The Democrats' feel-good guy

Who would have guessed that running on the politics of hope was a smart move after all?

From 2000 to 2006, Democrats enjoyed unprecedented party unity. Their combined outrage over the Florida recount, Ralph Nader's role as a spoiler, the Iraq war and general hatred of President Bush forced left-wing activists to rally around the Democratic banner. They believed that they constituted a broad "movement," that they embodied the authentic voice of the people, that they would "take back" America and, once in power, transform it. If only Democrats ran things, there'd be no war, our allies would love us, global warming would be brought to heel and we would have universal healthcare, happily married gay neighbors and embryonic stem cells for everybody.

Instead, for the third time since the Democrats took over Congress with a much-trumpeted "mandate" to end the war, they've ended up voting to fund it. The Bush and Maliki administrations have announced a long-term partnership that will permit military bases in Iraq for years, if not generations, to come. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi's antiwar point man, Rep. Jack Murtha, accidentally admitted last week that the surge was working. And we've now discovered that Pelosi and other leading Democrats have known about CIA waterboarding since 2002 and were apparently fine with it then.

If I were a Nader-ite, I would be mad enough to drive my Prius over the family cat.

Meanwhile, on the domestic front, the canard that the Democrats' '06 victory represented some sort of tidal wave of good-government reform is laying on the ground in a battered heap of implausibility. Senate Democrats recently abandoned the canard of "paygo" -- a budgeting gimmick that requires paying for tax cuts or spending increases with spending cuts or tax increases elsewhere. Democrats are also taking it on the chin for funding their pet projects. The headline of a front-page Washington Post article on House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer told the tale: "Hoyer Is Proof of Earmarks' Endurance." In this newspaper Monday, a front-page headline blared: "Clinton rolls a sizable pork barrel."

If I were a netrooter, I'd be so frustrated that I might post a really, really, angry comment on a blog in ALL CAPS.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said it well in Monday's Roll Call: "Have we stopped the war in Iraq? No. Have we gotten healthcare? No. Have we improved education? No. But we have been able to do what we've done. We've done a lot of things."

It depends on the meaning of "a lot," I suppose.

The reemergence of the traditional rifts on the left were inevitable. Years of powerlessness obscured the divides between, for example, liberal internationalists, left-leaning realists and ideological opponents of American "empire."

Still, Democrats are doubling down on their 2006 promises even after a year of coming up short. If Democrats win the White House and more congressional seats in 2008, they vow, then suddenly the world will change.

But that's a delusion too. They may pass more legislation, but increased Democratic power will further highlight the party's fault lines. And the emotional oomph that self-described progressives draw from their rallies, protests and blogs cannot be sustained as a governing program because our government is blessedly designed to siphon off such excitement.

The lesson that Democratic victory isn't magically transformative is a grievous one for the activists who'd dreamed of a fairy-tale deliverance from Bush. And the first stage of grief is denial -- and that's the real source of Barack Obama's recent surge in the polls. As Washington politics grow more disappointing, Obama's appeal grows more powerful. Those who do not want to believe that politics will let them down are flocking to Obama on the false hope that he can sustain the euphoria.

Hillary Clinton's campaign excelled in the old unity. Any Democrat would deliver a New Politics, she argued, so why not vote for the most experienced one with the best chance in the general election?

But that argument no longer sells. The first female front-runner for president is, amazingly, the candidate of the establishment. For all except a few feminists, she's a buzz-kill. Voting for Clinton just doesn't make Democrats feel good about themselves. Because they still want a victory that will magically change the world. Unfortunately for her, neither "Democrat" nor "Clinton" nor "Hillary" are abracadabra words anymore. But Obama is.

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