Thursday, April 29, 2004

Time of the Shark
If these were normal times, we'd be talking about how the blood is in the water and it's only a matter of time before the Bush/Cheney administration was going to be shark shit. Other administrations would be hiding in a bunker in the wake of today's news alone: approval numbers plummeting, ever-growing skepticism about Bush and Cheney's basic truthfulness regarding 9/11, and the Iraq war looking more and more like a fiasco every day, especially through the eyes of the Iraqis themselves.

But these are not normal times. Politically, not much goes according to long-established form anymore. The presidential election, if it were held today, would be a dead heat. John Kerry is getting very little traction out of all this.

The reasons are several. For one thing, Bush's advertising is defining Kerry better than Kerry is defining himself. (And Kerry hasn't spent nearly the money on advertising Bush has.) And then there's the more troubling reason: Kerry is looking more and more like a bad candidate every day, somebody who fails to understand what is at stake. Kerry's attempt this week to redefine himself as the candidate of economic opportunity doesn't strike me as a very good idea. It is--to return to a theme sounded here before--a strategy that could have been adopted by any Democrat in the last 30 years, but this is most assuredly not like any election in the last 30 years. (Or 60 or 100. To find a precedent for this one, you have to go back to 1864 at least.)

Last year, I blasted people like Dick Gephardt and Joe Lieberman for refusing to understand that the 2004 election is essentially a fight for survival--survival not just of the Democratic Party as an institution capable of carrying on the ideals it's stood for historically, but for the very viability of those ideals. But Gephardt, Lieberman, and other Democratic centrists insisted on conducting the campaign in a gentlemanly fashion, even though for 10 years the Republicans have fought elections like back-alley brawlers who would sucker-punch their own grandmothers if it would get them a win. And now I'm afraid Kerry is taking the same high road to defeat.

If the Republicans win the electoral war this fall, they are going to take those of us who oppose them prisoner, and then machine-gun us--if not literally, then figuratively, by gutting everything we stand for, and on such a scale that they will leave nothing for some future Democratic administration to rebuild. Actually, they've already started. In the latest Harper's, Bryant Urstadt describes how the machinery of environmental protection developed since Nixon's day has been largely dismantled, not by anything that attracts publicity or Congressional oversight, but by a combination of bureaucratic action and inaction, mostly unreported and unknown. Most troubling is the attrition among environmental regulators--over 200 experienced hands have quit in frustration, which quite effectively ties the hands of any future administration inclined to protect the environment. And that's just one example. Bush will continue to have his impact long after he's gone--and if he's gone in 2009 instead of 2005, it's only going to be worse.

Only John Kerry stands in the way of this steamroller. So he has got to understand that his campaign is far more important than as a vehicle for the quadrennial repackaging of the usual Democrat schtick, more important than his personal quest for the nation's highest office, more important than the apotheosis of the Vietnam generation. And he's got to fight, fight hard, fight dirty if necessary--but fight. Cut the high-minded patrician rhetoric and get real. Get pissed at Bush, at what he's done to the country and the world, and at what he is planning for his second act. Republicans are going to accuse Democrats of unseemly anger anyhow, so we might as well score some points with it.

And another thing: Start talking in explicit terms about the wild extremism of Bush and Cheney, who are wildly extreme on everything, from foreign policy to judicial appointments to civil rights. On a policy basis alone, this administration is so far off the chart of American political norms as to be almost unrecognizable to anybody who's followed politics over the last 30 years. Asking American voters to take a historical perspective is risky, given that many people couldn't even tell you who was president 30 years ago--but they can still get their minds around the concept of truthfulness. It seems to me that if there's hay to be made on the campaign trail this summer, it can be made on the question of truthfulness--how Bush and Cheney (and other members of their team, other Republicans, and the GOP's Amen Corner in the media) have consistently misled the American people, blithely contradicted earlier statements, and sold their policies with flat-out lies. To that end, the Center for American Progress has set up a searchable database that leads readers to the lies, and the truths that debunk them.

But here's what troubles me the most about these abnormal times. Even though there are a million reasons to throw Bush out, a large number of his partisans believe the presidency is his by something like divine right. Whether they're overtly religious or not, their fealty to Bush, and their belief that any Democrat is by definition unfit to take his place, seems to come from a place beyond rational argument. So if it starts to look like the voters are going to subvert the will of God, or history, or whatever you want to call it, and throw Bush out of office, will they simply stand by and let it happen? I have feared since September 11 that Bush might find a pretext to simply cancel the 2004 election. Or will the Bushistas put the fix in via doctored touch-screen voting, a pliant Supreme Court, or a convenient terrorist attack? As crazy as that sounds, nothing is beyond the capacity of this administration, because they prove it anew nearly every week.

Yes, if these were normal times, we'd say that the blood is in the water and the sharks are moving in for the kill. And maybe it is. But what we can't quite tell is--whose blood is it?

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