Many pundits are comparing the expected Democratic victory in the upcoming election to the Newt Gingrich-led Republican triumph of 1994, an election in which the GOP gained 52 House seats and ended 40 years of Democratic majority in that chamber.
Unfortunately, the comparison may be overstated. Even if Democrats take control of the House, this will hardly be a triumph like 1994. The Gingrich-led GOP ran on a coherent, detailed, principled - albeit wrong-headed - platform called the "Contract with America." (One delightful promise: "cuts in social spending. . .to fund prison construction.")
If Democrats win control of Congress in November, they can hardly claim a mandate for a coherent program. Because Democratic leaders have avoided a comprehensive program, while ducking big issues like Iraq.
So if Democrats win on Nov. 7, don't think 1994. Think 1998. That was the stunning Congressional election in the sixth year of Bill Clinton, when he was about to be impeached - ridiculously - over deceptions about consensual sex with Monica Lewinsky. Voters went to the polls and shocked the Beltway (with pundits predicting GOP House gains of up to 15 or 20 seats) by giving Democrats a pickup of five seats.
1998 was nothing more - and nothing less - than a rejection of rightwing extremism run amuck. A rebuke to ideologues pursuing an agenda so zealously that they lost touch with public sentiment and with reality. It was also the beginning of a grassroots group called MoveOn - as in "simply censure Clinton and move on to more important issues."
A Democratic win in 2006 would be similar to 1998: a rejection of rightwing extremism and hypocrisy - from the Iraq disaster to fiscal abandon to preachers of morality and war lining their own pockets.
So how do we make 2006 more than just a rejection of the other side? And with a wide-open presidential campaign approaching, how do we move a majority of the country to embrace a positive agenda for reform?
First, by recognizing that change comes from below. Today's Democratic leadership may not have a coherent progressive agenda - but neither did FDR when he won the presidency in 1932. Powerful grassroots organizations and unions propelled the New Deal agenda and pushed the Democrats to enact one popular program after another that made them the dominant party for many years.
Second, by fighting to change the Democratic leadership. This is especially crucial in advance of 2008. By and large, the current leadership has few principles, except taking power. . .and is generally inept at that. It's timid, waffling, too close to corporate interests and too afraid of the American public, especially on issues where the public is more progressive than they are - from Iraq withdrawal to trade to universal healthcare. That's why a progressive platform was avoided in 2006 - and why Democrats could not win in 2000, 2002 and 2004 (or win by enough to avoid the election being pilfered).
2006 should have been about a positive agenda - a permanent one, not something that needs to be reinvented every election cycle. But a progressive platform is unthinkable with pro-war corporatists like Chuck Schumer and Rahm Emanuel running the Democratic Senate and House campaigns, and often choosing the candidates (including a slew of hawkish pro-corporate types.)
Democrats need a progressive compact with America emphasizing national health insurance, just taxation, living wages, jobs-producing energy programs, trade policies that protect incomes and the environment. Polls show these are popular measures with the American public; they are not so popular with corporate lobbyists and consultants close to Schumer, Emanuel and the Clinton wing of the party .
Mass organizations like MoveOn have a duty not only to mobilize voters and dollars to defeat Republicans on Election Day, but to work after election day to transform the Democrats into a winning (and growing) party that progressives can be proud of. That's the clear mission of a newer group, Progressive Democrats of America.
Of course the biggest issue facing our country now and in the foreseeable future is Iraq. Yet top Democrats keep thinking they can sidestep it (which contributed to defeat in '04). Emanuel doesn't even list Iraq as an issue on his website today. That's not leadership.
The Iraq invasion - supported by many top Democrats - was a destabilizing adventure that defied the U.N. and international law. Now that it's a bloody occupation, Democratic leaders like to criticize Bush (or Rumsfeld) not for going to war illegally, but for not managing the war well. As if it were possible to well-mange an occupation of a divided foreign country, while not understanding its religion or cultures, after having invaded it based on false pretense.
These Democrats want to prolong an unsalvageable occupation despite polls showing that two-thirds of Iraqis believe US troops make the situation worse and that large majorities (including most of Iraq's parliament) want a prompt timeline for troop withdrawal. 37% of Iraqis want all troops out immediately; another 34% want them out within a year.
A University of Maryland poll recently indicated that 61% of Iraqis actually support attacks on US troops. Not surprisingly, given the false justifications for the invasion, many Iraqis harbor suspicions about our government's designs on Iraq and its oil. With more US troops deployed to Baghdad in recent months, violence only worsened.
As Iraq expert Phyllis Bennis points out, the presence of US troops is a cause of the violence, and foreign terrorists operate now within an umbrella of popular resistance to occupation that would afford them less protection if US troops departed.
There are basically two options. 1) We can withdraw our troops in a prompt and orderly fashion, as we negotiate with Iraqi factions (including insurgents) and hand over diplomacy and peace-keeping to regional organizations and allies - while providing massive humanitarian/reconstruction aid to Iraq's people. Or 2) as in Vietnam, we can wait years to withdraw our troops, probably in a less orderly fashion, after more chaos and bloodshed.
Yes, Democrats need to be strong on foreign policy - and even more important, smart. Prolonging the occupation of Iraq squanders lives, depletes our resources, and undermines our reputation and national security. Dodging such a huge issue does not project strength. It projects weakness and deceptiveness.
With Republicans in meltdown mode, Democratic evasions may work in this election. The numbers may even suggest a landslide. But only activism aimed at winning a majority of Americans to a positive agenda for change will produce the political landslide our country needs. Let that campaign begin on November 8.