Pay It Forward

Sometime shortly after George W. Bush takes the oath of office on January 20, the media-directed recounts of the contested ballots in Florida are likely to confirm what many people suspect: Al Gore won the state. The recounts commenced in December and took a break for the holidays, and most indicators are that they will show that Gore carried Florida by 20,000 votes or more. Among other things, the undercounts in Miami-Dade have yet to be tallied, the same votes that county commissioners were brownshirted into not counting over the Thanksgiving holiday, the same votes that that Boss Tweed operation formerly known as the Supreme Court said didn’t matter. It will be too late to do anything, but at least we’ll know.

But even if the recounts don’t come out that way, this much is still true: Al Gore got 540,000 more votes nationwide than that other guy, which means that, by a close but reasonably significant margin, voters chose Gore’s agenda. The Senate outcome, moving that body from an eight-seat Republican advantage to a draw, was a humiliation for Republicans. And the House tightened. The country narrowly but clearly declared its support of Roe v. Wade, and prescription-drug benefits, and protecting the environment. And yet, the party that stands for those things finds itself in opposition.

How should such an opposition, whose views actually carried the day, behave? Or to put it another way: How does the majority act like a minority? And should it?

The opposition, and measurement of its success, will come down to three elements. First, the fight over Cabinet nominees. Second, policy and legislation, especially the tax cut. Third, and most important, attitude.

Both centrist and liberal Democrats have been surprised, and not pleasantly so, by Bush’s Cabinet announcements. “Some thought the new president, given the nature of the election, would form a sort of coalition government,” says Will Marshall of the Progressive Policy Institute, affiliated with the centrist Democratic Leadership Council. “They clearly decided they’re going to act as though they won a solid majority victory and hope the majesty of the office will help carry him through.” Robert Borosage, of the more liberal Campaign for America’s Future, says some of Bush’s choices show that “he’s taken out of the closet things he didn’t even run on.”

It won’t do much good to hate Bush. First of all, he’s not worth hating. He’s an accident.

He means, mostly, John Ashcroft. The bill of particulars against Ashcroft, including the gratitude he has expressed toward the editors of a magazine that calls Abraham Lincoln a tyrant and revels in the glories of the Confederacy, has been detailed elsewhere. Senators will be mightily inclined to confirm a man who was until last week a senator himself, so the question of whether such a fellow will be in charge of the nation’s civil-rights laws will be a function entirely of how much outrage senators get from their constituents.

Last Tuesday, Borosage and a small group of liberal insiders met with Democratic senators Tom Daschle and Pat Leahy. “They were surprised at how angry people were,” Borosage reports. ” ‘Is this Bork?’ they kept asking.” The thought makes senators very nervous; right now, one Hill-savvy source tells me, the list of senators likely to oppose Ashcroft numbers only around fifteen. But if the pressure is strong and consistent, that can grow. “Remember,” Borosage says, “a Bork eruption is not done by senators. It happens to senators.”

Still tougher odds face Gale Norton, Bush’s Interior choice, and Linda Chavez, his selection for Labor. Norton cut her teeth with the Mountain States Legal Foundation, the legal muscle behind Western landowners’ movements to oppose conservation and other environmental regulations. Chavez’s appointment by Ronald Reagan to be the staff director of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights in 1983 was a key element of Reagan’s assault on that institution. Three weeks after Chavez took the helm, she – while elsewhere acknowledging that she herself had been a beneficiary of affirmative action – supported the view that white firefighters in Memphis should be reinstated in their jobs, and that blacks hired by the department under affirmative action should be removed. The Labor Department operates the vast affirmative-action program having to do with large federal contractors.

If any of these three can be blocked, the opposition will have scored.

On policy, the big question will be the tax cut. Corporate America made its position (an emphatic yes) clear in meetings with Dubya last week. Everyone agrees there will be cuts; the trick for Democrats will be in keeping them down to around, say, $600 billion over ten years instead of Bush’s proposed $1.6 trillion. If Bush pushes the tax cut right out of the gate, sources say, Democrats will be more emboldened to fight.

Another piece of legislation to watch, Will Marshall says, will be an education reauthorization bill that’s due to come up early this year. There’s a version sponsored by three moderate Democrats – Joe Lieberman, Louisiana’s Mary Landrieu, and Evan Bayh of Indiana – that would consolidate 50 programs into 5, which candidate Bush more or less embraced. President Bush, though, will face pressure from the right to include vouchers in the version Congress will consider this spring. “That,” Marshall says, “would be a deal killer.”

Success on either of those fronts will depend on mobilization and tactical smarts and all the usual ingredients. But the core question – cultural, emotional, and even, if you will, anthropological – that faces not only Democrats on Capitol Hill but liberals everywhere is this: What attitude should inform the fight?

It won’t do much good to hate Bush. First of all, he’s not worth hating. He’s an accident. Besides, hatred usually means defeat. Liberals hated Ronald Reagan, and Reagan stacked up victory after legislative victory, at least in the early years. Conservatives hated Bill Clinton, which accomplished nothing less than making him the most popular president leaving office since the age of polling began. Republicans tried to delegitimize Clinton from the moment he won, but Democrats shouldn’t parrot that approach. “Republicans saw that Clinton was a threat,” says Al From of the DLC. “They saw that he had the skill to change the balance of power in Washington. Democrats don’t see Bush that way.” This attitude carries the risk of Bush’s benefiting from having been underestimated, but you have to take some risks in life.

The opposition’s attitude should instead be one of optimism. The most liberal agenda – even more so than Ralph Nader’s, who always left his positions on social issues deliberately vague – got the most votes. The good guys won, even though the other guys swiped the prize. The right lost. The Scriptural blowhards have had their day. The Helmses and Thurmonds are at odds with the will of the voters (both, by the way, face re-election in 2002, as do seventeen other Republican incumbent senators and only fourteen Democrats).

In other words: The real moral majority voted for Gore. The levers of power may belong to the other side, but the mandate is ours. Everyone, from members of Congress to street agitators, should proceed from that assumption. This opposition will be fun.

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