My wife used to say that it was never too late for the Red Sox to blow it. At some point during the baseball season, the Sox would be on top of the standings and would put together an impressive run. Then just when it seemed that either the AL pennant or even a World Series title was theirs for the asking, the team would implode, leaving legions of fans angry, disappointed and perplexed.
Right now, the Democrats look like the Red Sox. They've got a good team. They mounted a surprising and successful campaign to take back Congress in 2006. They've taken meaningful actions: they forced John Bolton out at the UN; they passed a minimum wage hike and are cutting interest on student loans; they've symbolically condemned escalation in Iraq and have now taken more meaningful steps toward ending that disastrous war through the power of the purse.
Meanwhile, Scooter Libby's trial and conviction revealed an administration more concerned with crushing domestic opposition to its policies than in protecting its own intelligence agents. Alberto Gonzales is on the run. A member of the President's own party is talking about impeachment. And no less an eminence than Robert Novak says:
"With nearly two years remaining in his presidency, George W. Bush is alone. In half a century, I have not seen a president so isolated from his own party in Congress -- not Jimmy Carter, not even Richard Nixon as he faced impeachment.
In short, there is a feeling of springtime optimism among liberals. Gary Kamiya notes that recent surveys reveal a significant shift in American popular attitudes away from war, Republicans and conservative policies:
[Bush's] disastrous presidency has dealt a devastating blow to the GOP, one from which it may not recover for many years.
That's the inescapable import of a major study of American voters' values and attitudes by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press, released March 22. The study finds that voters have turned dramatically away from the GOP since Bush took office. Iraq, of course, is the single biggest reason for this. (A separate Pew poll, released on March 26, shows that 59 percent of Americans want their congressional representatives to support a bill calling for U.S. troops to withdraw from Iraq by August 2008, with only 33 percent opposed.) But even more troubling for Republican strategists is the fact that underlying attitudes and beliefs are trending against them. The study's implication is that the GOP, especially in its current far-right incarnation, was facing serious structural, long-term problems anyway, and that Bush delivered the coup de grâce.
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But the significance of the Pew study, the latest in a series that started in 1987, goes beyond Bush or the upcoming election. On virtually every issue, it shows that the public holds views that are closer to those of the Democrats than the Republicans -- and that long-term trends are moving in that direction, too. For the GOP, its move-to-the-right strategy paid short-term dividends, but that ploy is now looking like a case of live by the sword, die by the sword. Its greatest challenge is now to find a way to recapture the political center without alienating the right-wing base to which it has so effectively pandered. For it looks like hard-right positions aren't playing in Peoria anymore.
Another pundit, John Farmer, has noted that Bush's war policies are having a disproportionate effect on rural America, and that rural America is starting to notice:
The Carsey Institute, based at the University of New Hampshire, has calculated that rural America, home to only 19 percent of the American population, has suffered 27 percent of the nation's casualties in Iraq. The death rate among rural-area soldiers is even worse. As a percentage of their hometown populations, the toll among rural troops is 60 percent higher than for their comrades from urban and suburban America.
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It's often said by Bush's critics that he has asked no sacrifice of Americans in the fight against terrorism. The war is something of an abstraction. Most Americans have no loved ones in the service, it's said. But it's no abstraction down on the farm and in the nation's small towns, where Republican loyalty helped put Bush in the Oval Office. But that loyalty could be eroding.
George Naylor, an Iowan who's president of the National Family Farm Foundation, is quoted saying as much an article in the Nation, a liberal magazine fiercely critical of Bush.
"A lot of farmers who might be Republicans but are not right-wing Republicans have changed their views on the war," he said. One group of farmers has even put together an organization called Farms Not Arms to protest Bush's war policies and to promote the use of farms as places where returning veterans scarred by their war experience can have time to readjust to civilian life.
All this is more than enough to make Democrats start to believe again. All this, though, is more than enough to remind me of my wife's dour take on the Red Sox. Because it's never too late for the Democrats to screw things up either. Here are the three things they must avoid:
1. A bruising, personal, attack-oriented primary campaign that diminishes the entire field, and the eventual nominee in particular. This is not to say that we shouldn't have a vigorous campaign--but when the candidates, their staffs or their well-meaning allies start focusing on alleged scandals, supposed character flaws, or inconsequential misdemeanors, they will only weaken each other and the party.
2. A blind eye to scandal. One factor in the Democrats' 2006 Congressional victory was the electorate's disgust with the stream of scandals that involved Republican Congressmen, and the party's apparent toleration of same. There are about 300 Democratic Congressmen and Senators. Surely some one of them (that is, one in addition to William Jefferson) must have done something seriously wrong. Voters understand that; what they will not understand is a Democratic leadership that protects and defends wrongdoers.
3. A do-nothing Congress. Yes, control of the Senate rests on just one vote. Yes, there are real disagreements within the party as to what should be done about Iraq. However, come election day, the important thing will be for voters to identify the Democratic Party as the party that gets things done. On some things--the revised No Child Left Behind bill, for instance, or immigration reform--Democrats in Congress will have to reach across the aisle and accept some compromises with the G.O.P. in order to get something done. It's more important at this point, though, for Democrats to be seen legislating than to be heard debating.
If the Democrats are going to be the Red Sox, avoiding these mis-steps may help them become the 2004 edition rather than the maddeningly-cursed teams of the nineties, eighties, seventies, sixties, fifties, forties, thirties, and the twenties.
So enjoy the spring, but avoid complacency. The 2004 Sox weren't a sure thing.