Saturday, August 12, 2017

Numbers That Don't Add Up

0 out of 1

4 out of 9

16 out of 50

18 out of 50

46 out of 100

194 out of 435

Can you recognize these numbers?   I’ll give you a hint: I’m talking about politics.  I’m talking about numbers of people who are associated with a particular political organization.  The members of this political organization dominate Hollywood and the Fourth Estate. More specifically, they dominate late night talk shows, political comedy programs, and big-time screenwriting portfolios.   They dominate network newsrooms, CNN, the New York Times, the Washington Post, the LA Times, and the Chicago Tribune.   The members of this political organization have spent most of the last two years laughing their butts off at their rivals’ ineptitude.  And when they’re not heaping ridicule on their rivals – when they’re purporting to get serious about the topic – they wax eloquent about how their rival organization may be in the process of imploding or splitting into pieces.  

If I didn’t know better, I’d swear that the political organization we’re talking about is the surviving party in a one-party system.  But I do know better.  In fact, I know that the party we’re talking about is a minority party in a two-party system.   Just don’t tell them that.  They’re as giddy and cocky as Baghdad Bob during Shock and Awe.

When I think about the Democratic Party these days, I am reminded of the so-called “Rumble in the Jungle,” the name given to the 1974 fight in Zaire between George Foreman and Muhammad Ali.  Today’s Democrats remind me of Foreman’s fans from that big fight.   In the early rounds, they would have watched their hero totally dominate.  Ali spent those rounds primarily with his back against the ropes and his arms covering his face.   Whenever he peeked out, he would have seen the massive Foreman pounding away, landing one mighty blow after another against Ali’s arms and sides.   Foreman’s fans must have felt a lot like the audience of Bill Maher, Stephen Colbert, or Trevor Noah, who roar in approval as these comedians land haymaker after haymaker at the expense of “The Pussy Grabber,” “The Mooch” or “The Turtle.”   Party on, Wayne!   Here’s the part I don’t understand, though.   In the Ali-Foreman fight, the Loquacious One let Big George tire himself out by throwing all those bombs until, finally, Ali moved away from the ropes, unleashed a flurry of his own, and sent Foreman to the canvas like a rock.  That fight will forever be known as the “Rope-a-Dope” and has become one of the signature achievements of Ali’s legendary career.  

Now, those two heavyweights never fought again. (In fact, Big George’s boxing career was never the same after Zaire.)  But if they had, and if this second fight had started the same way as the first, I doubt Foreman’s fans would have been nearly as cocky.  I bet they’d have been concerned that the key to a fight isn’t starting strong but rather finishing strong.  And most importantly, I’d bet they would have been focused on the fact that their guy had better be smarter and more resourceful than he was the last time around.    You see, I apparently have more confidence in the intelligence of fight fans than in that of my fellow Democrats. 

You see, after Democrats spent 15 months laughing at their GOP rivals, the GOP won the election.  And I mean won it big.  Those numbers you saw at the top of the page are, respectively, the current tallies of Dems in the White House, US Supreme Court Justices nominated by Dems, Democratic Governors, State Legislatures controlled by the Dems, Dems in the US Senate, and Dems in the US House of Representatives.  For the most part, those pathetic numbers were fixed in stone after the November elections.  Yet for the past nine months, Democrats have continued to fall all over themselves mocking the GOP and predicting the eventual collapse of that party, all the while licking their chops at every opportunity to fight it out at the ballot box.  Somehow, they never got the memo that they were the dope who got roped ... and they have become neither smarter nor more resourceful since the last election.

Part of the problem is that the party is in denial.  It refuses to believe that it loses elections.   The House of Representatives?  “The GOP stole that because of gerrymandering.“   The US Senate?  “The GOP stole that because rural states have too many representatives.”  The Presidency?  “The Dems won the popular vote and the Russians stole the electoral vote.”  The State Houses?  “What’s a State House?”  

There was a time when the Democrats were the real deal.   They won five Presidential Elections in a row.  And during that time, their charismatic leaders had ideas, and programs and slogans that actually worked.  FDR had his “Fair Deal.”   Truman had his “Square Deal.”   So, it is not surprising that today’s Democrats, when they’re not making excuses, are figuring out how to summon the wisdom and the passion of their political ancestors from the 30s and 40s.   They rolled out a retro slogan: Better Deal.   And that is supposed to be shorthand for “better jobs, better wages, better future.”    But as others have pointed out, that sounds more like a Papa John’s commercial than it sounds like Truman or FDR.   After all, when Papa John’s  brags about “Better ingredients, better pizza,”  it wants to focus your attention on something in particular – Papa John’s attentiveness to product quality – just as when Truman or FDR bragged about their slogans, they were calling attention to Truman’s association with candor and plain-spokenness and FDR’s association with economic equity.   But the Democrats’ new slogan doesn’t summon anything in particular that we would associate with the party.  It sounds like empty rhetoric.  For who doesn’t want better jobs and wages and a better future?  And if I’m mistaken, during the 16 years when the Democrats have occupied the White House since 1980, weren’t the wage increases disproportionately enjoyed by the top five to ten percent? 

It’s no wonder, given all of these problems, that the Democratic Party has become a house divided between the Establishment Wing and the Berniecrats.   From what I can tell, they get along with each other about as well as Ali and Frazier – and far less than Ali and Foreman.  The Berniecrats think of the Establishment Wing as a bunch of opportunists who’ve demonstrated no real commitment to the working class and might as well call themselves Liberal Republicans because they’re basically your father’s Republicans when it comes to economics.  As for the Establishment Wing, they think of the Berniecrats as a bunch of self-righteous loudmouths who value their own sense of purity and could care less about actually winning, let alone figuring out how to govern.  Occasionally, party leaders – almost all of whom come from the Establishment Wing – talk about the need for party unity, while the Berniecrats grumble in private about how unity would be just fine, as long as THEY are in power and not their sell-out colleagues.  

Yup.  It’s one big happy family.  Or should I say, it’s one big happy family ... but ONLY when they stop paying attention to getting their own act together and instead turn their attention to the one activity they can enjoy together: ridiculing the Republicans.

As a Democrat, I sometimes get asked what my party must do to get its act together.   Sometimes I just respond glibly: bring in new leadership.   But more to the point, what the Dems need to do is divide their attention.  Obviously, any party out of power must resist; that’s how a functioning democracy works.  Yet a minority party cannot survive by resistance alone.  It needs to define itself, and not merely by reference to the other party.   It needs to identify goals that don’t sound like empty rhetoric.  And it needs to advocate courageous and sometimes unpopular reforms in order to advance those goals – and I’m talking about specific proposals that can both excite “the base” and actually sound doable.  Equally critically, it must promote leaders who are charismatic, passionate, likeable, authentic ... in short, leaders who would seem almost out of place in today’s Democratic Party.   Finally, whenever its leaders are communicating with the public about their agenda, they need to be forthcoming and honest.  That means, “NO MORE EXCUSES.”   It’s time for the Democratic Party to accept responsibility for its failings as willingly as it evaded responsibility in the recent past.    

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