Reform: Permanent majority? What permanent majority? I got your permanent majority right here.

The following quote from Mark Weisbrot of the Center for Economic and Policy Research is being widely circulated on the Left, for obvious reasons. Me, I have déjà vu:
The Republican party is obviously in disarray as it faces the threat of becoming a permanent minority party. Its hold on power prior to 2008 was based on a fake "populist" appeal to white working class voters - the biggest block of swing voters in most presidential elections during the last four decades. But issues such as gay marriage, guns, abortion, and whether "liberal elites" shared "our values," have lost resonance since the economy collapsed.
Weisbrot's comments were brought on by "the right's rapid and persistent response to Obama's remarks" about the arrest of Henry Louis Gates and the subsequent efforts by Republicans to consolidate their base yet again around an issue involving race. "They don't have much else to run with right now."

You could say as credibly that they haven't had anything to run on for decades. This hasn't kept them from winning policy fights, and it doesn't keep them from controlling the debate. Obama is a tax and spend liberal. Health care reform is too big, too ambitious, too expensive, too rushed; it will take away your current coverage and lead to health care rationing.The budget is the most radical in our history. The budget is the most reckless and irresponsible in our history. This is the most politically obsessed White House in our history. Obama is not a Christian. Obama is not a real American, literally: he's not native born. Health insurance reform is a plot to save money and cull the herd by persuading the elderly to commit suicide.
This is where a reasonable, intelligent, ethical person, say your typical blue-state Democrat, is at a disadvantage. Take health care for the elderly. First the conservatives attack the majority for spending too much keeping old folks alive, then they turn around and bash their opponents for coming up with a plan to kill them.  If you don't care what you say, you can always say something, even if it's nonsense, a tissue of lies, or dead wrong.

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When Bill Clinton entered the White House, many progressives thought they saw the birthing of a new era. Two years later, in the face of a relentless assault from conservatives, disappointment with government by triangulation, and the health care debacle, the Republicans seized Congress under the flag of the Contract With America. From gays in the military through Monica Lewinsky to stealing the furniture on their way out the White House door, for eight years the Democrats were hammered with non-issues.

By the time George the Younger beat Al Gore, conservatives were confident enough to talk plausibly about a permanent Republican majority. There may be a teachable moment in how that worked out for them.

But if lessons therein reside, there is precious little comfort for progressives in conservative disarray. Fun as they are to watch, Republican pratfalls mask the fact that, in terms of policy, not much has changed: no matter which party nominally is in control, the permanent conservative majority holds sway; cash money, not ideas or morality, remains the chief currency on Capitol Hill; and militarism is strikingly resistant to reform. To make matters worse, as Clinton's presidency demonstrated and Obama's is reaffirming, when the White House is inhabited by a moderate Democrat, the fight goes out of progressive legislators (this is not to say there no differences between the parties: the Republicans under Bush and Gingrich had plenty of opportunity to take care of veterans, for example, but it was Democrats who advanced the new GI Bill that went into effect last weekend). But though the government may be better run under Democrats, the so-called party of the people is only marginally interested in making things more democratic and more accountable.

You can mock the Right's "fake 'populist' appeal," but it doesn't mean it won't be effective against the Democrats' fake populist appeal. It's the Democrats, after all, who run every election on the promise of economic justice, and then after they win say, what, you thought we were serious? The Republicans don't care what comes out of their mouths. Gay marriage not threatening anymore? Forget about it: Health care reform is a socialist plot. Abortion not getting the juices flowing? Time to move on: Obama hates cops. Laugh as you will at Newt Gingrich's American Solutions for Winning the Future, but you're whistling past the graveyard if you think his mantra of "Jobs Here, Jobs Now, Jobs First" has no traction.

It is important to remember that it took the political equivalent of a perfect storm for Barack Obama to win the presidency. He was astonishingly lucky. Lucky in his predecessor. Lucky in his opponents. Lucky in the timing of the economic collapse. Lucky that so many voters  wanted change so passionately they were willing to project their hopes and dreams on the blank screen of his candidacy. And yet, on their way to winning, the Democratic ticket didn't manage to crack 53%.  If the Democrats couldn't crush broke, crazy John McCain and Sarah Palin like bugs, what chance do they have against the plague of lobbyists, reactionaries, lockstep idealogues, corrupt politicos, corporate shills, fear-mongers, race-baiters, charlatans and thieves who have descended on the administration like locusts on a field of new corn?

That the Democrats will emerge weakened from the 2010 election is incontestable; they could even lose the House, just as they did in 1994.  The Democrats will "own" everything: the war in Afghanistan and Pakistan; bad, or no, health care; chronic unemployment; a paralyzing deficit.Why should we care, not about these problems but about the fortunes of the Democratic Party? If the Democrats can't provide universal single payer health care insurance, if they won't bring the troops home and rein in military spending, if they don't support the labor movement and aggressively attack joblessness and poverty, what will they have done to deserve support? A new poll by RasmussenReports finds that Republicans are prefered over Democrats 43% to 38. Since Democrats usually fare better in the polls than at the polls, the situation is likely worse than it appears. The perfect storm has passed.

The Democratic Party shows little interest in systemic change, beyond the occasional nod in the direction of campaign finance reform; but without profound changes in the ways our leaders are chosen and function, the hopes and dreams we fabricated for the Obama campaign will never come true. Particular proposals -- to dump the electoral college; to make the Senate more democratic - or get rid of it; to restrain executive power and return the legislative branch to its place as first among equals; to put an end to the influence of money on electing and on governing; to impose term limits on unelected judges; to introduce mechanisms like instant runoffs and proportional representation that tend toward democracy -- are not immediately at issue: the broader question is, are we ready to commit ourselves full bore to making this country more democratic?

It is past time to take another run at forming a party of the Left. Labor, environmentalists, rights advocates, educators, small business people, cash-strapped parents and home owners, and their ilk have more in common with each other than they do with Wall Street, the insurance parasites, agribusiness, oil and gas exploiters, and the rest of the profiteers and political camp followers grabbing at the public tit, to say nothing of the likes of Joe Lieberman and the Blue Dogs.  Let's stop wasting time servicing either of the corporate parties, except in relation to particular legislation we favor, and build a new one.  Let the Republicans hold up the banner of the Right, and make sure the Blue Dogs can find the sign-up sheet. Cede the center to Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid. And on the left, create a political home for politicians willing to fight for progressive ideals. If they came from a secure, independent power base, the Lynn Woolseys and Maxine Waterses and Pete Starks and Dennis Kuciniches would be courted by congressional leadership instead of being taken for granted. Parties that stand for nothing are unaccountable (and a party that, say, embraces both Arlen Specter and Russell Feingold can't fairly be said to stand for anything). With clearer choices between ideologically defined parties, voters would be in a better position to get what they want or toss the bums out.

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