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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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Wherever Democrats look, they sense their powerlessness. Even when they look to the media, they feel that conservatives have the upper hand. Conservatives think this is ludicrous. We may have Rush and Fox, conservatives say, but you have ABC, NBC, CBS, the New York Times. But liberals are sincere. They despair that a consortium of conservative think tanks, talk radio hosts, and Fox News--Hillary's vast right-wing conspiracy--has cohered to form a dazzlingly efficient ideology delivery system that swamps liberal efforts to get their ideas out.

When they look to the culture at large, many Democrats feel that the climate is so hostile to them they can't even speak up. During the war in Iraq, liberals claimed that millions of Americans were opposed to war, but were afraid to voice their opinions, lest the Cossacks come charging through their door. The actor Tim Robbins declared, "Every day, the airwaves are filled with warnings, veiled and unveiled threats, spewed invective and hatred directed at any voice of dissent. And the public, like so many relatives and friends that I saw this weekend, sit in mute opposition and fear." Again, conservatives regard this as ludicrous. Stand up and oppose the war, conservatives observe, and you'll probably win an Oscar, a National Magazine Award, and tenure at four dozen prestigious universities. But the liberals who made these complaints were sincerely expressing the way they perceive the world.

And when they look at Washington, they see a cohesive corporate juggernaut, effortlessly pushing its agenda and rolling over Democratic opposition. Again, this is not how Republicans perceive reality. Republicans admire President Bush a great deal, but most feel that, at least on domestic policy, the conservative agenda has been thwarted as much as it has been advanced. Bush passed two tax cuts, but on education he abandoned school choice and adopted a bill largely written by Ted Kennedy. On Medicare, the administration has abandoned real reform and embraced a bill also endorsed by Kennedy. On campaign finance, the president signed a bill promoted by his opponents. The faith-based initiatives are shrinking to near nothingness. Social Security reform has disappeared from the agenda for the time being. Domestic spending has increased.

Still, Democrats and liberals see the Bush presidency in maximalist terms. "President Bush's signature on his big tax cut bill Wednesday marked a watershed in American politics," wrote E.J. Dionne of the Washington Post. "The rules of policymaking that have applied since the end of World War II are now irrelevant." The headline on a recent Michael Kinsley column was "Capitalism's 'Deal' Falls Apart," arguing that the Bush administration had revoked the social contract that had up to now shaped American politics.

In short, when many liberals look at national affairs, they see a world in which their leaders are nice, pure-souled, but defenseless, and they see Republicans who are organized, devious, and relentless. "It's probably a weakness that we're not real haters. We don't have a sense that it's a holy crusade," Democratic strategist Bob Shrum told Adam Clymer of the New York Times. "They play hardball, we play softball," Gore campaign manager Donna Brazile added. Once again, Republicans think this picture of reality is delusional. The Democrats are the party that for 40 years has labeled its opponents racists, fascists, religious nuts, and monsters who wanted to starve grannies and orphans. Republicans saw what Democrats did to Robert Bork, Clarence Thomas, and dozens of others. Yet Democrats are utterly sincere. Many on the left think they have been losing because their souls are too elevated.

When they look inward, impotence, weakness, high-mindedness, and geniality are all they see.

EARLIER THIS YEAR, Robert Kagan published a book, Of Paradise and Power: America and Europe in the New World Order. Kagan argued that Americans and Europeans no longer share a common view of the world. Americans are from Mars, and Europeans are from Venus. The essential reason Americans and Europeans perceive reality differently, he argued, is that there is a power gap. Americans are much more powerful than Europeans, and Europeans are acutely aware of their powerlessness.