You know that famous movie scene, when the Cowardly Lion quivers and quakes in the presence of the purportedly Great and Powerful Oz, and finally he flees in terror down the hall, and hurls himself head first through a window? Need a reminder?
What a perfect metaphor for today’s Democratic party.
The cowardly scions of the party’s Capitol Hill majority announced yesterday that they will flee in terror from one of their own signature campaign issues – tax cuts for the middle-class, not for the rich – an abject surrender that will give Democratic voters a brand new reason to stay home on midterm election day. The party’s congressional leaders fear that if they staged House and Senate votes on this issue prior to the election, oooooo, the Republicans might say some mean things about them in TV ads.
If the Democrats had the requisite guts to stand up for their own convictions (just as the GOP does all the time), they would pay no attention to the smoke and clamor orchestrated by the man behind the curtain. In this gutsy alternative universe, Democrats would craft a simple, repeatable message – something like, “We support the extension of tax cuts for the middle-class; the Republicans support more tax cuts for millionaires and billionaires.” Then they’d schedule those House and Senate votes, and force the Republicans to stand up for the millionaires and billionaires.
The Republicans would naturally block the middle-class cuts, insisting that no such bill should proceed unless the rich got the same bounty. But so what if they did? The Republicans would then be on record with a vote that thwarts new tax relief for the average Joe, and the Democrats would be able to show their base that they battled on the issue all the way to the floor.
But a party can’t be bold when it’s folded in a fetal position.
Apparently, a few dozen politically vulnerable Democratic congressmen, running for re-election in swing states and districts, are afraid that if the party went to the wall on this tax issue, the GOP would run nasty TV ads. And that fear was enough of a reason for Democratic leaders to cave.
Democrats live in perpetual fear of being tagged as tax-hikers in TV ads. The GOP claims, for instance, that the cancellation of Bush tax cuts for the rich would hurt small businesses. That’s actually a phony assertion – because tax experts say that only three percent of small-business taxpayers are in the rich-income brackets – but Democrats, being Democrats, have zero faith in their power to refute. Nor do they seem to realize – despite years of cruel experience – that the Republicans will run nasty and deceptive attack ads regardless of whether the Democrats stand up for themselves or not.
Here’s the essential difference between the two parties: In 2001, President Bush and congressional Republicans pushed hard for big tax cuts despite having no mandate from the American people. Bush had just lost the popular vote in the ’00 election, the Republicans had lost congressional seats in that election, and the early ’01 polls reported that people were skeptical about Bush’s tax plan (according to Gallup, only 41 percent wanted the Senate to pass the plan, and roughly 75 percent wanted the plan to give more benefits to lower-income taxpayers). Yet the GOP hewed to its convictions anyway.
By contrast, the current Democrats control both chambers, and they’re on the upside of a winning campaign issue. A late-August Newsweek poll reported that only 38 percent of Americans want to extend the tax cuts for the rich; Gallup puts that figure at 37 percent; CNN, 31 percent. And yet they’re too scared to take the tax fight to those chambers, even with the wind at their backs, and give their own grassroots supporters a reason to vote.
Heck, they’re too scared to even give their own beleaguered candidates an issue to run on. Witness this cry of frustration from Pennsylvania senatorial candidate Joe Sestak, who said in a statement late yesterday, “This is no time to shy away from this fight….We were elected to fight for ordinary Americans, and this is the moment when we prove we can fulfill that public trust….We cannot afford to kick the can down the road. Let’s stand up and say ‘enough is enough.'”
But a party can’t stand up for itself if it lacks what the Cowardly Lion called “duh noive.” Unless or until the Democrats finally get the nerve, they don’t deserve to be king of the forest.