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The Seinfeld Strategy

BY David Sirota

For the first time in more than a decade, Democrats seem to have a shot at taking back Congress. But also for the first time in recent history, Congress is on the cusp of switching hands without a voter mandate. How is that possible? Because Democrats are only in the hunt thanks to gross Republican missteps–and they are going out of their way to make sure their potential election to the majority is about nothing. Call it the Seinfeld strategy.

Los Angeles Times columnist Ron Brownstein reports, “Democratic leaders are drifting toward a midterm message that indicts Bush more on grounds of competence (on issues such as Iraq, Hurricane Katrina and prescription drugs) than ideology.”

As a short-term electoral tactic, the Seinfeldian “competence” strategy allows the GOP to right itself with new management. Sadly, it is not a strategy based on ideological differences that puts a boot to conservatives’ neck when their hypocrisy trips them up and they fall down. Thus, while Democrats celebrate the resignations of people like Reps. Tom DeLay (Texas) and Duke Cunningham (Calif.), the GOP simultaneously celebrates because they can now counter the Democrats’ “competence” argument by pointing out that their party has sloughed off the incompetents. In short, the Republican Party and the right’s ideological agenda march forward, largely unscathed.

In making such a limited critique, Democrats tacitly validate conservatives’ ideological goals and further reinforce the public feeling that Democrats have no convictions of their own. For example, despite the GOP scandals and the political opportunities they present, Democrats refuse to push serious reforms like public financing of elections and instead push half-measures and focus on Republican missteps.

In the process, they are implicitly saying they believe the system that most Americans know is corrupt is actually perfectly acceptable. The same thing on Iraq: The Democratic Party refuses to take a position wholly different from the Republicans, simply saying the management of the war–rather than the war itself–is the problem.

National Democratic leaders will say they are forced to use the “competence” argument because it is the one big theme that unifies their ideologically diverse congressional membership. But that hides the not-so-secret fact that very powerful, very vocal, and very ideological forces within the Democratic Party support many of the conservative goals that a “competence” strategy inherently validates.

On domestic policy, these forces went public in April at a press conference at the Brookings Institution. Led by Citigroup chairman Robert Rubin—Clinton’s former Treasury secretary—the “Hamilton Project” announced plans to “to take on entrenched Democratic interests” such as teachers’ unions, according to the Financial Times. Participants at the event used words like “protectionist” to describe courageous congressional Democrats fighting to reform the corporate-written trade pacts Rubin and others helped pass in the ’90s. They also advocated school “vouchers” and “entitlement reform”—code words for defunding public education and eviscerating bedrock Democratic programs like Social Security and Medicare. At least they were honest in naming themselves after Alexander Hamilton, the leader of the elitist Federalist Party and rival of Thomas Jefferson, the populist founder of the Democratic Party.

Public opinion data consistently show Americans are desperate for political leaders who will represent ordinary citizens’ interests–not just powerful lobbyists and their wealthy corporate clients.

Until Democrats decide to stop taking part in “business as usual” and start fighting back against the right wing’s ideology, they will face the same political liabilities they do today.

Editor’s Note: This article has been corrected; due to an editing error a quote from the Financial Times was not properly attributed in the original article.

David Sirota, an In These Times senior editor and syndicated columnist, is a staff writer at PandoDaily and a bestselling author whose book Back to Our Future: How the 1980s Explain the World We Live In Now—Our Culture, Our Politics, Our Everything was released in 2011. Sirota, whose previous books include The Uprising and Hostile Takeover, co-hosts "The Rundown" on AM630 KHOW in Colorado. E-mail him at ds@davidsirota.com, follow him on Twitter @davidsirota or visit his website at www.davidsirota.com.

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