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Democrats, Don't Wimp Out

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All over Washington, the sage barons of the establishment media are warning Democrats not to get cocky. Don't move too fast, they say. Don't push a bunch of wacky, left-wing ideas. Seek compromise, give ground, hew to the center, for only there lies the greatest prize of all: the praise of David Broder and Joe Klein, the nodding approval of the Washington Post editorial page, the admiration the Beltway cognoscenti reserve for those who know their place and know whose rings they should be kissing.

Bull. What Democrats need to do is spend the next two years crushing their opponents like bugs. It's not about mercy, it's not about manners, it's about three fundamental goals: limiting the damage the Bush administration can do, passing whatever legislation they can in the short term to help the American public and laying the foundation for future progressive victories.

Democrats finally have the upper hand, and now's the time to use it. Here are a few things they can do to get started.

1. Investigate-- But Smartly

The combination of the most secretive administration in modern times and the most supine Congress in memory meant that Congressional oversight utterly disappeared over the last six years. Democrats have an obligation-- to the people that elected them, and to democracy itself-- to make up for lost time. Investigations should be rolled out on a carefully planned schedule, to maximize both news coverage and pressure on the administration.

But that doesn't mean they should simply investigate anything and everything for no purpose other than laying siege to the White House. As the Boston Globe reported last November, when Bill Clinton was president the Republicans took 140 hours of sworn testimony on the pressing issue of whether the administration had mined the White House Christmas card list for potential donors. Yet they took only 12 hours of testimony on the Abu Ghraib scandal. "The government reform panel alone," they wrote, "issued 1,052 subpoenas related to investigations of the Clinton administration and the Democratic National Committee from 1997 to 2002, and only 11 subpoenas related to allegations of Republican abuse."

Democrats could distinguish themselves from the excesses and omissions of their predecessors by focusing on one new investigation to be started each month. Iraq, corruption and the administration's unwillingness to abide by the Constitution are the three areas that most cry out for oversight-- and it wouldn't hurt to add an investigation of Republican dirty tricks during this past election (Rick Perlstein has a good rundown of the horrors that went on here.) Goodness knows, it won't be hard to come up with 24 things to investigate between now and the 2008 election. Which leads us to...

2. Don't Be Afraid to Pick Fights

The White House will resist any effort to subpoena documents and testimony on the matters Democrats want to investigate. So Democrats should let them. Let them proclaim that they are above the law. Let them initiate a constitutional crisis. Let them take it all the way the Supreme Court. The resulting controversy will help Americans understand the deep anti-democratic strain that rushes through the arteries of this administration like a virus.

And Democrats should find every opportunity they can to embarrass Republicans by forcing them into uncomfortable votes. On the first item on the Democrats' agenda-- raising the minimum wage-- it looks as though President Bush is going to do what he often does when backed into a corner: surrender, then claim victory. Democrats should welcome his capitulation, but make sure to characterize it as such. Thanks for finally giving millions of hard-working Americans a break, Mr. President, but it's too bad it took you six years and a thumping at the polls to be forced into it.

The prospects for another of their agenda items, enabling the federal government to negotiate lower prices for prescription drugs under Medicare, look far tougher. But Democrats should wage the fight anyway. Two outcomes are equally likely: Either they won't be able to pass such a bill in both houses, or they'll pass a bill and Bush will veto it. Either way, it shows whose side they're on, and whose side the Republicans are on.

Bush also said he wanted to reintroduce his plan to partially privatize Social Security. The defeat he suffered the first time around on this issue was one of the key events leading to the Democrats' victory. It showed them that when they stay united and make a stand on fundamental progressive values, they win. It also showed them that they could ignore the pleas of the "sensible" centrist talking heads scolding them for not having a "plan" of their own. So they should dare Bush to try again. "Let's talk about your Social Security privatization plan, Mr. President. Bring it on."

3. Boycott Fox

The Fox News Channel has been a reliable megaphone for White House talking points, a veritable RNC house organ proclaiming that Republicans are noble public servants and Democrats are whiny hippies who, if not engaged in an actual conspiracy with al-Qaida, are certainly serving the ends of America's enemies. It has also functioned as a safe haven for Republicans to run to when things look bad. Shoot a guy in the face, and you can do your first interview with Brit Hume, secure in the knowledge that he won't ask any tough questions.

So Democrats should say the following to Fox: You want to spread GOP propaganda all day? Be our guest. After all, it's a free country. But don't expect any Democratic newsmakers to legitimize you with their presence. We'll go on every other network, be interviewed by every legitimate news organization. But we don't consider ourselves under any obligation to pretend that buffoons like Sean Hannity, Bill O'Reilly and John Gibson are news professionals who deserve a moment of our time. We're not going to try to fight you; we'll just act like you don't exist.

This can be a lesson to the rest of the media-- not a threat, but an indication that they need to change the way they think about Democrats. For years, journalists have looked on Republicans as tough, smart and skilled-- in short, winners. Democrats, in turn, were viewed as wimpy, stupid and weak-- losers. If Democrats want the media to treat them like winners, they should start acting accordingly. Stop worrying about getting reporters to like you, and start thinking about getting them to respect you. And if the David Broders of the world start complaining that you aren't playing nice, that'll be evidence that you're doing something right.

4. Attack Conservatism

After President Reagan left office, a group of his supporters formed the Ronald Reagan Legacy Project, whose goal was to get something-- a school, a bridge, a building-- named after Reagan in every county in every state in America. Their goal was not just to honor a man they revered but to elevate Reaganism. If Reagan can become the name on every public works project, he moves out of the realm of contestation to achieve the kind of status accorded to figures like Kennedy and Roosevelt. We don't argue about whether Kennedy was a good president, we just accept it.

Democrats should do the same thing in reverse to the current president. The Bush Legacy Project should seek to make George W. Bush an albatross that can be strung around the neck of every Republican for many elections to come. They should continue to write books about how awful his presidency was, to heap ridicule on him, to make his name synonymous with incompetence and stupidity and corruption.

The message is this: When George W. Bush was president, conservatism failed and conservatism was rejected. Apart from "small government," conservatives enacted much of what they had been clamoring for for years. They slashed taxes on the wealthy. They ballooned defense spending. They got their war on Iraq. They ignored or cut back regulations on the environment and workers' rights. And what happened? The American people recoiled in disgust.

Democrats need to understand that they are engaged in a war of ideas, one that stretches far beyond any one Congress or presidency. In order to not just win today's victory but to make tomorrow's more likely, they have to continually discredit the other side's ideology. The fact is that conservative governance failed, not because of a run of bad luck or a few bad apples, but because it is deficient at its core.

Democrats can and should use the excesses of the Republicans they defeated as bludgeons against them. Katrina. Terri Schiaivo. Jack Abramoff. Mark Foley. George W. Bush. These names should be strung around Republicans' necks as often as possible, so Americans don't forget why they voted Democratic in the first place.

Democrats should wake up every day thinking, "How can we keep Republicans on the run?" Never give them a moment's rest, never let them advance their agenda, keep them on the defensive so they have to apologize for being the standard-bearers of a discredited ideology and a disgraced president. Do that, and every legislative battle and election to come will be that much more likely to swing in your favor.

Originally published at tompaine.com
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Paul Waldman is a senior fellow at Media Matters for America and the author of the new book, Being Right is Not Enough: What Progressives Can Learn From Conservative Success, just released by John Wiley & Sons. The views expressed here are his (more...)
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Democrats, Don't Wimp Out

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