So, is this election reason to celebrate? Are we finding ourselves in the middle, or at the beginning, of some brave new world of progressive politics and majorities in America? Possibly, but there seems to me reason to be a little less optimistic on that. Michael Bérubé identifies some of the chief reasons why.
[A]ll it took was the Abramoff scandal, the Foley scandal, the Haggard scandal, the suspension of habeas corpus, the creation of the Cheney Archipelago of secret torture sites, a criminally incompetent response to one of the worst natural disasters in US history, and a hopeless war that has killed thousands of US troops and hundreds of thousands of Iraqis, and may well go down as the single worst foreign policy blunder in the history of the republic. I can’t wait for ‘08!There's that elitist smart-assery only a veteran professor of dangeral studies can deliver. Nevertheless, I think Bérubé has a point. In particular, I wonder whether this really means that the country has repudiated the worst of Bush's policies, or just his incompetent and arrogant execution of them. In particular, I wonder if there isn't still a consensus in favor of torture, and of indefinite detention for "enemy combatants." Perhaps more importantly, I wonder if the Democrats will try to challenge that consensus, to make the case against torture and indefinite detention. Will the Democrats try to reshape and lead the American public, or just continue with their half-assed aping of the GOP? If Democrats like Sherrod Brown had to vote for torture to get elected, will they now speak and act on principle? Or is Hillary Clinton the new face of the newly ascendant Democratic Party?
These questions, of course, are bound up with the debates about whether the Dems won because they mobilized their progressive base, and brought other voters into that base, or because they seized the center, or, the Republicans' favorite interpretation, simply because the GOP had fallen too low and voters just had to opt for someone else (though they really didn't want to). In other words, do the Democrats have a mandate? If so, what is it? Is it time for a renewed centrism, or a renewed progressive politics? Ezra Klein has an interesting take on this question (via Amanda). Here comes a long quote, but it's all good, as the kids are saying (or were about ten years ago).
The ideological spectrum is a tricky thing. Take Heath Schuler, exhibit A in the rightwing Democrats meme. He's a cultural conservative, no doubt. But however far right he drifts on those issues -- which, under a Democratic Congress, he won't be voting on because they won't be brought to floor -- he's notably left on economic issues. Today, for instance, he's giving a press conference under the auspices of the United Steelworkers with Great Liberal Hope Sherrod Brown, where they'll discuss the need for new trade policies and their success in making active opposition to NAFTA a winning issue. That's not centrist Democrat. It's not moderate liberal. That's populism, kids, and it's leftier than polite company has allowed for quite some time.
So is Shuler rightwing? Seems like a tough case to me. Sherrod Brown? Liberal as they come. Defeating South Dakota's abortion ban initiative? Passing Missouri's stem cell initiative? All those progressives who toppled liberal Republicans in the Northeast? Somebody think they won in the blue bastions with roaring conservatism? Meanwhile, the most conservative of the serious Democratic challengers this cycle, Harold Ford, went down to defeat. Bravely fought race, tough environs, etc. But with an out-and-out liberal winning Ohio and a right-of-center Democrat losing Tennessee, we're really going to call this election for conservatism?
I don't think so. That distorted interpretation is being promoted by an array of rightwingers and self-styled centrists anxious to constrain the new majority's perceived range of motion. Some of them are conservatives trying to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat. Others are "centrist" Democrats look to grad defeat from the jaws of victory. Both are, for ideological reasons, afraid that a Democratic majority will govern like...Democrats. And make no mistake: They'll convince no small number of Democrats to eschew any such legislative style. But if the country had wanted a continuation of conservative rule, they would have voted for it. Instead, they voted Democratic. And their elects should give them what they asked for.
Regular readers know which side I'm on. It will be interesting to see how this plays out, especially in light of all the hyperventilating about the 2008 presidential election that has already begun. But Klein makes one excellent point that is worth remembering in all of this: with the Dems controlling Congress (and this would still be the case even if they only had control of the House), they can set the political agenda. Bye-bye, "cultural" issues. If the GOP wants to run on flag-burning and gay marriage in 08, they'll have to resurrect those issues themselves. Meanwhile, if the Democrats do their job, the Republicans won't just have to bring them back to people's attention, but convince them that gays and stem cells should be more important to them than keeping their heads above water financially.