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The shift in control of the Senate gives the Democrats an opportunity to do not only what is right for the country, but what is good politics. President Bush has no mandate, and the Democrats shouldn't forget it.

First, they have a chance to block many of the worst Bush initiatives and appointments, bottling them up in committees and investigating them thoroughly. The Republicans will charge that the Democrats are simply being obstructionists. Americans may rightly object to obstructionism as a petty exercise in retaliation--although that was part of the Republican strategy against President Clinton. But Democrats can gain political stature if they explain at every opportunity why it is good for the country to stop Bush.

Second, Democrats now have an opportunity to promote an alternative to Bush, who, despite clever political rhetoric, is an even more obedient servant of corporations, the wealthy and the political right than either his father or Ronald Reagan was. Democrats can propose using government to curb the power of giant corporations and to help both the average citizen and the especially needy cope with the insecurities of contemporary life. Tom Daschle and Co. are not likely to get much past the House or the president, but that's not a problem. They shouldn't attempt to govern from such a tenuous hold on one branch of government, but they must demonstrate what they could do--and would do--if they had control.

The Republicans clearly have no hesitation about fighting hard and nasty while blathering about bipartisanship. So instead of moving to the right to compromise with Bush, the Democrats should force him to move left--and demonstrate his supposed "compassion"--or reject his initiatives. They can paint Bush and the Republicans as the ogres who don't want kids to have health insurance, who don't care if older people are rendered destitute by price-gouging pharmaceutical companies, who think people should work 40 hours a week and still not make enough to lift their families out of poverty.

If the Republicans complain there isn't enough money to fix urban schools or fully fund Head Start, then the Democrats can simply remind everyone of how many schools could be brought up to decent standards with the tax cuts received by a few thousand millionaires. It would be far better to fight for something worthwhile and lose than to accept watered-down alternatives that will simply give Republicans political cover. Polls suggest that people will respond favorably to an aggressive strategy of fighting for working people and their families, and Democrats should be using their limited power in the Senate to try to strengthen popular backing for progressive policies.

Senate committee chairs should conduct hearings, taking them around the country to mobilize public support, not only on specific legislation, but on broad social issues--such as the causes and consequences of growing inequality or the ways in which national health insurance has been enacted in every other industrialized country. They also should use their bully pulpit to demonstrate how Bush's energy plan primarily benefits the energy companies and how a strategy emphasizing energy efficiency is the best alternative for jobs as well as the environment.

If people see the Democrats as truly fighting for them, they will lay the foundation to win future elections and to build the kind of popular progressive mandate they will need, especially to swing unreliable conservative Democrats and the few remaining moderate Republicans. The big question is whether Democrats have the will and the unity to do what they should. Their collapse in the fight over Bush's tax plan--which wasn't even very popular--raises serious doubts about their capabilities.

Here is the window of opportunity to show they represent a real alternative.

 

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