Today's Opinions, Tomorrow's Reality 

Avoiding the Doom of Irrelevance

By David G. Young

Washington, DC, November 12, 2002 --  

Lost in the nit-picking analysis of the 2002 midterm election is acknowledgment of the radical shift in the terms of America's public debate since last year's attacks on New York and Washington. It is this shift in debate that affords Democrats an opportunity to revive their party from a sad coalition of industrial-era interest groups into a party of the future.

Until last year, America had enjoyed 10 years of peace and prosperity, with a remarkable alignment of views between Republican and Democratic leaders. Both parties had embraced a Reaganesque distaste for government bureaucracy. Reagan had declared war with "Government isn't the solution to the problem, government is the problem." Clinton sued for peace with "The era of big government is over." Likewise, leaders in both parties had come to agreement on the merits of free trade, global integration, equal rights and civil liberties. It was truly a great consensus for an open society.

Only differences at the margins remained up for debate. The character question in the election of 2000 was elevated not just because of Clinton's embarrassing public carousing, but because of a general lack of disagreement on the issues of the day.

But the Bush administration pulled the Republican Party out of the great consensus shortly after the smoke cleared from southern Manhattan and around the Pentagon. The era of big government was back, with Bush's proposed Department of Homeland Security. Likewise, free trade was pushed aside with new steel tariffs, and global integration was abandoned in favor of a draconian tightening of borders. Equal rights were no longer respected, as the Justice Department began racial profiling Arab-Americans. Worst of all, the crown jewel of American Democracy, Civil Liberties, were violated shamefully with American citizens thrown in military brigs with no charges filed, denied the right to see a lawyer, denied a court hearing, and refused the opportunity to see the charges against them.

Until last September, Democratic leaders would have claimed to be opposed to every single one of these policies. Why then, have we heard virtually no opposition to this incredible shift in the direction of American government? The claim that "everything changed" last September 11th is nothing but a cliche. September 11th is not like December 7th. The Axis of the 1940s, and the Soviet Empire of mid-century posed actual military threats to the existence of America as a free nation. Islamic terrorists, by comparison, are nothing more than a desperate group of overly-zealous global losers who pose no serious threat in the long term.

With this in mind, it is entirely likely that memories of last year's disaster will fade enough within a very few years that the public will be ready for a return to the policies of the great consensus. Assuming Bush will still control the White House at this time, Democrats will have a phenomenal opportunity to take the Republicans to task for abandoning the policies that made America so free and prosperous in recent years.

Unfortunately, the Democrats have yet to show any inclination to carry out this task. Once a party nearly synonymous with civil rights, Democratic leaders have been shamefully silent about the unconstitutional detention of American citizens by the military. It will be unforgivable if the party of Thomas Jefferson allows the unraveling of the Bill of Rights for an ill-conceived attempt at short-term political gain.

An ambitions Democratic presidential candidate could attack Republicans from the right on a plethora of issues. Democrats could reclaim the high ground on free trade, reducing the size of government, and even lowering business taxes. When combined with a patriotism-wrapped defense of America's civil liberties, the Democratic party might yet find itself a winner. If they continue in lockstep behind Bush's self-destructive war on terrorism, they risk joining al-Qaeda in its doom of irrelevance.