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Jewish World Review Jan. 25, 2001 / 2 Shevat, 5761

Michael Kelly

Michael Kelly
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The monster and the minority -- AMERICAN national politics since 1980 has revolved around the question of which of the two parties would emerge from the post-New Deal struggle as a true, or lasting, majority party. In both parties, this outcome has been held back or thrust away by a persistent recurring perversity.

The Republicans appeared to have a lock on majority status from the presidential election of 1980 until the presidential election of 1992; and during that period the Democrats appeared perversely determined to cement their status as the permanent minority party. Faced with popular, likable, reasonably effective Republican presidents whose values were shared by a majority of Americans, the Democratic leadership insisted on demonizing these presidents as extremists and reflexively opposing them on popularly supported issues: cutting taxes, reducing government's encroachments on liberty, taking the hard line against communist powers, fighting Saddam, reforming welfare, getting tough on crime.

From the election of 1992 through the election of 2000, the picture was more muddled, with the contest for lasting primacy tightening into today's mortal split, and with the lead changing repeatedly. The election of Bill Clinton in 1992 appeared to herald at least the possibility of a Democratic ascendancy. But Clinton veered left in his first two years, inspiring the election of a new Republican majority in 1994.

Like the Democrats of the 1980s, though, the national Republican leaders promptly thrust majority status away from them with both hands. Faced with a president who had retooled himself into an increasingly popular pragmatist, the Republicans insisted on the Democrats' disastrous path of demonization and furious chronic opposition. As cause, so with effect: In less than a year, the Republicans had lost their nascent majority status and reestablished themselves as the minority party.

Then, in 2000, the Republicans did an interesting thing. Having gotten a sufficiently good peek into the abyss to scare themselves more or less sensible, they rejected the more jihad-minded of their party and instead supported as their leader a man more or less of the middle, a likable representative of broadly shared values.

Now Democrats are faced with the mirror of the situation they faced after 1995 and with a repeat of the situation they faced from 1980 through 1992. Confronted by a president who shows the promise of becoming reasonably popular and being reasonably effective in the pursuit of policy aims in accord with the values of the majority, the Democrats are determined to depict this president as the apotheosis of radicalism and themselves as holy warriors against this evil.

The problem, as before, is the gap between what the furious opposition insists is reality and what the non-furious public sees. George W. Bush champions efforts to reform and save Social Security, Medicare and the nation's poor urban schools, all liberal goals; his plans are well within the mainstream of policy proposals. Bush has given the nation a Cabinet that, in its demographic makeup and its ideological range, at least equals Clinton's "government that looks like America." Bush is the first American president to appoint African Americans to the highest positions of diplomacy and national security. Bush's inaugural address was remarkable for the degree to which -- as the path-defining opener of a Republican presidency -- it dwelt on traditionally Democratic themes: concern for the poor and the vulnerable, the promise of government activism to better the lives of the least-blessed.

In the face of all this, the Democratic leadership and even more so the leadership of the liberal interest groups have responded with a hysterical campaign to paint Bush as a monstrous figure -- an election thief, a racist or something very close to a racist, an extremist or at least the willing tool of extremists, a genuinely bad and dangerous man. For most people, in the face of such evidence as the inaugural address, this is simply not going to stand as believable.

Every time over the past 20 years when one of the parties has succeeded in marginalizing itself, the root cause has been the same: In the absence of a true national leader, party leadership has fallen into the pit of Congress -- specifically, the House, the natural home of interest-group-driven extremism in both parties. Held in the sway of their narrow passions, the congressional extremists cannot help seeing in the opposition president a terrible creature that the nation as a whole does not see -- because it is not there to be seen.

This is the path to minority status. And now, it seems again, it is the Democrats' turn to march insistently down the old and well-worn lane.

Michael Kelly is the editor of National Journal. Send your comments to him by clicking here.


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