There's been a lot of pessimism on here recently, especially since it became almost certain that a Healthcare Reform Bill won't be passed before the Recess, and it has attracted those who are becoming sceptical of the Public Option as presented, those for whom only Single Payer would do, and those who feel that their wishlists are being neglected (LGBT rights comes to mind).
I think some of the pessimism is overplayed, but the doommongers do have a point: a much-loved new President with a mandate (at least in Electoral College Votes), a decent majority (recently increased) in the House, and a full 60 Democratic Senators in the US Senate. Most American Governors and State Legislators are Democrats, the party has bigger and better names on the bench than the GOP, and that party is tearing itself apart whilst having the least coherent policy platform for any time since Goldwater: why isn't this easier?!?!
And therein lies the problem. The GOP is wrong, categorically, on most of the contentious policy issues of the day. They are weak politically and electorally - at their lowest legislative ebb in decades. And yet still they are able to derail the centrepiece of what should be this Adminsitration's Legacy: universal healthcare.
Why? Well I've got a suggestion for you beneath the fold.
In 1997, the UK Labour Party took office in a Landslide after 18 long years of Conservative rule. The level of dissarray in the Tory Party was unparallelled in recent political history, with several of their most senior MPs being ousted, and their great hopes for future success (Michael Portillo) cruelly dumped on live television.
It took quite some getting used to the change - the words 'Conservative' and 'Tory' had been synonymous with 'Government' for so long, and the words 'Labour' synonymous with 'Opposition' for so long, that it took a while for it to seem..."normal" to have Labour MPs running the country.
The phenomenon, this shift in sense of normalcy, was hard for Labour, but harder still for the Conservatives. They flailed and thrashed around for 8 years trying to work out how to return to power. What underwrote that determination was the oft-quoted phrase in right-wing circles, that "the Conservatives were the natural party of Government".
I'm fascinated by this phrase, because it seems so counter-intuitive and so true. In theory, there is no reason why any party should have a claim to be the government, except a democratic victory and mandate. But this phrase wasn't anti-democratic (in that it opposed government by others), it simply described a view that - whilst allowing for other parties to rule, and for the Conservatives to serve penance in Opposition - that "aesthetically", all was right in the world when the popular will accorded with the natural order of things.
It would be easy to characterise this as some sort of 'divine right' and denounce the arrogance and the monarchic overtones, but the phrase was used begrudgingly by many on the Left as well, who saw their own side as natural insurgants and the prevailing orthodoxy of the Establishment. They, in error I believe, conceded that the Conservative Party was the natural party of government.
(Trying to explain this to an American friend, we were at an impasse, until he said - "Oh, you mean like the Yankees with the World Series". Other teams play, other teams win, but there is an aesthetic "rightness" about the Yankees being World Series Champions, and other teams share in that mythologising, independent of the Yankees' recent results. Apparently.)
This isn't a pre-ordained feature, of course. No party is launched, and can claim this crown. It is the result of history and sociology, and geography and demography. The Liberal Democratic Party of Japan can claim this, having ruled almost continuously since 1955, and the term has been used by the National Party in New Zealand as well.
My argument is two-fold:
Firstly, that the GOP is still (in spite of its recent losses in 2006 and 2008) perceived as the Natural Party of Government, even by those who disagree with it and vote against it.
Secondly, that in order for the Democratic Party to remain being politically successful, and to avoid defeats in 2010 and 2012, it needs to kill off this ethereal claim - which will take more than winning elections: the path to destroying this reputation and "becoming" 'the Natural Party of Government' might actually be to be bolder, and more daring in its legislative agenda: even where traditional psephology would indicate that loses you votes in the centre - I think that becoming the Natural Party of Government will bring more votes from the centre, even if the policy is more stridently left-wing.
Argument Number One
So - is the GOP the Natural Party of Government? I'd say probably so. It held possession of the White House for the majority of the post-WW II period, and 28 years of the last 40. Even when a Democrat was in the White House, it retained a stranglehold on one or both Houses of Congress. It enjoyed holding both Houses and the Presidency for 6 of the last 9 years, and had no qualms about imposing its agenda (usually legally, sometimes not). It waged war, it tinkered with Constitutional Rights, it threatened the Nuclear Option in the Senate, it ignored the Democratic Party wherever possible.
In short, it acted like a Government. There were excesses, there was a unity of purpose, there was no quarter given to the losing party, and there was a sense of swagger (or as they call it in Texas, walking).
That has an impact on the American psyche. The Democrats who did manage to win power since Nixon were cast as weak - Clinton's presidency strangled by HillaryCare and the Lewinsky Impeachment, and essentially over as soon as 1994's Contract with America was elected to run Congress. Carter's Presidency was bold in vision, but never projected power and control in the way that a Reagan or a Nixon did.
The 'Mommy' and 'Daddy' issues is common parlance in the US, but I think it goes further than that - there is a danger that the time and mode of government under Democrats has given the impression that they are less comfortable wielding power, and it means that even when the GOP is unelectable, has no stars, and is in its worst shape since FDR, it is still in a position to claim that this is a temporary abhorration, and that they are simply the Natural Party of Government in exile (see William Hague as Conservative Leader in the UK, 1997-2001).
Argument Number Two
So Obama won a decent majority in the Electoral College, Democrats increased their majority in the House, the Senate now has 60 Democrats (ish), and Governors' mansions and stte-houses are trending blue. The country is becoming more progressive, partly because of demography, partly because Democratic policy is better. But that isn't enough.
Just winning elections means that you are the preferred option at the time of voting. But to become the 'Natural Party of Government' and consign the GOP to natural opposition status, Democrats need to be bolder and to look more comfortable wielding governmental power and influence than the GOP.
Healthcare (policy aside): the GOP will revolt at any public option. Cut them off - bipartisanship should be a TV-only word. Behind closed doors, draw up the most radical (eg Single Payer) bill you can imgine. Press Gang any new Democrats - they will be one term wonders if they don't support in silence. Get 50 votes in the Senate (you can afford 10 defections) - don't seek any more, declare you'll use the nuclear option to get it through if necessary. JUST BECAUSE YOU CAN.
I'd like to see Democratic Leaders striding the nation like Colossi, with GOP obstructionists hiding in barns. No-one is saying Warren Harding was a good President just because he looked the part, but making the American People believe that your election wasn't just good timing and PR, but it is the very image of world as it should be: that is powerful.
And the bolder the action, the more plausible this is - pretenders to the throne will not dare act to boldly for fear of being discovered and usurped. Those who consider the throne their natural setting will dare to do that which a pretender never would. And that is how political parties are seem, independent of the election cycle - those that "belong" in power, and those who pretend when it is their turn.
Radical progressive action scares lots of Democrats - those in the Centre, those who are Blue Dogs, or secret progressives in Red States. They needn't fear. For every voter in the centre who ideologically opposes a piece of Radical Progressive legislation, two voters will support you for looking like the sort of person who gets big things done.
Average Voters don't read manifestos, they don't pore over policy arguments, and they don't hold strong and coherent ideological positions much of the time. Particularly voters in the centre ground, who are the target, and those whom Blue Dogs are scared will abandon a progressive party. So much of voting behaviour is aesthetically-driven, based on perception of character, and an ethereal sense of 'how things should be'.
Appeal to that sense. Dare to be bold and radical and more progressive than can be believed by your opponent. By leaving the GOP breathless, the Democrats can, over the next 8 years, slowly prize away the claim to being 'the Natural Party of Government', and in stealing that crown, electoral success will itself become easier.
The description of 'the Natural Party of Government' is a self-fulfilling prophecy. Let's make it a radical, progressive, and Democratic one. No more hand-wringing, no more timidity - power is won to be wielded, and should be wielded in order that Democrats win.
Until this is realised, the GOP will be (even in their deserved exile) the Natural Party of Government.