In the Arena

Bleak House

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We’re now three months away from the Congressional elections and all the polling trends are holding–and so we can now, officially, say that things are looking pretty awful for the Democrats. This report from the Democratic polling firm of Greenberg, Quinlan and Rosner has all the gory details. People are pessimistic about the country’s direction, the economy and their own finances. The summer’s mild slump has erased the springtime blip upwards. Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner lays out the best case for the Obama Administration’s economic policies in the New York Times today. But his bottom line is: it could’ve been worse–never a dynamite argument in American politics. The straitened times lead to a pinched nativism–as the current, disgraceful right-wing campaign against the mosque near Ground Zero illustrates.

When nativism swells, it’s usually an indication that Americans feel threatened in some way. The current perceived threats are nothing new–the flight of manufacturing jobs overseas; ┬áthe swell of immigrants, especially Latinos; the heightened level of race- and religion-consciousness, symbolized by the paranoid fears about having a mixed-race President named Barack Hussein Obama. I wouldn’t be surprised if nativism’s two traditional running mates, protectionism and isolationism, weren’t far behind. But the dismay with the Democratic Party is too broad to be assigned exclusively to small-town Caucasian Protestants, the base on which such populist sentiments are usually built. I’ll have more to say about how the Democratic Party should recalibrate to meet American realities over the next few months–it won’t be any surprise that my recommendations will land in the area of creative moderation, which is not to say half-a-loaf centrism. Some radical changes are needed, especially in the face of a nihilistic Republican party that has abandoned–with a few notable exceptions–any pretense of moderation and which promises, at best, a return to the irresponsible policies of the Bush era. The need for a thorough reassessment will be true even if the Democrats lose fewer seats than now seems probable.

The total damage assessment will have to wait until election day. As I wrote a few weeks ago, the Democrats’ losses may fall short of the 1994 wipeout–the loss of the Senate is still a prohibitive longshot. But the House is in jeopardy, especially–as always–its ┬ámost moderate members. It will be interesting to see if a House composed entirely of radical Republicans and safe-seat liberal troglodytes is any more successful than the current disaster. I suspect not.