As the Democrats regain control of Congress for the first time in 12 years, the party leaders still don’t seem to understand the forces that sent them into the wilderness in 1994 or the reasons they were summoned back in 2006.

Typical of their cluelessness was a “100 Hours Survey” distributed by the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee in mid-December. The survey asked Democratic contributors to rank nine priority issues in order of importance for the new Congress.

The issues included raising the minimum wage, financing stem-cell research, revising the Medicare prescription drug program and stiffening ethics rules. The only national security issue on the list was the implementation of all the remaining – but unspecified – recommendations of the 9/11 Commission.

No reference was made to ending the Iraq War, launching investigative hearings on President George W. Bush’s actions, reasserting checks and balances on the Executive, or restoring constitutional safeguards that have been overridden during the “war on terror,” such as the habeas corpus right to a fair trial.

Though many issues on the DCCC’s priority list surely have merit, what’s missing is any commitment to the larger purpose of the American Republic.

The Democratic leaders have yet to grasp that the transcendent principles of democracy were a major factor in the national rejection of Bush and the Republican congressional majority on Nov. 7.

Many traditional conservatives and libertarians, who normally vote Republican, switched their allegiances or stayed home out of disdain for the authoritarian tendencies of the Bush administration and the failure of the congressional Republicans to conduct any meaningful oversight.

These right-of-center voters shared the alarm of many liberals and independents over Bush’s assertion of “plenary” – or unlimited – powers for the duration of the interminable “war on terror”; his abrogation of constitutional rights; his “signing statements” that set aside laws; and his excessive secrecy that often left the American people in the dark.

These voters from across the political spectrum – what might be called the “constitutionalist bloc” – were offended, too, by neoconservative hubris that treated average citizens as children to be frightened with color-coded terror alerts and tricked them into surrendering their liberties.

And these voters were fed up with the lies and exaggerations that sent thousands of American soldiers and hundreds of thousands of Iraqis to their deaths in the misbegotten Iraq War

A New Hope

Thus, the Nov. 7 election held out hope for a new national consensus, pulling together Americans of all political stripes who share a deep reverence for the founding principles of the Republic and who viewed Bush as a threat to what they held most dear. For this voting bloc, all other issues paled by comparison.

Though the congressional Democrats may not have known what was happening – and did little to actively encourage it – they rode this patriotic wave to victory. In the nearly two months since, however, they have largely turned their backs on these voters.

As the Washington Post noted, “Nowhere in the Democrats’ consensus-driven agenda is legislation revisiting last year’s establishment of military tribunals and suspending legal rights for suspected terrorists. Nor is there a revision of the civil liberties provisions of the USA Patriot Act, a measure curbing warrantless wiretapping by the National Security Agency or an aggressive confrontation of the President on his Iraq War policies.”

Some congressional Democrats are even treating this “constitutionalist bloc” as irresponsible and quirky, comparing these voters to Republican Right activists who demanded gay-marriage bans and other “values” legislation regardless of the harm being done to the GOP.

“The Democrats have to be careful not to fall into these traps that I think paralyzed the Republicans,” said Sen.-elect Benjamin Cardin, D-Maryland. [Washington Post, Jan. 3, 2007]

So, instead of addressing the profound constitutional issues from the “war on terror” or holding Bush accountable for abusing his powers, the Democrats have set up a buffet of poll-tested social programs sure to please Democratic Party interest groups while not offending too many other Americans.

This Democratic notion that what matters to Americans is an agenda to meet their physical needs may represent a fatal flaw in the party. Democratic leaders miss the philosophical element of the American spirit through which citizens define themselves as participants in a grand experiment of democracy.

Therefore, the Democratic leaders play down the importance of demanding honest information or holding government officials accountable. The Democrats tend to see these goals as luxuries to be abandoned when they threaten the political comity supposedly needed for the creation of new government programs.

For instance, after the Democrats carried both houses of Congress in 1992 and Bill Clinton won the presidency, they sat back passively as lame-duck President George H.W. Bush scuttled the Iran-Contra investigation by pardoning six defendants.

In his 2004 memoirs, My Life, Clinton said he “disagreed with the pardons and could have made more of them but didn’t.” Clinton cited several reasons for giving his predecessor a pass.

“I wanted the country to be more united, not more divided,” Clinton wrote. “Finally, President Bush had given decades of service to our country, and I thought we should allow him to retire in peace, leaving the matter between him and his conscience.”

Also left to disappear under the waves of Democratic neglect were other historic scandals, such as Iran-Contra’s prequel, the October Surprise mystery of the 1980 election, and the Iraqgate operation of covertly aiding Saddam Hussein’s military during the Iran-Iraq War.  [For details, see Robert Parry’s Secrecy & Privilege.]

Clinton’s Agenda

Clinton and the congressional Democrats viewed these investigations into covert and illegal polices as distractions from the prospect of passing national health insurance and other social legislation. The Democratic leaders traded a truthful record of historic events for the vain hope of securing a measure of bipartisanship on Clinton’s agenda.

The strategy backfired. Republicans reacted to the Democratic dismissal of the Reagan-Bush scandals as vindication and soon pressed for probes of Clinton’s alleged misdeeds, such as his Whitewater real-estate deal and the White House travel office firings.

Within a year, many voters saw the Republicans as the principled politicians fighting for clean government and the Democrats as corrupt hacks with a lot to cover up. The “Clinton scandals” energized the Republican base, demoralized many rank-and-file Democrats and convinced many independents to vote for the GOP.

In 1994, the Republicans overwhelmed the Democrats in the congressional elections and then kept control of the House and the Senate – except for a brief period in 2001-02 – for a dozen years.

That GOP reign ended only when voters began to judge one-party domination of Washington – and Bush’s assertion of “plenary” powers – as threats to the Republic. Acting as virtually the last check and balance in the American political process, the voters threw the Republicans out on Nov. 7.

But the Democrats continue to draw all the wrong lessons.

Instead of respecting the devotion that many voters feel toward the Constitution – and seeing how that sentiment could be a unifying force for a new national consensus – the Democratic leaders think it’s time again to offer up more social programs.

The Democratic leaders don’t even seem capable of mounting a spirited fight against Bush’s plan to escalate the Iraq War despite the clear will of the voters, the recommendations of the bipartisan Iraq Study Group, and the advice of Bush’s own military commanders.

The Democrats just can’t kick their old habit of treating Americans like consumers, rather than citizens.

If the congressional Democrats don’t change their ways soon, they will have alienated not only much of their own base but many of the independents and traditional conservatives who hoped the Democrats could rise above their old-fashioned interest-group politics.

A promising opportunity for a new national unity – derived from the founding principles of the nation – will have been squandered.

Robert Parry broke many of the Iran-Contra stories in the 1980s for the Associated Press and Newsweek. His latest book, Secrecy & Privilege: Rise of the Bush Dynasty from Watergate to Iraq, can be ordered at secrecyandprivilege.com. It's also available at Amazon.com, as is his 1999 book, Lost History: Contras, Cocaine, the Press & 'Project Truth.'

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