When I was a small child, about 5 or so, I had a recurring dream in which I was driving a car, but was still a child and didn’t know how to drive it. It carried me all sorts of places I’d never intended to go, and I couldn’t make it stop. My dream car never crashed, because I learned how to wake myself up before things got too dire, but it was frightening nonetheless. The United States at the moment is in the grip of a similar dream. All sorts of things are careening out of the control of the electorate, of those of us who are theoretically in the driver’s seat, but who cannot control where the country is going.
Another view of who’s in the driver’s seat is that we elect a president every four years, and after that it’s up to him to guide the country—the public transit theory of democracy. The problem is that to those of us in the back of the bus it looks like the driver is asleep at the wheel. Bush’s approval ratings have slipped dramatically below 50 percent in all the polls, no matter who takes them. The masses (now there’s an old-style word) of American voters have figured out that the current administration is wrong on every crucial issue: Iraq, global climate change, health care, the deficit—all the polls show that Americans have lost faith in the administration’s ability to deal with the real problems that confront us as a nation. And yet there are three more years of the Bush II regime ahead, plenty of time for the country to crash and burn.
The popular wisdom is that national and state legislatures have been so badly gerrymandered by Republicans and Democrats eager to protect their own seats that very few districts change hands at election time. This belief was reflected in the fairly substantial vote for California Proposition 77, which would have taken redistricting away from the Assembly, though it was ultimately rejected. Is there a chance that the Democrats could take Congress back in the 2006 election?
We encountered Max Anderson (on the Berkeley City Council) catching Hal Stein’s amazing saxophone at Anna’s Jazz Island on Saturday night. He told me that the Dec. 10 tribute to Maudelle Shirek which he’s organizing will feature a Democratic challenger to Iowa Representative Steve King, who achieved local infamy by channeling Joe McCarthy while blocking naming the Berkeley Post Office after Shirek. I don’t know if the candidate has any chance at all, but presumably there are those in King’s district who are embarrassed by him, and by his unwavering support for the out-of-control national administration. But a better strategy for getting rid of King in a solid Republican district might be to find a moderate candidate to enter Iowa’s Jan. 16 Republican party caucus. On the other hand, the latest Harris poll shows that only 28 percent of Republicans think that Bush is misleading the country, as compared to 91 percent of Democrats, so that might not work.
For 2008, there’s also the presidential candidate dilemma. At the moment, no opposing candidate looks very plausible. In the old days, all a candidate needed to do to win was to promise to clean up the mess in Washington, but no one yet has been willing to do that. It’s a measure of our desperation that Al Gore is looking better and better, but no announced Democratic candidate has stood up on his hind legs and called the mess in Washington the mess in Washington. Hillary Clinton’s fans are busy promoting her as the right Democrat-lite, but like the rest of them she’s unwilling to call for drastic changes in the way the country’s being run.
Another sobering thought is that the sensible majority might get the country back in 2006 or 2008, but it would be so broke by that time that it couldn‘t be fixed. This administration has been very diligent about transferring the taxes paid by middle class Americans into the pockets of the super-rich. The worst case would be that a dream ticket (think Clinton-Obama) would be elected only to preside over the last rites of a bankrupt nation.
The Bill Clinton administration managed to reverse the deficit inherited from previous Republican tomfoolery, but can it be done a second time? The country might have reached the economic nadir first achieved by American cities in the late seventies and early eighties. When mayor’s offices in cities like Detroit were finally turned over to women and African-Americans, it was a sign that the moneyed elite had finished plundering them, and they never really came back after that. By 2008, the financial assets of ordinary Americans might have been converted to bank accounts in the Bahamas or 60,000 square foot mansions in Dallas. If the country’s out of gas, it won’t matter who’s driving.