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Democrats Go Off the Cliff

From the June 30, 2003 issue: Powerlessness corrupts.

Jun 30, 2003, Vol. 8, No. 41 • By DAVID BROOKS
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ACROSS THE COUNTRY Republicans and conservatives are asking each other the same basic question: Has the other side gone crazy? Have the Democrats totally flipped their lids? Because every day some Democrat seems to make a manic or totally over-the-top statement about George Bush, the Republican party, and the state of the nation today.

"This republic is at its greatest danger in its history because of this administration," says Democratic senator Robert Byrd.

"I think this is deliberate, intentional destruction of the United States of America," says liberal commentator Bill Moyers.

George Bush's economic policy is the "most radical and dangerous economic theory to hit our shores since socialism," says Senator John Edwards.

"The Most Dangerous President Ever" is the title of an essay in the American Prospect by Harold Meyerson, in which it is argued that the president Bush most closely resembles is Jefferson Davis.

Tom Daschle condemns the "dictatorial approach" of this administration. John Kerry says Bush "deliberately misled" America into the Iraq war. Asked what Democrats can do about the Republicans, Janet Reno recalls her visit to the Dachau concentration camp, and points out that the Holocaust happened because many Germans just stood by. "And don't you just stand by," she exhorts her Democratic audience.

When conservatives look at the newspapers, they see liberal columnists who pick out every tiny piece of evidence or pseudo-evidence of Republican vileness, and then dwell on it and obsess over it until they have lost all perspective and succumbed to fevers of incoherent rage. They see Democratic primary voters who are so filled with hatred at George Bush and John Ashcroft and Dick Cheney that they are pulling their party far from the mainstream of American life. They see candidates who, instead of trying to quell the self-destructive fury, are playing to it. "I am furious at [Bush] and I am furious at the Republicans," says Dick Gephardt, trying to sound like John Kerry who is trying to sound like Howard Dean.

It's mystifying. Fury rarely wins elections. Rage rarely appeals to suburban moderates. And there is a mountain of evidence that the Democrats are now racing away from swing voters, who do not hate George Bush, and who, despite their qualms about the economy and certain policies, do not feel that the republic is being raped by vile and illegitimate marauders. The Democrats, indeed, look like they're turning into a domestic version of the Palestinians--a group so enraged at their perceived oppressors, and so caught up in their own victimization, that they behave in ways that are patently not in their self-interest, and that are almost guaranteed to perpetuate their suffering.

WHEN YOU TALK to Democratic strategists, you find they do have rationalizations for the current aggressive thrust. In 2003, it's necessary to soften Bush up with harsh attacks, some say. In 2004, we'll put on a happier face. Others argue that Democrats tried to appeal to moderate voters in 2002 and it didn't work. The key to victory in 2004 is riling up the liberal base. Still others say that with all the advantages Bush has--incumbency, victory in Iraq, the huge fundraising lead--Democrats simply have to roll the dice and behave radically.

But all of these explanations have a post-facto ring. Democratic strategists are trying to put a rational gloss on what is a visceral, unplanned, and emotional state of mind. Democrats may or may not be behaving intelligently, but they are behaving sincerely. Their statements are not the product of some Dick Morris-style strategic plan. This stuff wasn't focus-grouped. The Democrats are letting their inner selves out for a romp.

And if you probe into the Democratic mind at the current moment, you sense that the rage, the passion, the fighting spirit are all fueled not only by opposition to Bush policies, but also by powerlessness.

Republicans have controlled the White House before, but up until now Democrats still had some alternative power center. Reagan had the presidency, but Democrats had the House and, part of the time, the Senate. Bush the elder faced a Democratic Congress. But now Democrats have nothing. Even the Supreme Court helped Republicans steal the last election, many Democrats feel. Republicans--to borrow political scientist Samuel Lubell's trope--have become the Sun party and Democrats have been reduced to being the Moon party. Many Democrats feel that George Bush is just running loose, transforming the national landscape and ruining the nation, and there is nothing they can do to stop him.