I noted in my last post that the fall-back attack line the GOP is pursuing on Kerry and Edwards in addition to the "flip-flop" charge is to accuse the Democrats of being old-fashioned tax-and-spend, Big Government liberals who are also weak on defense. But while these would appear to be logically inconsistent charges, there is a theme that connects them: Democrats are the party of Washington, where Big Government and duplicity go hand in hand. This theme, moreover, enables Bush to avoid responsibility for the performance of the federal government on his watch, and to pose once again as a "reformer" struggling against high odds to fix the mess on the Potomac.
From any objective point of view, this line of argument is truly grotesque. Republicans completely control the executive and legislative branches of the federal government (and arguably, viz. Bush v. Gore, the judicial branch as well). And they are running Washington with a degree of partisanship, ideological zeal, and power-lust that exceeds the worst excesses of the long period of Democratic control. The GOPers have deliberately engineered budget deficits through both tax and spending policies. The size of the federal workforce is rising again after declining during the Clinton years, even if you don't count the explosion of federal contractors. Both these trends are reflected in the robust economy of the DC area, where the theme song of Republican rule could be Happy Days Are Here Again.
So: why isn't every Democratic candidate for federal office railing against those WashingtonRepublicans? It's a mystery even deeper than Al Gore's reluctance to run on the successful record of his own administration in 2000. I discuss this anomaly incessantly with a wide array of Republicans (who chuckle happily about it) and Democrats, and have heard two basic theories. One is that Democrats believe government is "their" institution, even if they don't control it. The other is that they believe bashing Washington will discourage the Democratic "base," and have decided instead to bash corporations like Enron and Halliburton.
I hope the first theory isn't true, because it actually reinforces the Republican claim to be the anti-Washington party, even as they swell with the power and influence of controlling Washington top to bottom. And the second theory reflects an understanding of the electorate that's simply wrong.
As a soon-to-be-released DLC study will show, both independent voters and "peripheral" voters (those who often don't vote but might--i.e., the object of Democratic turnout efforts) lean towards Democrats in favoring an activist government that tries to address big national challenges. But they also are hostile to government as an institution, and want to be reassured that government can be made efficient and responsible for results. In other words, exploiting Republican control of a big, fat, debt-ridden government that doesn't accomplish much of anything is a message that helps Democrats with both of their big targets in this election cycle.
The DLC has long argued that Democrats need to understand that anti-government populism trumps anti-corporate populism, every day of the week. But this year, Democrats don't have to choose: Republicans are using big government to entrench economic privilege. The GOP is on the horns of a dilemma, and Democrats would be smart to keep them there rather than letting them pretend they care about Big Business more than the Big Government they have placed at its service.
Perhaps the sheer hubris of Republican claims of hostility to Washington will wake Democrats up to the political opportunity they have been given, and to the political liability they invite if they pretend the federal government is still "theirs." Letting a party led by George W. Bush, Tom DeLay and Rick Santorum pose as brave reformers of a corrupt Imperial City is just plain wrong.