ACLU, Meet the NRA

Saving the Constitution is more important than beating Bush.

The democrats seem to have all the fight left of the Iraqi Republican Guard. In the coming presidential campaign, they are bound to fold like the proverbial house of cards before the mighty Bush junta. They are poorly armed and unled. And they lack the will to win.

There are many signs of impending disaster, not the least of which is the Top Gun president landing on an aircraft carrier. Against this photo op, the Democrats will always be Michael Dukakis in a tank. The threat of pre-emptive war will continue to justify the sacrifices of our liberties, reason, and resources.

Bush’s handlers know that Americans will willingly give up even more to feel safe. Look how many people live in planned communities with covenants more restrictive than your average Stalinist state. Bush and Ashcroft are looting our treasured rights like Iraqi hooligans (or Halliburton executives) after the fall. They will keep going until they hit formidable resistance. For now, the electorate is giving them a free hand.

Another ill sign is the candidates themselves.

Granted, it’s early, but the Democrats do best when Bush is polled against an “unnamed Democrat.” Things get worse when you name names. The current field of nine contains the usual embarrassments (Carol Moseley Braun), lefty idealists (Dennis Kucinich), hacks (Dick Gephardt), New England outsiders (Howard Dean), black preachers (Al Sharpton), stolid senators (John Kerry, Joe Lieberman), and Southern centrists (John Edwards, Bob Graham).

Any of these would make a better president than Bush if they actually won an election, because even the worst elected president is better than an unelected one. But the best so far only poll in the 30 percent range to Bush’s 60 percent. Sure, we’re still getting acquainted, and the race will tighten, but even if you buy that America is still split 50-50, as in 2000, the D’s have none of the advantages they had then, financial or otherwise.

Some candidates likely will show us virtues in the months ahead, but they are a weak run of salmon swimming upstream toward a very big dam. (The way the economy is going, let’s call it Hoover Dam.)

Speaking of the economy, another bad sign is that the Democrats are in their usual, unenviable position of hitching their election prospects to the hope that things will get worse. “When the next depression comes, people will vote for us!” “Just wait until those deficits hit!” “The next terror attack will prove Bush has left us unprepared.” Americans want a Cassandra president as much as they wanted a second helping of Jimmy Carter’s malaise.

If you’re talking regime change, voters want a figure who embodies American optimism, who can tease us with a brighter future. Jack Kennedy, Bill Clinton, and Ronald Reagan all did that. The Democrats will need a standard-bearer with a positive, creative, inspiring story to tell. Hatred of Bush and doomsday scenarios are not enough for Democratic victory and could alienate swing voters.

And to have a prayer, Democrats will have to stop their habit of surrendering before a shot is fired. In last weekend’s South Carolina debate among the Democratic candidates, Missouri Congressman Dick Gephardt argued for a plan to create a kind of universal health care coverage. But his fellow Democrats cut him off. “We’re not going to solve these problems with big-spending Democratic ideas of the past,” intoned the righteous former VP candidate Joe Lieberman, sounding like Bob Dole.

As in Baghdad, the party’s leadership has been decapitated.

So if liberals must write off winning in 2004, why get up in the morning? Because despite facing defeat, they should take the time to regain their voice and speak the truth to power. Victory is less important than using the campaign to regain credibility and developing an actual vision based on more than just the wishful thinking that history will repeat itself and Bush II will magically topple like Bush I after the Gulf War. And I’m not talking about spouting the usual loser lefty ideas. The campaign must begin to define a post-Bush America that will be safer, saner, fairer, more prosperous, and maybe even law-abiding.

Will terrorized America be ready to hear this message? Maybe not right away. As biblical commentator Matthew Henry wrote, there are “none so deaf as those that will not hear.” The American people don’t much want to hear unpleasant truths, partly because of residual fear from 9/11, but also because the Bush strategy is not only to wage a war against terrorism but to also cultivate a degree of terror in the people. Fear creates a vacuum in which sound cannot carry.

Winning in 2004 is much less important than working to create an immediate, stronger bulwark to protect our constitutional rights. That can be done by finding allies for whom the protection of basic rights is paramount. Already a few far-right politicians, like former Georgia Congressman Bob Barr, are working with the ACLU to stem the tide of the Patriot Acts. On the flip side, the left needs to embrace the Second Amendment, because our liberties will only be respected if we have the means to defend ourselves against rogue regimes, foreign or domestic. Imagine the lobbying and defensive power of an alliance consisting of ACLU conservatives and NRA liberals.

Now that would be real progress on homeland security.