the whole right wing infrastructure, the think tanks, advocacy groups and, of course, the massive right-wing media complex. It isn’t just a matter of luck that the conservative message gets out so much better than the liberal one in this nation. It’s all about these structural advantages . . . and they’re huge.”
Zach nodded politely, but with just a note of impatience. He had, after all, heard this all before at the large round table — more than once. “But what I’d really be interested in hearing, Horace,” he said, “is what you meant when you said the Democrats need to be . . .”
Horace leaned back in his chair. “The thing is Republicans still have these enormous structural advantages in money, media control and the rest . . . including, of course, the congressional seats they’ve gained by turning reapportionment into a contact sport. These advantages for the most part haven’t gone away. Now, as badly as Bush and conservatives in general have been screwing things up lately, sure, the Democrats can probably get away with playing it safe and still do reasonably well in the next election. But if the goal is something more than that . . . to truly transform the political landscape, then that won’t be good enough.”
“He’s right,” said Tom. “If nothing changes, eventually, some day after the anger over the war dies down, these powerful structural advantages will put the conservatives back on top. It’s inevitable.”
“Unless, to repeat myself,” said Horace almost wistfully, “the Democrats learn how to be audacious enough to start knocking down some of those advantages . . . which, by the way, would do a great service for the country at the same time. Democrats need to stop complaining about economic inequality and start doing something about it. The current move to raise the minimum wage is fine and dandy as a start, but how about getting serious about mandating a real living wage. It’s also long past time for Democrats to get over their phobia about raising taxes. Start scaling back Bush’s tax giveaways to the superrich, but tie every specific tax increase to a specific popular program that it will fund . . . things that empower the poor and middle class to build better lives for their children. Things like increasing federal support for affordable higher education. I know for now Bush may veto a lot of it. Fine, he’ll be gone soon enough.”
“I’ve got a good one,” Tom chimed in. “How about finally tackling the health care crisis. Creating true universal health insurance coverage. It exists pretty much everywhere else in the industrialized world. Yet, the right wing claims it has to remain an impossible dream here in America. Let’s prove the bastards wrong. Do you have any idea how much good will that would earn the Democrats? It would be like Social Security on steroids.”
Winston jumped in. “And how about this? Let’s bring back the Fairness Doctrine like Representatives Slaughter, Kucinich and others are proposing. Boy, wouldn’t that be a kick in the teeth to Fox News.”
“Not to mention something that would bring a little diversity back into our public discourse,” agreed Horace. “And while they’re at it, how about fixing the campaign finance mess. You know . . . create a system where you don’t have to be rich to be heard.”
Winston polished off the last few drops of his bourbon. “And it’s high time we started doing something for struggling families in this country. You know, instead of preaching about family values, do something to show that we actually value families. Things like pushing for more affordable quality day care and universal preschool.”
“And, of course, we have to stop the war . . .” sighed Horace.
“And stop Bush from starting another one in Iran,” said Zach.
“Amen,” came a chorus from around the table.
Horace gave Zach a friendly slap on his upper arm. “You know what we’re discussing here don’t you? This is the famous elephant in the room everyone is always talking about. What needs to happen is so incredibly obvious and yet somehow much of the Democratic Party leadership can’t seem to see it. They’re still convinced that bold progressive leadership will scare people away. When in truth it’s the only real hope the party has of ever regaining true majority status.”
Tom slapped his hand on the table for emphasis. “Exactly. It’s basic mathematics: You can’t expect to win on a regular basis when the odds are stacked against you. If you want to start winning, you first have to find a way to change those odds.”
“And that’s where being audacious comes in, right?” said Zach, nodding that he understood.
“You better believe it,” answered Horace. “The kind of audaciousness Jim Webb showed in the Democratic response to the State of the Union. So that’s the ticket Democrats, be audacious. Either that or slowly die.”
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When not busy managing a mythical café, Steven C. Day lives with his family in Wichita, Kansas where he has practiced law for 26 years. Contact Steven at scday(AT)buzzflash.com.
© Copyright 2004, Steven C. Day. WGAw #974001