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Jewish World Review Nov. 13, 2002 / 8 Kislev, 5763

Michael Kelly

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Wishful in defeat | The Democratic Party has come to believe its own propaganda.

Our Democratic story so far: George W. Bush is a usurper of power, an incompetent frat-boy fool and a radical extremist (or the incompetent frat-boy-fool pawn of the radical extremists who control him and his White House). In domestic governance, the fool-extremist Bush administration embraces anti-environmental, corporatist, plutocratic policies that must, if properly exposed, meet with mainstream rejection. In foreign policy, the administration is at once inept and menacing: a know-nothing president led by a cabal of neo-imperialists into an unwanted war, the prospect of which has alienated the world and the reality of which will be a corpse-rich quagmire (quagmire! quagmire! quagmire!).

It follows that the mistake Democrats made -- the mistake that cost them last week's elections -- is only not to have pointed all this out enough. They weren't liberal enough, loud enough or angry enough. Thus, the party's core voters stayed home this year, and thus the debacle.

The Democrats' only problem here is that pretty much all of this is wrong.

Bush is not a stupid or incompetent president. In the ways that matter, he is smart and very competent. He possesses the first requirement of greatness in a president -- not the only, but the first -- a clear understanding of what he wants to achieve and the determination to achieve it, seemingly regardless of the risk of personal failure. He presides over an administration that is unusually intelligent -- and also cunning -- unusually experienced, unusually disciplined and unusually bold.

As Democrats and their allies in a largely Democratic national media happily passed the election year predicting one Bush failure after another, this administration went from one triumph to another, out-thinking, outmaneuvering, out-risking and out-hustling its adversaries at home and around the world. The campaign to win first public, then congressional and finally, in last week's 15 to 0 vote in the U.N. Security Council, international support for the disarming of Iraq and (surely) the destruction of the regime of Saddam Hussein was as complete a political and diplomatic victory as any in American history.

The administration's policies are not unpopular but demonstrably the contrary. The president has the highest sustained approval ratings of any in polling history for this point in a first term. Even before the U.N. victory, a consistent majority of voters and likely voters supported his war policy. Bush also enjoys relatively high ratings on most domestic issues. There is no evidence that suggests the voters who decide national elections -- the roughly one-third who vote more or less independently of party -- regard the administration's domestic policies as unacceptably radical.

More is fundamentally wrong with the Democratic analysis-by-wish-fulfillment. As the New York Times reported last Saturday, Democratic strategists studying the elections are coming to realize that, in closely contested races in key states (South Carolina, Maryland, Georgia and Florida), the immediate conventional wisdom was wrong: What cost the Democrats these races was not the failure to motivate "base" (especially African American) voters, but the failure to win over middle-class, independent-minded, moderate white voters -- the voters who put Bill Clinton into office. Blacks, in fact, turned out in expected numbers -- it was non-left whites who stayed home or voted for Republicans.

In the next 12 months the United States, under Bush, will either disarm or destroy the regime of Saddam Hussein. Congress, at Bush's direction, will pass the homeland security bill, a new (and popular) tax-cutting measure and health care legislation that will include prescription drug benefits for seniors. Liberal Democrats will complain.

A potential result is a Democratic disaster. One thing that has kept the electorate equally divided for a decade is the widely held belief that divided government is better government. A smart, competent, popular president, supported by a Congress headed by his party, achieving mainstream policy aims, has an excellent chance of convincing many voters that, actually, unified government is better -- unified under Republican rule.

Democrats will howl at the voters that they are not to believe any of this -- that the president is not competent, that his administration is not to be trusted, that Republican presidents and Republican policies are radical and dangerous and frightening and bad.

I suppose they will continue to believe this, and continue to say it, in voices growing ever more shrill and ever more loud, yet, oddly, ever more distant and faint.

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

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