Will President Bush's current unpopularity translate into a Democratic recapture of either the House or Senate this fall -- or a victory in the 2008 presidential election? Probably not.
Despite widespread unhappiness with the Republicans, it is hard to envision a majority party run by Howard Dean, John Kerry, Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid. Why?
All sorts of apparent and not-so-apparent reasons. First, recent events and trends have complicated Democrats' talking points about purported Bush failings. The so-called "jobless" recovery has seen low unemployment comparable to the Clinton boom years.
Last September, many people blamed what they viewed as a stingy federal government for the chaos following Hurricane Katrina. Now we learn individuals' fraudulent claims and spending accounted for $1.4 billion in federal largess. Too much was apparently thrown around from big government too generously, rather than too little, too slowly.
Karl Rove would supposedly be "frog-marched" out of the White House in cuffs for a role in outing CIA agent Valerie Plame. Instead, the special prosecutor recently found no evidence he was involved in any wrongdoing.
And then there's Iraq. The killing of Abu Musab Zarqawi and establishment of a complete Iraqi democratic Cabinet will not ensure a quick victory, as we see from the recent slaughter of captive U.S. soldiers. But both events weaken the liberal clamor that the American effort at birthing democracy is doomed in Iraq. Calling for a deadline to leave, as do Democratic Rep. John Murtha of Pennsylvania and Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts, is not so compelling when the current policy is based on training the growing Iraqi security forces so American troops can come home as soon as possible.
Thus, in the elections, there is little the Democrats will be able to capitalize on.
Take the budget deficit. Total federal annual revenues have increased despite, or because of, the tax cuts. Yet budget expenditures in the first Bush term grew much faster annually than during Bill Clinton's administration. So the time-honored remedy calls for cuts and a more conservative budget cruncher, hardly a liberal forte.
Even in an area like illegal immigration where Mr. Bush is getting hammered by his own party, the Democrats aren't in good shape. Their similar support for amnesty and guest workers gives them the same Bush negatives on those issues. But they suffer the additional burden of apparent laxity on open borders.
Meanwhile, the Democrats face a more fundamental, existential problem. The addition of China and India to the world capitalist system has brought well more than a billion workers into the global market. The planet is now flooded with cheap consumer goods -- at precisely the time the U.S. economy rapidly keeps creating national wealth.
The result is that while there may be more inequality than ever before in the no-holds-barred world mart, the middle class and poor in the U.S. have access to "things" -- TVs, sound systems, clothes, cars -- undreamed of in the past. We are now in the age of MTV and mass conspicuous consumption, not of the grapes of wrath. American class warfare can no longer be defined by the Democratic Party as an elemental need for a 40-hour workweek, unemployment and disability insurance, or Social Security.
Unfortunately, the liberal debate has devolved to why one person has more opportunity for leisure and even nicer things than do others. A sort of envy rather than hunger more often fuels the gripe -- and that should require a subtle Democratic acknowledgment that things continue improving for everyone.Finally, in the past, savvy Democrats understood the need for a conservative package for such liberal contents. To win the popular vote in presidential races, the formula was to nominate a Southern governor or senator -- as in 1964, 1976, 1992, 1996 and 2000 -- and then hope either for a Republican scandal such as Watergate or Iran-Contra, or a populist third-party conservative like Ross Perot.
In contrast, recently any time the liberal base got its wish and nominated a Northern progressive -- 1968, 1972, 1984, 1988 or 2004 -- the party lost the presidency. Even Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo, Katrina and Haditha have not equated to past national scandals; nor will there likely be a prairie-fire independent to draw votes from Republicans.
Yes, much of the public is grumpy at high gas prices. It does not like the costs in Iraq and continuing budget deficits. And people worry about unchecked illegal immigration and dangers on the horizon, from Iran to North Korea. But when Americans get inside the voting booth, they probably will think the envisioned Democratic remedy is worse than the current perceived Republican disease.
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