Dems jockey to get off ship

In early October 2006, as it was becoming more obvious by the day that Republicans were going to lose big in November, I was approached by a nervous young presidential aide at a White House meeting. He reminded me that I had been around in 1974 when the GOP took a post-Watergate pasting that those who lived through will never forget. 

Wondering what it was like back then, he asked, “Did it feel like this?”

“Worse,” I said, “much worse.” Back then, Republicans knew there was no way out, and the apprehension by October was probably greater than among 1994 Democrats, who managed to remain in denial almost until the votes were counted. 

This time, though, Democrats know what’s coming and, like their Republican counterparts back in 1974, they don’t know what to do about it. As a result, they’re rushing around the deck of the sinking ship blaming each other, the media and, in some case, the “stupidity” of an ungrateful electorate.

With limited funds and a need to focus on incumbents they might actually be able to save, today’s fights among the Democrats are over who ought to be allowed into the lifeboats and who ought to stoically accept their fate. Democratic leaders have triaged candidates they believe are drowning anyway in an understandable effort to save those they can.

The problem is that the folks they are preparing to cut loose are politicians who all share the feeling deep down that they are but one commercial or rally away from a political comeback and reelection. When they sense that they are being jettisoned, they’ll forget about the tsunami that has put them in jeopardy and the votes they cast that linked them at the hip to their leaders and focus their dismay and hatred on the people denying them a seat in the lifeboats. 

The result is chaos on Capitol Hill, a breakdown in party discipline, a realization that legislation Democratic leaders wanted to pass in the closing days of the session is in jeopardy and talk of sending everyone home early. The growing feeling that this time it may be “every man and woman for themselves” is growing, and those trying to keep the troops in line are near panic as their army appears ready to desert.

Outside the Congress, Democratic loyalists like Paul Begala have been excoriating candidates who have distanced themselves from the president, Nancy Pelosi and the programs they all so fervently embraced in the heady days following the Democratic sweep of 2008. Begala went so far last week as to name some of those he considered “cowards”: Reps. Jason Altmire (Pa.), Bobby Bright (Ala.), Frank Kratovil (Md.), Walt Minnick (Idaho) and Stephanie Herseth Sandlin (S.D.), among others, seem to have set him off for not being willing to go quietly, but their numbers have increased since as more and more Democratic incumbents try to elbow their way to the lifeboats.

Actually, Begala had a point in describing the “strategy” of distancing one’s candidacy from the party, its leaders and the president as “lunacy.” Candidates who run away from their leaders usually lose at both ends. They are seen as “cowards” by their party’s activist base, the opposition party’s voters don’t buy it, and independent or swing voters see them as unprincipled politicians more interested in a job and a paycheck than in serving their constituents.

The problem is that try as they might, Democratic candidates this year find themselves between the proverbial rock and a hard place. What we are seeing is not a strategy, but panic. For months, Democratic leaders have been telling members that voters who appeared ready to desert them would “come to their senses” about the healthcare bill and stimulus package and rally by Labor Day.

That clearly hasn’t happened and isn’t about to between now and Election Day. As a result, no Democrat in a seriously contested race is advertising what Congress and the president have managed to “accomplish” over the past two years; they behold a once-popular president whining about being “treated like a dog” and blaming a little-known Republican congressman and a predecessor for his and their troubles. None of this is helping, and there’s panic on deck.

It’s easy enough for those who hope to survive to tell those they’ve decided aren’t worth saving to go down with the ship, but when those about to be abandoned begin to think about just who put the ship in harm’s way in the first place, one can understand their reaction.

Keene is chairman of the American Conservative Union and a managing associate with the Carmen Group, a Washington-based governmental consulting firm.