Such was the low estate of the Bush administration in American public opinion that the Democrats did even better than expected in the midterm elections of 2006, especially in their narrow takeover of the Senate. The most revealing upset came in Virginia, where Jim Webb, a much-decorated Vietnam veteran, fierce Iraq war critic, and former secretary of the navy in the Reagan administration, beat the incumbent Republican senator, George Allen. Many Republican insiders had long envisioned Allen as the party’s next presidential standard-bearer. Like George W. Bush, he was an unalloyed conservative with a talent for hiding his hard ideological edges behind a jocular good-old-boy persona. But a campaign incident widely disseminated on the video Web site YouTube, in which Allen addressed an Indian-American campaign worker for Webb with a racial slur (“macaca”), ripped off the mask, cost him his Senate seat and, in all likelihood, his political career.
The once reliably red Virginia was changing faster than either Allen or the national GOP had reckoned. The target of Allen’s insult was a high-achieving college student, the scion of an immigrant family typical of the high-tech industry workers that have been steadily upending the old voting patterns in Washington’s northern Virginia suburbs. Yet Allen seemed oblivious. In the YouTube incident, he didn’t merely address the student with a crude name but followed up with a nativist-scented insult: “Welcome to America and the real world of Virginia.”
That many Republicans ignored the broader implications of this incident—and of the failure of two of the party’s most vociferous illegal-immigration demagogues to hold House seats in Arizona—may be crucial to Democratic hopes in 2008, should all else fail. Blithely stumbling on in the months after Election Day 2006, some of the GOP’s most vocal political and media figures, including much of its incipient presidential field, escalated their truculent border-panic rhetoric. Winning Hispanic recruits for the party had been a major and often successful project for Bush and Karl Rove, starting in Texas, but as election year dawned, that ambition lay in ruins. The GOP’s rampant xenophobia threatened to swing Hispanic votes in the closely fought states of Colorado, Arizona, New Mexico, Nevada, and Florida in 2008. All five had gone for Bush in 2004. Their total electoral votes, fifty-six, dwarf those of, say, Ohio (twenty).
The Democrats’ congressional take-over in 2006 did push their leadership to unequivocally embrace an Iraq endgame. But it has not resolved the party’s intellectual dilemmas or guaranteed it a lock on 2008. President Bush still benefited from a remarkably unified Republican caucus in Congress and, for the first time in his presidency, brandished the veto pen. Unable to affect White House war policy, the Democratic-led Congress, fairly or not, lost much of the moral high ground on Iraq with voters, giving Republicans an opportunity to blur distinctions between the two parties as the public waited for a coherent exit strategy. And waited impatiently. Though repeated polls at the end of 2007 found that voters recognized the improved security in Iraq after the “surge,” those same surveys found that the majorities calling for a prompt withdrawal and terming the war “a mistake” remained unchanged from the war’s most violent nadir. Congress soon found itself with approval ratings as low as and sometimes lower than the President’s. The number of Americans who judged their country to be “on the wrong track” remained stuck at 70 percent and higher, views that were soon to be complemented by an economic gloom as thick as any pollsters had seen since the early 1990s.
The Democrats’ conflicted history on Iraq haunts the presidential campaign. Unlike John Edwards or pundits like Peter Beinart, Hillary Clinton refused to acknowledge that her support for the 2002 war resolution was a mistake. Instead, her husband disingenuously declared that he, at least, had been against the Iraq war “from the beginning.” When that ruse failed, the Clinton campaign tried to muddy Barack Obama’s early opposition to the war, a signature element of his presidential candidacy, by claiming (also incorrectly) that he had gone wobbly in the years since. Meanwhile, every Democratic candidate called for the war’s quick end (though Clinton had the loosest timetable). Every major Democratic candidate took a muscular stand on foreign policy in general and terrorism in particular rather than emulating the party’s supposed mob of MoveOn.org–Netroots peaceniks so hyperbolically caricatured and feared by liberal hawks who had initially supported the Iraq war.
On domestic issues, the most energetic class-conscious populist appeal, made by Edwards, gained at most modest traction in the early going. Clinton and Obama, whatever the fine points of their policy differences, hewed to standard party orthodoxy. Clinton’s laundry list of programs recalled her husband’s centrism (and triangulation); she seemed to be campaigning for a third Clinton term. Obama’s domestic agenda was united by a larger, reconciliatory theme that at times echoed Michael Tomasky’s notion of a “common good.” But if the early 2008 votes in Iowa and New Hampshire were any indication, the race for the Democratic nomination was going to be a scramble built less on policy than on a wide variety of factors including race, gender, negative campaigning, and the usual unpredictable events of any political season.
However much the Democrats might finesse differences on Iraq or any other issue in 2008, their best hopes for electoral victory still have less to do with their own ideas than with the sorry state of their opponents. Compared to the increasingly fractious and disheartened conservative coalition, the Democrats could pass for a model of coherence and unity. Compared to the Bush presidency, almost any conceivable Democratic ticket would seem a step up to the vast majority of voters eager to turn the page. The Democrats could yet lose the White House in 2008, especially if the general election becomes a referendum on the Clintons or race, but it would take the party’s full powers of self-immolation to do so.
—January 17, 2008