The other reason it’s an unfortunate title is, of course, that the recent election was about many things–President Bush’s popularity, the war on terrorism, a revulsion for the Democrats that periodically seems to grip the electorate, or perhaps just a subliminal realization that repudiating Republican candidates meant repudiating Bush, which most voters weren’t willing to do–but the results suggest that it certainly was not about the economy.
But like so many great one-hit wonders–“Louie, Louie,” “Wipe Out,” and so on–the energetically argued It’s Still The Economy, Stupid will still have fans, will still be a mainstay on the oldies stations, will still get fannies shaking at wedding receptions and bar mitzvahs, and will inevitably have a comeback. And that is likely to happen sooner than you’d think. The war is Topic A right now, and not much of an alphabet follows. But the midterm elections, by giving Bush virtually everything he needs to pass his agenda, likely means the war won’t remain Topic A forever–or even for long. As Bush I demonstrated, even winning a war in a romp doesn’t spare a president from a tanking economy. And if winning a war doesn’t give a president a free pass, imagine how getting into a protracted stalemate in Iraq will play. At that point, we’ll see how hummable Begala’s song will be.
It should be pretty catchy. I can’t explain why Democrats weren’t able to tie the corporate scandals to the president’s policies. But pointing out that the president wants to give massive tax cuts to outrageously overpaid CEOs who preside over companies whose books are rigged in order to dodge taxes and inflate stock prices that inevitably hit stockholders’ retirement accounts and college funds seems as irresistible to me as “Na Na, Hey, Hey, Kiss Him Goodbye.” Perhaps it’s the Democrats’ own corruption and culpability, represented by the repugnant, mud-caked Terry McAuliffe, that kept them silent. But it would be to their advantage to get past that. Electoral politics is a matter of Us and Them, and Begala is smart to want the Democrats to draw this distinction on economic grounds. Doing so with identity politics or cultural differences is a loser’s game. But trying to build an Us Who Want Something coalition that’s an electoral majority over the Thems Who Seem to Have Enough seems like a worthwhile proposition. Especially when the Bushies want to keep giving tax cuts to the hyper-rich and to repeal the alternative minimum tax for corporations, as Begala persuasively points out.
The genius of America is that it’s founded on the mutually antagonistic principles of liberty and equality, and much of our history is the story of balancing the imperatives of those ideals. Many pundits made the point after the election that Democrats are bereft of ideas. But as long as Democrats remember that they’re first and foremost the party of equality–equal rights, equal opportunity, fundamental fairness, the common good both at home and abroad–human nature ensures they will never lack for opponents.
But even with this message, the party still needs a messenger. Apart from Begala’s former master, the Democrats haven’t had one worth a damn since JFK. Making the Us versus Them argument work requires someone who can authentically represent the Us part of the equation. Bill Clinton never seemed like a man who tenderly nurtured his resentments, but he wore his working-class background like a badge of honor, and every voter who, at one point or another, had had to wear old shoes or their cousin’s hand-me-down sports coat knew where his sympathies lay. The 1992 debate in which Clinton rose from his seat to tell a woman how he’d been personally affected by the recession, while Bush pre sat behind him glancing at his watch, was a signature moment, and the next Democratic savior has to be capable of pulling something like that off.
But such scenes only happen if one set of circumstances pertains. Right now, it’s not really the economy, stupid. Americans still haven’t gotten over our fear of terrorism; we’re concerned first and foremost for our safety. Whatever we’re going to be afraid of in 2004 can be seen only dimly, if at all. But for Democrats to prevail, voters will have become afraid that Bush can no longer handle the job, whether it’s terrorism or a ruined economy.