The 19th-century French politician Alexandre Ledru-Rollin was once asked to describe the direction in which rank-and-file members of his party were moving. "I do not know," he replied, "but I am their leader, so I must follow them."
That's the absurdly hapless answer most politicians give in one form or another, though they usually can't bring themselves to state it so honestly. And these days demagogic liberals manage to add a new layer of farce to democracy: they make sure to ignore the people when they are right and pander to them when they are wrong.
True, Nancy Pelosi did try and throw a bone to tea partiers last Sunday, but she missed. After having called them members of an "astroturf" movement, she indicated a willingness to find "common ground" with them on the grass of her local social club. Inventing a claim out of thin air, she said that together they "share" the "view that the recent Supreme Court decision, which greatly empowers the special interests, is something that they oppose."
That shared commitment to McCain-Feingold legislation no doubt came as news to them, but then Pelosi is a little rusty at right-wing outreach. The last time she tried it was in 2004, after John Kerry and fellow Democrats polled anemically with "values voters." In a bewildered post-defeat interview, Pelosi allowed that "the Democrats did not connect well enough with the American people. Certainly Democrats are faith-filled. Certainly we love our country, and we're very patriotic, but somehow or other that did not come across when 61% of those who are regular churchgoers voted Republican."
Now, somehow or other, they have the impression that she favors deficit spending. The Jim Bunning controversy this week tested the Democrats' feeble demagogic instincts on that little matter. The former baseball great is clearly playing on grass, not astroturf, but Democrats, along with their media annex, couldn't stop themselves from casting him as a heartless, out-of-touch Republican for not letting them spend more of China's money. Here at last, they thought, is a chance for us to get our momentum back.
Bunning is the "GOP's gift to Dems," declared cutting-edge columnist Clarence Page. Bunning's behavior is proof that "Washington doesn't seem to work" these days, he wrote.
So that's why the American people are "fed up" with Washington? It is not engaging in enough deficit spending? Right. Bunning's protest isn't likely to hurt the Republicans and help the Democrats anymore than did Joe Wilson's "You lie" blurt-out or those "uncivil" healthcare townhall protests.
What appears as bad politics on day one of a controversy looks like good politics a few weeks later in the tea-party climate. Had Bunning been entering his "senator-only elevator" to cast a vote in favor of willy-nilly check bouncing, he might have looked like the overfed plutocrat. But instead he was going up to the Senate floor to make a principled point against it. Bunning's filibuster was "unsenatorial," said exasperated colleagues and reporters. To many Americans that probably sounds like a compliment at this point.
Nevertheless, Dick Durbin, who looks about as credible as a politician on The Simpsons, felt his demagogic juices coming back, and MSNBC, so in tune with the American people it finds itself in a ratings-battle with gardening and decorating channels, trashed Bunning nightly. Rachel Maddow and her crack researchers discovered that Bunning had previously voted for spending bills. Case closed. Only Chris Matthews seemed to show a glimmer of awareness that maybe Bunning had "a point."
Still, Bunning is guilty of an "abuse of power," said Democrats, who feel entitled to spend money they don't have since Republicans under Bush did too. That's what qualifies as "senatorial" behavior and evidence of "Washington working."