A Magician’s Lesson for Democrats (and my Tim Russert Moment)

My father was an ex-vaudeville magician who wouldn’t teach us too many tricks. “Only members of the Magicians’ Union can know our secrets,” he’d say. He did teach us how make a coin disappear using "misdirection,” though. That's a technique that's working on a lot of Democrats today, including some of my co-bloggers here at the Huffington Post, now that the Republicans have joined the Magicians Union:

The share of income going to the richest slice of Americans - the top tenth of 1 percent - grew significantly in 2003 while the share going to 99 percent of Americans fell, tax data released yesterday showed.

That’s a lot of disappearing coins. My father (I’ll call him “Big Esk” as my little Tim Russert tribute) taught us that misdirection is the art of diverting the audience’s attention to the wrong place so they don’t notice what you’re really doing. Today the Democrats who celebrate the tsuris of Rove and Bush may be playing into the GOP act. Corporate interests will throw Rove to the wolves – and Bush too, if it comes to that – as long as they can keep moving those coins.

I’m only human, so of course I’m enjoying the legal troubles and the plunging poll numbers – but not if they lull Democrats into complacency. Republican corruption is no guarantee of Democratic victory. Jimmy Carter barely defeated Richard Nixon’s hand-picked successor a mere two years after Watergate, and his four-year term was followed by 12 years of conservative GOP Presidencies. In the long run, corruption and cronyism may just distract Democrats from the real challenge, which is distinguishing themselves from the GOP on substantive matters of policy.

That’s why I don’t share the enthusiasm of my Huffington Post colleagues Donnie Fowler and Jamal Simmons for Rahm Emanuel’s comments on “Meet the Press” last week. I didn’t hear the “agenda we can shout from the rooftops” while shouting “hooray for ideas” that they described. Universal college education and a “budget deficit summit” are decent enough entries for the suggestion box, but unless you face the today’s critical issues – war and massive wealth-shifting - you’re just adding to the misdirection.

Donnie, Jamal, here’s something to shout from the rooftops: Give us our coins back, guys! We need them to fix the deficit you’ve created, and to pay the cost of this war you started. Don't make our kids fight a futile war, and don't enrich the already wealthy at our expense. Democrats should stop gloating over bread-and-circuses and start talking to people about nickels, dimes, and quarters – and about the war that is now projected to cost a half-trillion dollars. John Edwards is forging a message on economic issues, as Russell Feingold is on the war. There’s your agenda.

Of course, I’m no expert. I’m just a guy from an old showbiz family that’s always looked at my non-entertainment career with bemused skepticism and folksy wisdom, just like Tim Russert's Dad. In fact, they call me the “white sheep” of the family. So, like Tim, I’m just sharing some of the life lessons I learned at the knee of that old vaudeville magician called “Big Esk.” When you’re dealing with magicians, you’ve got to look where they don’t want you to look. Otherwise you’re only falling for the same old trick.