It has been a long time since Karl Rove's dream of a permanent Republican majority was ignominiously buried. Meanwhile, lost in the current triumphalism among Democrats ("GOP Postmortem"; "GOP Eating Their Own!", and the like) is the sad truth that it is the Democrats who had a real shot at a "permanent" majority, and not simply by waiting for the nation's demographics to shift in their favor. They could have done it by capturing and owning the one issue on which they keep getting smacked upside the head: The national debt.
We all see the writing on the wall for the conservative culture warriors. They are losing, and deservedly so. No need to reiterate all the reasons we don't want America dragged back into the 11th century. On national security, the Bush disaster, combined with Obama's surprising toughness and his growing list of foreign-relations successes, have leveled the playing field, and even given the Democrats a bit of an edge. So why do Republicans still remain competitive?
Ok, aside from gerrymandering, a formidable propaganda machine, and a lot of not-so-latent racism...? Seriously, the only issue which motivates both the Tea Party base and the GOP establishment is the debt. The problem for Democrats is that hard-core right-wingers are not the only ones concerned about the debt. Many of us who are not reflexive partisans are concerned too. Very concerned.
Here is where the Democrats have messed up. Part of it is their infuriating incompetence at messaging. For a historical example of their tone-deafness, look at what happened to President Clinton after rumors broke about his affair with an intern. Republicans jumped all over it, saying "Character matters!" What should Democrats have said?
"Yes, character matters, and there is no greater test of character than standing up for the less powerful in society. A personal indiscretion pales by comparison." Instead, here is what Democrats said:
"No, character is not that important." Bingo. They gave the Republicans a wedge that almost separated Clinton from his office.
So today, we are treated to an astonishing parade of Democrats (Paul Krugman, Robert Reich, the President himself) saying "Fiscal Crisis? What Fiscal Crisis?" They look like fools! Our debt IS a looming catastrophe, for our country, our children and our future. And rational people know it.
The question then is, why adopt such an untenable position? The Tea Party answer is that these people are simply clueless. However, this correspondent has spoken with enough Democratic insiders to know that many in the party actually do know the debt is a big problem. The real answer appears to be that the Democrats are trying desperately to save the social safety net programs like Social Security and Medicare, and they see a frontal assault on the debt as inevitably threatening those programs.
What an incredible irony. And what a triumph for Republican messaging. For what the Republicans have done is to wage that frontal assault on the debt, while taking taxes off the table. And the Democrats appear to have internalized that framing! So, to save the social safety net, they have to resort to the contorted rationalization that the debt must not be that big a deal, after all. It's like saying "Character doesn't matter."
Legislative courage seems to be one quality in which the Democrats suffer a chronic deficit. Republicans govern like they have a mandate, even when big majorities disagree with them, while Democrats seem to need a 2:1 advantage in popular support before they will even whisper about a contentious issue. Well, here is your issue! A large majority of Americans worry that our debt is a millstone that could hurt us for generations to come. But the Republicans have been exposed: they don't really care about the debt--they just want to cut taxes. The Democrats should call their bluff, and make this issue their own.
If the Democrats had the courage, they get out in front in acknowledging that securing our future requires reducing the national debt to sustainable levels. They would insist on a full range of solutions: they would stick to their guns on closing corporate loopholes and raising marginal rates, at the very least. They would also join with libertarian Republicans in eliminating industry subsidies, banning bailouts for failed banks, and making it illegal for the U.S. to enter a war of choice. And they might entertain gradual, incremental reforms to social programs to guarantee their solvency indefinitely. Making FICA progressive and removing the income cap on contributions would be an obvious start.
If the Democrats can "own" the solution to our debt crisis, with all of the other political winds in their favor, they could in fact create their "permanent", or at least long-lived, majority.