The Washington Times

The top question Democrats are asking these days would seem to be this: Where are the Democrats? A couple weeks, ago, the New Republic wanted to know how come Democrats opposed to going to war with Iraq didn’t have the nerve to say so. I heard a presentation on Democrats’ future prospects at the National Education Association shortly thereafter, at which several of the members of a panel consisting largely of Democratic activists decried what they took to be the spinelessness of their political leaders – their unwillingness despite ample opportunity to offer a robust alternative to the Bush administration.

Imagine, one speaker said, taking the gift of the corporate scandals and, rather than using it as political weapon to tar Republicans with coziness to shady, big-business practices in the coming election, instead joining Republicans and passing a cleanup bill [97-0 in the Senate, no less] that George W. Bush could cheerfully sign, taking the issue off the table. Where’s the Democratic strategy in that?

You can’t pick up a copy of the Washington Monthly these days without coming upon at least one article enviously lamenting the ruthlessness and implacability with which Republicans advance their corrupt agenda as spineless Democratic politicians look on in bewilderment. Thomas L. Friedman of the New York Times joined the chorus this Sunday with a column wondering where is a Democrat willing to offer a “bold alternative” to George W. Bush on his reckless tax cuts, the do-nothing attitude about U.S. dependence on foreign oil, and the need for effective nation-building in Iraq after the war.

I haven’t seen anything quite like this happening within a political party since President George H.W. Bush broke his “no new taxes” pledge in a budget agreement in 1990, sending Republicans into a tailspin that the first Gulf War interrupted only very temporarily.

Part of the current Democratic discontent is surely attributable to Democrats’ persistent tendency to underestimate Mr. Bush, as Noemie Emery documents with considerable relish in the latest Weekly Standard. If you begin with the view that the president, illegitimately elected in the first place and clearly not up to the job, will necessarily implode in the course of time, and then he fails to do so, you are going to be frustrated beyond all reason.

But I think that’s only half the story. In particular, what it omits is the emerging Democratic view of the new Republican Superman – the ultracanny, utterly unprincipled and ruthless political masterminds who make it their business to screw Democrats at every turn. Democrats have before them an apparition consisting of equal parts of the murderous Machiavelli, the reincarnated Sun Tzu and Faust. This figure looks to them remarkably like Karl Rove.

At the NEA event I attended, the mention of Mr. Bush’s chief political strategist had a sort of totem-and-taboo effect on much of the partisan audience. A speaker would brandish the name “Karl Rove” like a rhetorical talisman, evoking first a horrified recoil of fear and loathing from the assembled, who would then quickly regroup in a collective bare-toothed snarl of defiance. I exaggerate, but the effect is unmistakable.

As I well recall. Then-Senate Majority Leader George Mitchell evoked a similar response from conservative activists in 1991-92. To their minds [well, actually, to our minds; I was in on the action], he was an evil partisan genius beneath whose cynically crafted veneer of mild-manneredness there lurked nothing but the cold passion to divide, defeat and humiliate Republicans.

In a sense, the view of Mr. Bush as incompetent and Mr. Rove as omnicompetent are complementary: The latter is, in this rendering, the brain the former lacks. But I think there is a lot more to this undercurrent.

What’s really going on here is the emergence of an activist wing of the Democratic Party chafing at a double alienation, first from its own party establishment, then from the political power establishment that rules the roost in Washington. The agenda is therefore clear: Capture the party; then capture the country. This was precisely the spiritual condition and the agenda of the conservative-activist community as the first Bush administration unraveled. There is even a fascinating parallel between the activist Democrats’ view of House Minority Leader Dick Gephardt [too willing to go along on the war] and the activist GOP view of Minority Leader Bob Michel [“go along to get along” was the charge].

In short, a revolution is brewing within the Democratic Party. I think its course will actually be hastened if Democrats are disappointed by the November election results. The one thing I can’t make out at the moment is who will emerge as the Democrats’ Newt Gingrich.