Lessons for Democrats

Par David T. Jones le 5 février 2009

One of life's lessons is that no man stands so tall as when he puts the monkey on some one else's back.  Appreciating that sobriquet, "Bush 43" jets into history (or at least to Crawford Texas), and a chattering troop of simians have seated themselves on President Obama's shoulders.  Caging them, throttling them, or just enduring them are now the Democrats problem as for the first time since 1992, the Democrats control both the Congress and the Presidency.

Blaming the Republicans for the existence of monkeys is certainly a tried and true approach--and there will be much of it.  However, Americans are impatient people and having listened for eight years to Democrats excoriating Bush for existing (the last two years during which they controlled Congress), Amcits may relatively quickly conclude that the Bush administration is a dead horse in need of no further flogging and want to see the "Delivered by Democrats" progress report.   

But actually doing something rather than complaining about what others have not done is complex.  And the Democrats have a number of problems.  Their greatest problem is the known unknown—the executive quality of President Obama.  Is Barack Obama channeling Jimmy Carter (a feckless failure as a president who combined naivety and inexperience) or is he the incarnation of FDR, who inspired Americans in an era of severe economic and foreign challenge.  Canadians will have a  chance to see for themselves on February 19.

That said, there are some baseline observations for Democrats.  

--Hubris Has Dangers.  It was not irrelevant that a slave accompanied each recipient of a Roman triumph whispering in his ear, “You too are mortal.”  President Obama and his advisors have a taste for the grandiose that sometimes clanks rather than resounds.  The “Greek Temple” backdrop for his acceptance address in Denver was a masterpiece of stagecraft, but culturally inept.  And the 1.8 million acolytes on the Mall for the Inaugural mantra chanting “O-BAM-A” may remind some more of  Woodstock than an outpouring of democratic delight.  

-- Thus, Get Your Team Running Immediately.  Again, recent administrations have pretzeled themselves trying to vet bullet-proof nominees for Senate confirmation.  The result has been extended delay in putting second and third tier officials--the people who transform broad inaugural addresses into specific action agendas for now paralyzed bureaucrats--into their positions.  Democrats should admit there will be “gotcha” moments for appointees.  Rather than delay staffing key positions in the search for personality perfection, Democrats should take their casualties, throw the tainted to the wolves as they did with Governor Richardson's failed Commerce nomination, and get their team in the traces.  The perfect is always the enemy of the good; don't invest in specific personnel but in specific policies.

-- Focus/focus/focus.   There is a very limited window for a president to accomplish anything.  The president/team-of-rivals should not be thinking of what can be done in four years or in eight years, but in two--or less.  History has shown that a new president has a brief honeymoon during which the “shock and awe” of his election victory can drive through some controversial programs.  But the programs must be precise; taking the Paul Martin everything-is-a-priority or the reported massive Clinton transition binder labeled “Promises, Promises” approach guarantees nothing will get done. 

There is a sense the “muddle through the mess” approach to the economy will eventually succeed, but to date it has been “fits and starts” in policy—with a reversal for every initiative--and more hundreds of billions in the offing.  Instead of if-it-moves-throw-money-at-it economics, Obama should pick one big problem:  health care; social security reform; energy independence; etc, and pound that objective.  During the campaign, Obama over-promised; while the recession gives him an out (“it’s all Bush’s fault”), one big positive accomplishment is vital if he is to be more than just another politician.

And the emphasis must be domestic.  Unless another 9/11 distracts, foreign affairs can go on autopilot.  The Bush 43 national security policy needs tweaks, not reinvention:  keep drawing down in Iraq; build up in Afghanistan; negotiate on nukes with North Korea and Iran; remonstrate with Israelis and Arabs; and "feel the love" when traveling abroad (smile/smile/smile).

-- Hammer the Republicans.  With their victory, Democrats have their best opportunity in a generation to cripple the Republican/conservative movement, which is in the worst shape since 1964.  Politics, if not a “blood sport,” is definitely hard ball, and the time to kick your opponent is when he is down—to leave your marks on him so that his next encounter with you will prompt unpleasant memories.  Leaving some memorable marks on Republicans will be the joy and delight of partisan congressional Democrats.  Anyone who conceives bipartisanship is likely would believe a sex worker's professions of affection.

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