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Once upon a time, not too long ago, the president of the United States declared that the war on terrorism was the most important issue in this year's presidential campaign.
Then every time his opponent brought up this most important of issues, George W. Bush cried foul, accusing John Kerry of hindering the war on terrorism. (America might be a democracy, but that doesn't mean the Democrat has a right to campaign.)
The president's campaign enlisted the taxpayers' servants as agents of his re-election, with Secret Service officers submitting attendees at Bush rallies to ideological X-rays, and election officials systematically suppressing the franchise of groups most likely to vote Democratic. Meanwhile the president, who earned some 500,000 votes less than his opponent, busied himself ramming through a radical legislative program as if he had won by a landslidehis congressional deputies all but barring deliberative input from the opposition party in order to do it and gaming the legislative apportionment system in ways, as the counsel to one Texas representative bragged in an e-mail to colleagues, that "should assure that Republicans keep the House no matte[r] the national mood."
In Washington, it has turned some once calm souls into apocalyptics.
Thomas Mann is a senior fellow in governance studies at the Brookings Institution, noted for his deliberateness of manner, his decency, and his near religious devotion to the ideal of bipartisan comity. Now, he says, "I see the damage to our system and our sense of ourselves as a democratic people as really quite substantial. . . . The consequences of both the policies and the processes have been more destructive of our national interest and our democratic institutions than any president I know." When someone as level-headed as Tom Mann begins to worry for the future of our democracy, that's news.
Here's something that's even more newsworthy: Spend three days talking to movers and shakers around this town and you're hard-pressed to find anyone who agrees. Even those who think the president is stealing our democratic birthright are eloquent in their excuses for why we shouldn't do anything much about it at all.
Democratic insiders use politics to explain their inaction away. They've seen the focus groups: Accusations of a president draining the lifeblood from democracy just won't play in Peoria. "It's what the folks in this business, we call an 'elite argument,' " says Jeff Shesol, who was a speechwriter for President Clinton and whose firm, West Wing Writers, develops messages for some of the most prominent Democratic campaigns. "It pitches too high to reach the mass electorate."
Julian Epstein, another Democratic consultant and frequent talking head, puts it more simply. "People will think you're whining," he says.
Peter Fenn, a Washington advertising guru who frequently represents the Democratic side on CNN, Fox News, and MSNBC, says reaching voters on this point is hopeless: "Their eyes glaze over when you deal with process kind of issues."
Yet the "process," by many accounts, is not just broken but shattered, intentionally ground into dust by Karl Rove and his Republican campaign machine. "What these guys do every day, as a matter of course, without thinking twice about it, would be dramatic transgressions even under Nixon," Jeff Shesol admits from his Dupont Circle office, crowded with paraphernalia from Democratic triumphs past. He's just amazingly quick to dismiss the notion that there's anything a Democratic presidential campaign can do about it. "It is very hard for most people to look at Bush and see him as an extremist," he says. "It is very hard to make that charge stick to a guy who seems so down-home, so commonsense, such a decent man."
It's a telling formulation: Highly placed D.C. Democrats accept Bush's public image as a fait accomplia kind of semiotic unilateral disarmament. So they don't even bother to case the weapons in their arsenal. I remind Shesol of the NBC report last springnever effectively rebutted by the White Housethat revealed the most Orwellian face of the administration imaginable: that "before the war the Bush administration had several chances to wipe out" the terrorist operations of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, but didn't because it "feared destroying the terrorist camp in Iraq could undercut its case for war against Saddam."
"Wow," Shesol responds, with a breath of surprise. George Bush sold out our security in order to pull off a sales job; that, certainly, is not an "elite" message. That's not a "process" story. So why don't we hear it?
"Idon'tknow," Jeff Shesol answers. He sounds defeated, as if Republican traducing of democratic deliberation was something like the weather, beyond anyone's power to change. "How is it that a month's worth of airtime is sucked up by the Swift Boat Veterans?" he asks, bewilderment in his voice. "How is it that a month of our national attention is consumed by this, and not some of these other questions, is a very difficult thing to explain. And until we can really understand how that happens, I don't know that we can effectively respond to it."
Epstein called arguments focusing on injury to democracy a "sideshow": better to focus on executive mismanagement. He adds, "Most people would rather vote for the guy that stole the other guy's lunch money, rather than the guy who complained that his lunch money was stolen."