It's not only generals who make the mistaking of "fighting the last war," politicians often do too. Democrats are doing just that right now.
Over the past few months leading members of both parties have been busy repositioning for the Big Show in '08. Hillary Clinton skittered to the right, making her left-liberal base nervous dropping hints she's not unconditionally pro-choice. She suggested that pro-choice Dems need to find common ground with anti-choice voters. Within days DNC chairman Howard Dean echoed those sentiments, gratuitously adding that plenty of Dem pols also love Jesus.
The flip-side of all that was happening on the right. A couple of weeks ago Republican Senate Majority Leader, Bill Frist, unsettled right wingers by backing expanded fetal stem cell research.
Ah, the Game is afoot! And, once again, the GOP is poised to bamboozle hapless Dems. Here's why.
For decades Republicans used the Supreme Court and the Roe v. Wade decision as a powerful organizing tool. It wasn't the Supreme Court itself that made abortion legal, they would say, but liberal Democrats, like Johnson, Carter and Clinton, who appointed "activist" judges. Want to change that? Elect Republicans who will appoint conservative judges, who in turn will overturn Roe and other offending liberal precedents.
Republican candidates even used language against their opponents. Democrats were not "pro-choice," they were "pro-abortion," a stupefying twist of logic that, if applied to other medical procedures made doctors, "pro-hysterectomy," and dentists "pro-root canal." It was pure Orwellian genius.
Democrats quickly found themselves boxed in. They had to stand firm on a woman's right to choose, not just because it was the right thing to do, but because their base demanded it. Democratic candidates, voters were told, were the only thing that stood between their rights and a conservative Supreme Court that would turn the clock back on women's rights.
But now the field of battle has changed in a very signifcant way. As I noted in an earlier post, Republicans have won the political (if not moral) high-ground. Bush has a virtually free hand appointing conservative justices to federal circuit courts. Democrats fought a short but failed rearguard action that petered out this spring with a face-saving, but largely meaningless, "compromise." Conservative judicial appointments will roll on for three more years.
The right is now less than six months away from achieving their decades-long dream of stacking the US Supreme Court. And with that they know that Roe v. Wade will, over the next few years, be whittled down to a tumultuous footnote in American judicial history. Decision by decision the Court will shift the fate of women's reproductive rights back to the states where conservative groups lay in wait to whittle them further.
Democrats and the media completely missed the point of Bill Frist's stem cell "bombshell." Now that the federal judiciary has been stacked with conservative jurists, the GOP is finally free to begin broadening their base beyond the religious right. And that's what Frist was doing.
Moving to the center on such a hot button issue as stem cell research would have been risky four years ago for even the most power Republican. But today the political calculation is different. First, who did Frist piss off with his stem cell gambit? Only those at the extreme right, like members of the Family Research Council and their ilk. Any votes Frist lost from those whackjobs he will double with votes from voters happy to see a Republican finally standing up to those annoying, holier than thou bullies.
GOP candidates can now, for the first time in decades, safely fish in pro-choice waters for converts. Not converts to the anti-choice position, because they no longer have to, that bird is in hand now. Rather they can fish for converts with a "broader, kinder, gentler, inclusive" GOP message and candidates.
Also part of the new GOP calculation are polls showing that voters across the political spectrum are growing uneasy with the current crop of pro-corporation, pro-wealthy, swaggering neo-cons currently in charge. They see an opening for less ideologically driven candidates like John McCain and Rudolph Guliani.
Dems don't seem see any of this. Last week I was a guest on an Los Angeles radio talk show hosted by a Democrat stalwart. I asked what he thought would happen if a Hillary ticket was pitted against a McCain/Guliani ticket. He dismissed the question out of hand noting that "neither of those two guys would survive the GOP primary process." Why? Because they were "too liberal, and Guiliani is both pro-choice and an advocate of gay rights."
Well, he is wrong. Dead wrong. And he's not alone. The establishment wing of the Democratic Party,( including it's new chairman, Howard Dean,) continue fighting the last war, moving to the right at the very moment the right – and a big hunk of their voters, are moving leftward. Frist, Guliani and McCain get that.
Come November 2008, voters will have to chose between a moderate Republican who does not espouse anti-choice venom, and a Democrat who is allegedly "reaching out to pro-life voters." Even if the political landscape on choice had not shifted, it is unlikely pro-lifers would vote for a Democrat just because he/she pretended they were open to restricting a woman's right to choose. But that issue is not even on the table any longer. Federal judges and state legislators, not the President or Congress will be making those decisions for the next thirty years.
Ah, but what about fetal stem cell research? Isn't that just as hot a button as abortion was? No, and this is why -- Republicans -- includng pro-lifers -- get sick just like everyone else. And, while middle class anti-choice parents know they can always get an abortion for their pregnant daughter, regardless of the law, they also know they can't invent a cures for deadly deceases, diseases that can kill their kids, their spouses and them. So, you see, their stated dedication to the unborn is highly conditional. It only took watching her husband die by a thousand cuts to change Nancy Reagan's mind about morality of fetal stem cell research.
Recent polls show that 70% of Americans support fetal stem cell research clearly indicating that support for fetal stem cell research crosses political, ideological and religious lines. (That's the kind of result you would see for the pro-choice position only if men could get pregnant.) Anyway, Frist saw those polls too.
So, what am I saying? Simply this. The GOP is outflanking hapless Democrats once again. While Hillary and Dean are making goo-goo eyes at religious right voters and pissing off their loyal pro-choice base, the GOP has moved beyond that issue. The fate of abortion rights is, so to speak, in the bag. Now the GO is free to field candidates with broader voter appeal, and they will. And, it can work.
Guiliani, for example, will appeal to those voters who in the 1980s were dubbed, "Reagan Democrats," blue collar, "patriotic," working middle Americans. They may be mad at Bush for outsourcing and tax cuts for the rich, but all that will be quickly forgotten once the silver-tongued GOP hero-mayor of 9/11 begins campaigning.
And it won't just be conservative Democrats who would be tempted by something like a Giliani/Frist ticket. There's also what I call the "great and growing Democrat Diaspora," disenchanted with the stodgy and corrupt DNC, contemptuous of the triangulating DLC, and hungry for candidates that break the mold. Say hello to GOP maverick Republican John McCain.
Ask yourself, do you really believe for a second that a Hillary & Whoever ticket would have a chance against a McCain/Guliani ticket? Forgetaboutit. It would be a rout.
That's why I say the Democrats are fighting the last war. And, unless they wake up quickly they will lose the next one. (Another one.)
Apparently I am not alone in seeing this danger. This week Senator Joe Biden, D-Del, hinted that he would be open to a Biden/McCain ticket. I would suspect though that, if McCain were at all inclined in that direction, he would likely prefer a McCain/Biden ticket.
Either way, if I'm right about all this, that kind of bipartisan combo may be the only way a Democrat gets within spitting distance of the Oval Office in '08.