By Frank Gruber
Last Wednesday evening I was pleased to be the guest of the Santa Monica Democratic Club to discuss my book, Urban Worrier: Making Politics Personal. I was doubly pleased because the group would also be discussing the question of what it means to be a Democrat, something I have thought about a lot.
To suit the occasion, I chose for my text for my talk -- and yes, my friends and family have noticed that I treat my writings as more scriptural than is healthy -- a column I wrote in February 2003, just as the Bush administration was marching the country into the Iraq War. The column was called "Tough on Lefties" (February 23, 2003) and it was a response to my wife's complaint that in making fun the previous week of the Santa Monica City Council's debate on the merits of an invasion of Iraq, I had been tougher on lefties than I should be.
The gist of my complaint about the Left in that column was that I was tired of losing elections. In 40 years the Left had won the culture war by moving the country's values far toward greater tolerance and more civil liberties, but since 1968 the Left had had a terrible time at the ballot box. My point was that many leftists were more interested in scoring rhetorical points than in winning elections and governing.
Reading the column now, after the election of 2008, I must admit that I have little to complain about. It took a man of the next generation of the Left named Barack Obama, and also the utter failure of a man of my generation of the Right named George W. Bush, but finally the Left again gained the majority and won an election.
So everything's cool, right? It's a great time to be a Democrat, yes?
If only that were true. Never underestimate the ability of leftists to be unhappy. Many of them -- many of the "Democratic wing of the Democratic Party" -- are anxious. It's been eight months since the new government took power, and paradise has not been enacted. Obama is not fighting for single-payer health insurance, and even the comparatively realistic fret that we may not get a public option. There's a war going on in Afghanistan that's getting bigger. Big corporations are still being listened to.
The discussion at the Democratic Club about what it means to be a Democrat was interesting. It mirrored debates among Democrats around the country, about whether "being a Democrat" meant you had to accept compromise to govern. Just as in the national debate, there were Democrats at the meeting who could not accept that their president could compromise their principles, or talk deals with
Republicans, while there were others who were willing to give the administration and the Democratic leadership in Congress the benefit of any doubts, recognizing the difficulty of achieving change in a country that was suspicious of it.
You can guess whose side I was on. If it was easy to enact universal healthcare coverage, it would have happened when President Harry S Truman proposed it 60 years ago.
The odd thing was the context: all the Democrats at the meeting were saddened by the death of Ted Kennedy. There was no senator in the past 50 years who knew more about wheeling and dealing than Senator Kennedy. The lion of the Senate was lionized by those who want to hold Democrats, now that they have power, to a higher standard of purity.
What bothers me most about this argument is how some leftwing Democrats immediately adopt the Green Party rhetoric of "they're all the same." They say that because Democrats accept money from business, too, they can't be trusted.
Look -- no one is going to take money out of politics. But it astounds me that after eight years of Republican rule, and after the electorate gave a majority to a president with impeccable liberal credentials, there are leftists who don't acknowledge that there are real differences between Democrats and Republicans.
Yes, some of the despised "Blue Dog Democrats" are nervous about a public insurance option. But I haven't heard of any who oppose universal coverage, and as one reality-based Democrat at the Democratic Club meeting pointed out, if it weren't for winning those Blue Dog seats in formerly Republican districts, Henry Waxman wouldn't be the chairman of the committee with responsibility for writing the healthcare bill. He'd still be merely the ranking member, and there would be no bill.
There is one reason that we don't have universal coverage today, and that is because the Democrats have controlled both the White House and Congress for only two years since 1980. Leftists who in their despair about the state of America want to equate the two parties have to realize that Democrats have not had real power at the national level for two generations.
Six years ago I was tough on lefties for losing. Now, in this time of victory, let's not be tough on lefties for winning. Let President Obama and the Democratic congressional leadership govern. If they fail, then the Left won't win power again for another generation.