With roughly six months remaining of the Bush administration, the country faces turmoil on a score of fronts: gas prices are near historic heights; thousands of homes are being foreclosed on each week; unemployment is on the rise, and an unpopular war has led to the death of more than 4,100 troops and added nearly $1 trillion to the national debt.
It’s not, one might venture, the political climate a president or Congress would hope to inherit. (Who, after all, wants the responsibility of balancing the budget and seeing to it that Medicare doesn’t go belly-up?) Yet many political experts say the turmoil might make it easier for Democrats — who are widely expected to be in control of both congressional chambers come January 2009 — to move some of their reform agenda next year and beyond. In the wake of the chaos soon to be left by Bush, these experts say, lies the opening for some real headway on the party’s priorities.
Illustration by: Matt Mahurin
"Whoever is elected is going to inherit a terrible mess, both domestically and internationally," said Alan Brinkley, an American history professor and the provost at Columbia University. "But when things get really bad, there’s often an opportunity for change … I don’t rule out the possibility of some major reforms."
Democrats, since seizing power of Congress in 2007, have been pushing hard to pass an array of proposals supported by their liberal base. But most of those efforts — including an expansion in children’s health care, a move to renewable energies and enhanced oversight of defense contractors — have gone little further than the House. Many died early deaths in the Senate, while others fell to a presidential veto. Experts says the tide could change next year — at least in part because of the current administration’s unpopularity.
"George Bush basically corrupted the Republican brand," said Garrison Nelson, a political science professor at the University of Vermont. "It doesn’t really matter who’s president, the Democrats [in Congress] will basically have their way."
Such observations hinge on the central premise, sustained by history, that sweeping change in Washington usually occurs only on the tail of some crisis. The Wall St. crash of 1929, for example, set the stage for New Deal programs that widely expanded the role and reach of the federal government in American life. The 1941 bombing of Pearl Harbor proved too great a calamity for the nation to stay out of World War II. The state aggression against civil-rights advocates in the 1960s led to the passage of controversial civil-rights legislation that would have been impossible otherwise. And the attacks of 9/11 allowed the creation of a homeland security colossus that could never have happened under less urgent circumstances.
While the Bush administration’s policies don’t quite rise to the scale of these events, experts say, they have certainly been a unifying force for liberal and moderate critics — both in and out of Congress. Indeed, Bush’s approval ratings are at historic lows, having hovered below 30 percent for months. Congressional approval ranks even lower — coming in at a dismal 19 percent in a poll last month. But there are indications that Bush and his party are being blamed for much of the country’s current trouble. Indeed, many political analysts predict that Democrats will pick up dozens of seats in the House, and perhaps more than six seats in the Senate. Consequently, the administration itself may prove an inadvertent catalyst as Congress aims to swing the political pendulum back toward the center, if not harder to the left.
"As a result of the polarization that Bush created, the Democrats are much more unified," said Nelson Lichtenstein, a history professor at the University of California, Santa Barbara, and the author of "American Capitalism." "There will be a big legislative push [next year]."
That doesn’t mean, experts warned, that Democrats should expect a cakewalk. On certain issues where the public has placed the blame squarely on Bush, Lichtenstein said, Democrats will likely score some victories. This is especially true if the White House goes to Democratic contender Sen. Barack Obama (Ill.).
"An Obama administration is going to have a lot of support across the board for a fairly radical shift [on Iraq]," he said.
But on issues like health-care and labor reform — where there’s less public immediacy and the lines were drawn long before Bush came on the scene — Democrats will be less successful. The civil-rights movement, Lichtenstein said, was not just stirred by the fervent speeches of Martin Luther King Jr., there was the palpable urgency of riots in the streets.
"Today, we don’t have that," he said. "The blogosphere is not the equivalent."
Others were even less optimistic of the Democrats’ chances of initiating real change. With budget deficits poised to top $400 billion next year — and special-interest groups holding an increasing sway over the legislative process — some say that Washington is too broke for a quick fix. John Morton Blum, history professor emeritus at Yale University and a Roosevelt scholar, said that these factors, combined with the entrenchment of partisan politics, will prevent any major reforms in the near future.
"Everything has been done wrong for eight years," Blum said. "Rectification will take four to six years, at a minimum. Accomplishment of something novel may prove not only politically but economically impossible.
"[The pendulum] will swing back the other way, just not dramatically."
Gordon Silverstein, assistant professor of political science at the University of California — Berkeley, distinguished between a true breaking point, like Pearl Harbor, and the gradual slide that’s occurred under eight years of the Bush administration. Unless the economy takes a real nose-dive, he said, the reforms will likely be gradual as well. "Whether that was the responsibility of the Bush administration wouldn’t matter," he said. "It’s the crisis itself that would matter."
The types of crises that lead to legislative overhauls are rare, Silverstein added — and hardly desirable. "The Great Depression is a hell of a price to pay for real reform," he said. "Huge pendulum swings are virtually impossible under the American system. And that’s precisely how it was designed to work."
Since taking the congressional majority, House Democrats have passed scores of proposals catering to the populist base that thrust them into power. The proposals include things as prominent as expanding stem cell research and pulling troops out of Iraq, and as obscure as regulating chemicals in popcorn butter and forcing the earlier release of presidential records. The stalemate over many of these proposals has contributed to Congress’s low approval ratings. Many of those proposals have presidential vetoes hovering over them.
The list is a good indication of what the Democrats hope to accomplish next year. How far they get hinges largely on the results of the elections, but a pervasive public gloom over current events could play a role as well. A recent poll found that only 16 percent of Americans think the country is headed in the right direction.
For one prominent historian, the idea of coming in after Bush is hardly a welcome one.
"The next president’s going to have a hell of a time," said Blum of Yale. "I don’t know why anyone would even want the job."