Lately I’ve been having one of those anxiety dreams, the same one over and over. I awake bathed in perspiration, my pulse racing and my breath coming in short, agitated pants.
This is a variation on anxiety nightmares I’ve experienced before. You know, the ones where you show up at a completely unfamiliar classroom to discover you're late for a final exam ... and not only have you not studied for it, but you don’t even know what the course is, who the professor is or where you left your sharpened lead pencil.
My latest affliction is worse. In this one, I'm glued to my recliner on election night, unable to move my eyes from the screen. As the results are posted, the outcome becomes clearer and the unthinkable has happened: John McCain has won and the long, painful national catastrophe that is the Bush administration will assuredly spiral downward for at least another four years.
Once my shakes have been dealt with and I have a cup of coffee in my system, I'm able to consider what this nightmare might mean. (I won’t frighten you with the Freudian interpretations that inevitably suggest themselves; those are how I always explain my traditional anxiety dreams. These new ones need an updated explication ... something more systems-related, something more political.)
I think I'm going through déjà vu. This election cycle's starting to feel eerily like the last two, each of which began with the Democrats in control on Labor Day, only to go straight downhill from there, ending with mind-numbing electoral disaster.
If Al Gore could be stricken brain-dead during nationally televised debates with Dubya, an opponent whom Gore should have been able to dispatch with one wit tied behind his back, and if a bona fide war hero like John Kerry could be transformed into the hopelessly immobile and non-responsive target of Swift Boat smearers that we witnessed stolidly plodding to defeat, well, then, no campaign is beyond the grasp of the GOP electoral magicians.
Hold on, you say. The current Republican president’s popularity is scraping bottom, the economy is coughing badly, and the Occupation of Iraq stretches on and on and on, a constant reminder of both ill-fated presidential hubris and of the bankrupt state of our moral and economic checking accounts. How could the Republicans possibly win?
My nightmare is not that the Republicans will somehow manage against all odds to resurrect themselves and win back voters’ confidence, but that the Democrats seem no less capable of fumbling victory away than in the past. I have boundless confidence in the ineptness of my party. They just might blow even this chance.
I won’t get into the possibility that either latent racism in certain segments of the voting public or the wrath of scorned supporters of Sen. Hillary Clinton might play roles in defeating Sen. Barack Obama. Those are very real concerns, but the candidate seems to be tackling them frontally and with effect.
What feeds my anxieties is that something beyond his control could happen: The Democrats in Congress, as well as his own key advisors, might bury his change message under an avalanche of compromise, of “prudence,” of caution, of co-optation. And as the “move toward the center” accelerates, Obama will begin to sound more and more like McCain until, at last, the voter starts having a difficult time examining their differences.
That plays straight into the Republicans’ hands. If there are such small differences between the two parties, the voter tidal wave Democrats are counting on to sweep away the architects of the current debacle may never materialize. Turnout will be suppressed if Tweedledum is indistinguishable from Tweedledee. And a low turnout election is the GOP’s only chance.
It is to their advantage to suppress turnout: Make a big stink about photo ID cards for voting. Restrict the number of polling places in low-income neighborhoods. Purge voter lists using pruning shears, not scalpels. Turn the campaign advertising negative, which turns off many occasional voters and deflates turnout. And minimize the differences between the parties, which drains away the urgency of the newest voters’ determination.
Backtracking on setting a timetable for withdrawal from Iraq and treating expanded offshore drilling for oil as if it were a reasonable way to respond to the escalating price of petroleum fuels are the two areas where I can already see some indicators of Democratic compromising.
If the number of those indicators continues to grow, it could create an atmosphere producing defeat in November.
When Congressional Democrats backed away from any serious discussion of impeachment charges aimed at Bush and Cheney, I grew anxious.
Every time Senate Democrats handcuff themselves by agreeing that it takes 60 votes, not 51, to pass substantive legislation, I have nightmares. (They used to at least force the Republicans to stay up for several nights in a row, filibustering on the floor of the Senate if they wanted to block action. But today the Democrats have made life a lot easier for the Republicans.)
Each time meaningful health care reform gets sidetracked by the predictable coalition of overly cautious Democrats and pro-business Republicans (Or are both factions embedded equally deep in the pockets of the insurance lobby?) I get the shakes.
Democrats are fully capable of handing the November election to McCain ... and will, if they insist on acting like very unpopular Republicans.