Campaigns/Elections

Midterm Muddle Dazes Dems

Affordable broadband! Unionizing rights! A floundering party's jellyfish proposals

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Hey, do you remember that big, bold, political platform that House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) outlined last week in a long-awaited speech? You know, the visionary plan that will—finally!—allow the ultra-beneficent party of Thomas Jefferson, Andrew Jackson, and Robert Byrd to unseat the pure-evil party of Abraham Lincoln, Herbert Hoover, and Richard Nixon this November?

Neither do I, because Pelosi has yet to reveal the Dems' much-rumored, highly anticipated (by the press, and maybe by Pelosi's immediate family), election-year agenda that will kick the GOP back into a minority in the House and Senate and set the stage for retaking the White House come 2008. Screw it all that the plan was supposed to be unleashed last fall, so that the slow-to-wisdom American people would have a full year to strap their hands across its engines and learn to love the nuts and bolts of it all.

Really, as winter turns to spring, and spring turns into summer, and summer turns into whatever comes after summer, what's the rush? Especially considering that the GOP is going down in the polls faster than Divine Brown on a stammering English movie fop. George W. Bush has an approval rating (40 percent) that's barely half of John Kerry's moron-level grades at Yale*, and the Republican Congress is doing even worse, chalking up a measly 30 percent approval rating.

So maybe Pelosi knew what she was doing last week while yammering on at a meeting of the Communications Workers of America. Instead of wooing would-be voters with something innovative and bold in her March 14 talk, she rummaged through the Donkey Party's deep freezer and served up a bunch of really old pieces of mystery meat whose expiration dates weren't quite clear. Among them: the right of all Americans to join a labor union (really, the last remaining Pinkertons among us must be quaking in fear); ending tax subsidies for companies that "outsource" jobs to foreign countries (never mind that outsourcing within the U.S. is far more rampant—and a source of job growth, to boot); and an increase in the minimum wage (alas, arch-conservative Republican Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania has already stolen the thunder on that particular issue).

But let's not skip over the Dems' "Innovation Agenda," whose centerpiece is guaranteed "affordable" access to broadband within five years. That's such a great idea, by the way, that it's already happening, sans any government largesse: Red Herring reports that broadband use jacked 28 percent over the past year, with nearly 100 million Americans now in the fast lane on the good old Information Superhighway.

With ideas—using the term loosely—like these in play, it's inconceivable that the Dems will pull off a 1994-style electoral coup this November. A dozen years ago, against all predictions, the GOP gained 52 seats in the House and picked up control of Congress. As Slate's John Dickerson has noted that's just not going to happen this time around, if only because many fewer races in both the House and Senate are in play. As important, the 1994 Republican stampede was underwritten to a significant degree by the much-derided Contract With America, which captured the voting public's imagination by offering a set of clearly defined, ideologically coherent (and attractive) propositions. (Let's ignore for the time being whether the GOP delivered on its promises.)

It's still possible that the GOP will cut its own throat come the midterm elections, thus making the Dems' strategery of sitting on their hands look wise. Certainly George Bush has squandered whatever "political capital" he thought he had in his pocket at the start of his second term (he shouldn't have put all of it in the pants pocket with the hole in it). The Abramoff scandal may turn out to be a slow bleed and the war in Iraq is already at least that. The Republican leadership—it's hard to remember just who the hell they are, isn't it?—are the grayest pack of pols since Brezhnev-era apparatchiks filled out photos in the old Soviet Union.

But general GOP fecklessness is no excuse for the dreary, content-free permanent anti-campaign currently being waged by the Democrats. Pelosi, Nevada Sen. Harry Reid (is he still a big Harriet Miers fan, a perplexed nation asks?), and other top Dems are laying down on the job more than Ronald Reagan ever did. Not that they're asking, but here's some free advice for them: Read Chapter 5 in Bruce Bartlett's Impostor: How George W. Bush Bankrupted America and Betrayed the Reagan Legacy and reclaim the Democrat's historical role as the party of free trade.

As someone who would never join a party that once provided a cozy home to Strom Thurmond—a principled position that keeps me equidistant from both the Democrats and the Republicans—my interest in seeing Pelosi's posse show some sign of brain activity has nothing to do with partisanship. If anything, it has to do with patriotism. Partly due to our electoral system and partly due to tradition, I know that the U.S. will never be a multi-party polity. But aren't we supposed to live in a two-party system? The Democratic Party's Gerry Cooney–level performance leaves the country at least one party short. And however disastrous the absence of serious debate over politics and policy may or may not be for the Democrats, it's a real loss for all of us.

Correction: Kerry's alma mater was initially (and mistakenly) identified as Harvard.

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