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The Elephant’s Big Britches

What passes for liberal wisdom these days is mostly babble. There’s lots of brave talk about organizing for 2008, but there’s almost nothing by way of program and policy. Scratch just a bit, and you’ll find that the brave talk masks a sense of alarm regarding what President Bush’s second term may mean for the nation.

At dinner one night, a friend, near tears, laments “the triumph of the fascists.” The Supreme Court, Social Security, civil liberties, the progressive income tax, the environment, all lost. And the fear that the second coming of Bush will lead to the first coming of Bill Frist or some equally radical conservative is palpable. Listen to the grumbling, and you’d think we were in for a hundred years of attitude, an end to America as we have known it.

Before the election, I too had fallen into Chicken Littlehood, fearing that nothing less than the American idea was in jeopardy. While that remains a possibility, the conservatives are off to such a furious start that their excess may presage their early demise. Simply stated, the likelihood is that the Republicans will over-reach. The early indications are that they have not merely been buoyed by their victories, but inflated by them. And inflated politicians are first and foremost a danger to themselves. (Remember Newt Gingrich?)

Just now, most Americans are taking a break from politics. The recent campaign was exhausting, and whether one cheered or lamented the result, the sigh of relief at its conclusion was universal. So, while the public’s attention is turned again to the weather, to football, to the holiday season, the Republicans can change their party’s rules and insulate House Majority Leader Tom DeLay against the penalties his party had prescribed for leaders under indictment, the president can vacillate on implementation of the 9/11 Commission report, the CIA can founder, and no one seems to care much at all. But soon enough — many might say “too soon” — recess will end and we will, reluctantly, be back at it.

Two things may interfere with my admittedly rosy prognosis. First, it is time to acknowledge that this president and his people are masters at their craft. Here we have a president who by any reasonable analysis should have lost the election, and lost it badly. The war, the economy, the secrecy and the tilt toward the rich should all have meant defeat by landslide. However one assesses John Kerry’s ineptitude as a candidate, and hence his contribution to Bush’s victory, the president’s people ran a brilliant campaign.

Their very early critique of Kerry as a “flip-flopper” defined the senator from Massachusetts before he’d had a chance to define himself, and the subsequent savaging of his one undoubted advantage, his war record, was as lethal as it was ugly. It matters little whether Bush is the producer of his own presidency or whether he is merely the mouthpiece for Dick Cheney and Karl Rove. What matters is that these men know what they want and know how to get it. Worse yet, they know how to make denim purses out of sows’ ears. (No, silk is beyond them.)

We will, for example, doubtless “stay the course” in Iraq, as the president has repeatedly promised — but as to how “the course” is defined, that’s another matter. Just as the rationale for the war has changed again and again, so, too, may the conditions of our departure. And we have seen already how much latitude the electorate is willing to offer this administration. So it may yet fool us all, paste a persuasively pleasant face on the dismantling of the New Deal, the Fair Deal, the Great Society, and all the other efforts to keep America’s promise.

If the administration’s success is one potential snare, the other is the Democrats’ failure. That failure can take diverse shapes: In an effort to appear reasonable, the Democrats may scuttle what semblance they have as a serious opposition, effectively conceding the nation’s political agenda to the president. Or, less likely, they may fight the good fight so energetically that they will be seen as tedious obstructionists.

This nation is not used to a “loyal opposition” — a party, often with its own “shadow cabinet,” that is expected to oppose. Such opposition is rarely effective, if by “effective” we mean able to derail the worst excesses of the government. But it is intended less as an inhibitor of the majority than as a way station to the next election. The function of a loyal opposition is to articulate a coherent alternative to the administration.

It is, admittedly, a stretch to ask that Democrats be coherent. They have become adept at saying “no,” but saying “no” is not a program and does not offer a serious alternative. Yet ask what the Democrats intend with regard to health care, or Iraq, or trade policy, and you may as well be trying to nail Jello to the wall. What the Democrats need is spine — and the ability to generate a compelling narrative, to tell the American story in a way that enables people to want to be part of that story. (That, of course, was Bill Clinton’s great skill, and Ronald Reagan’s, too.)

On balance, however, we may be able in just a few years to look back on all this more as a pimple than as a tumor. For if, as it is written, pride goeth before a fall, then perhaps hubris — overweening pride — foretells collapse.

Leonard Fein is the author of “Against the Dying of the Light: A Parent’s Story of Love, Loss, and Hope” (Jewish Lights).

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