Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Swimming with Donkeys, Kicking Some Ass, Playing for Keeps (and a host of other metaphors)

This is a watershed moment for Democrats. At first blush, it might not feel that wet—the partisan Republicans packing the executive and judiciary branches are, after all, strong bulwarks against a progressive tide—or it might only feel that certain kind of wet one might get in a pissing match (a frame the establishment media is all too eager to put around the conflict between the new majority party in Congress and the dead-enders in the White House). But, this is not a pissing match, nor is it a time to tread water—how the congressional Democrats behave during the remainder of this session will define this generation of politicians for scores of Americans and set the tone for the ’08 election cycle.

Drew Weston, writing for the American Prospect, puts it like this:

The way Democrats handle their confrontation with the White House on the firing of the U.S. attorneys is as important to the party's brand on national defense as the way they handle the confrontation on the funding of the Iraq War itself. Why? Because it sends a meta-message about how they handle confrontations. The willingness of Democratic leaders such as Chuck Schumer, Harry Reid, and Nancy Pelosi to stare down the president has done far more to reassure the American people that Democrats know how to deal with aggression than all the efforts over the last five years to show that they, too, "support our troops."

I will take Weston’s insight a step further: How the Democrats confront the White House on all matters of oversight—investigating the administration’s deception in the run-up to the Iraq war, uncovering the warrantless domestic spying program(s), closing Guantanamo, ending torture and extraordinary rendition, restoring habeas rights, exposing the failures that lead to the Katrina disaster and continue to hamper Gulf Coast recovery, attempting to correct the partisan politicization of the civil rights division at the Department of Justice and the General Services Administration, prosecuting the influence peddling, cronyism, and outright larceny that has touched the Pentagon, the CIA, Commerce, DHS, the Department of the Interior, the EPA, and many more—will go a very long way to defining the Democrats as a positive force, and not just an opposition party.

Perhaps that seems strange at first—by opposing the Republican agenda, the Democrats transcend their oppositional branding—but if framed, communicated, and executed with the American people (dare I say, “the consumer”) in mind, Democrats can quickly move past saying “no,” move past being perceived as “not Republicans,” and gain brand equity as a force for constructive and noticeable change.

In other words, simply being a “not” brand is not a good positioning for Democrats. “Not” brands are weak brands—defined by their antagonist, reactive at best, reactionary at their worst. There is little that is aspirational in such a positioning; you are the lesser of two evils.

But by standing up for our Constitution, for the rule of law, for a guarantee that every vote counts, for a government for and by the people, for the right to privacy, for accountability and an honest government, the Democratic Party marries itself to the sort of iconic American values that countless beltway strategists have (wrongly) ceded to Republicans for the last decade. Being the party of the country that we set out to be two-and-a-quarter centuries ago, the country that we can be proud to be today, will go further to garner the support of so-called “values voters” than any twisted triangulation on the role of the New Testament in civil society.

And, by standing firm for the ideals laid out in the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, and against the Republican executive’s attempts to degrade them, Democrats not only show what they are fighting for and who they are fighting for, but, that, when the fighting gets tough, they will stand their ground.

By continuing to hammer the Bush Administration and its enablers on the issues outlined above—as well as on the need for national healthcare and a living wage—Democrats will show that Americans have an ally in the everyday struggle for a better life—an ally that won’t cut and run or compromise on core values. There is no negotiating Liberty, after all, and it doesn’t look good to try.

And, by continuing to investigate, hold hearings, reign in the executive—to check and balance—by continuing to pass legislation that benefits hardworking Americans, that represents the beliefs of the majority, even if these bills just meet with a presidential veto, then Democrats will demonstrate strength far more effectively than any photo-op on an aircraft carrier.

If they can do this, Democrats will not only shed light on and throw up roadblocks to the rightwing agenda, and win the hearts of voters, they will do something almost as satisfying—they will disarm beltway blowhards. When you are acting on the instructions of the American majority, when you are advocating for the broad interests of the American people, then you are no longer engaged in a simple pissing match. When your special interest is the Constitution and the people it protects, it is not politics as usual.

Fail to stand tall, however, and you confirm every prejudice of the Paleolithic punditocracy. Talk loudly, but eventually whittle down your stick to something smaller than a souvenir miniature baseball bat, all in the interest of being seen as a team player, and you will soon find yourself handling the leather instead of the wood. You will be back on defense. It’s all a game; you’ll get ‘em next time.

Or, to go back and torture my opening metaphor, if Democrats lack the strong kick to swim with the progressive current, they will again be back to carrying the Republicans’ water, and 2006 will look like just another unremarkable high tide, rather than a defining sea change.

Or, let me put it yet another way: Don’t play for time—play for keeps.

(cross-posted to Daily Kos)

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