That’s a campaign ad for Joe Manchin, the governor of West Virginia who is currently running for the Senate. Don’t worry—it’s not 34 minutes long, though I am disappointed to tell you that he also does not have sex with a turkey. Despite that glaring omission, Manchin still manages to shock. He barely finishes introducing himself before loading a gun, announcing his endorsement from the NRA and saying he’ll “take on Washington and this administration to get the federal government off our backs.” Then he shoots a copy of the cap-and-trade bill. In this election year, even that is not surprising. What is surprising is that Joe Manchin is a Democrat.
Man-Chin is one of several Democratic candidates to distance himself from President and party in recent weeks. Yesterday, Representative Gene Taylor (D–MS) told the South Mississippi Sun Herald* that he voted for John McCain in 2008. That was presumably supposed to testify to his judgment, or at least his deep-seated trust of white people, but it was also a none-too-subtle ploy to distance himself from a decreasingly popular President. Taylor is one of several Democrats to say he wouldn’t support Pelosi for Speaker of the House if his party retains control in November, and he was the first house Dem to support a repeal of the health care reform law.
To call this a uniquely Democratic approach would be unfair. In 2008, when the outgoing President’s approval rating flirted with the mid-twenties like a recently separated creative writing professor, Republican candidates did everything they could to distance themselves from him. He didn’t have another two years on his term, though, and the GOP did not enjoy majorities in both houses.
The strategy did not follow eight years of failed appeasement, either. During the Bush administration—and, most notably, the 2004 election—the Democrats took a similar approach to branding themselves: they were Republicans. Where the GOP offered Americans the “war” on terrorism, the invasion of Iraq and budget-busting tax cuts, Democrats declared themselves tough on terror, committed to the war in Iraq and ready to cut taxes. Shockingly, their message did not resonate. In an election where John Kerry seemed poised to do the same things as George W. Bush but take twice as long to explain it, the American people chose Coke.
Yet, two years later, the Democrats again insist on being Pepsi. Turning against Pelosi and even Obama is understandable, but by coming out against the party’s signature legislation—health care reform, cap-and-trade, restoration of normal taxation for millionaires—candidates like Manchin and Taylor raise an existential question. If the Democrats do not meaningfully differ from Republicans in how they want to run the country, why are they necessary?
Of course, Democrats are still different from Republicans. They don’t want to eliminate the income tax and make your kid say the Lord’s Prayer in his public school every morning for the brief period before it is defunded. They have also completely failed to brand themselves. Where the Republicans are known across the land as the party of smashing the government, letting business do what it wants and kicking ass abroad, contemporary Democrats have so completely failed to articulate an ideology that right-wing commentators can get away with the term “liberal fascist.”
Perhaps a plan to tax the rich, spend less on the army and use the money to make college cheaper would be immensely unpopular with the American people. We’ll never know, though, since the Democratic Party has spent the last 10 years reducing its ideology to slightly more regulation, slightly less talk about God and, otherwise, everything else the Republicans say.
Now that they apparently consider Obama a mistake and health care reform a blunder, one has to wonder what candidates like Joe Manchin and Gene Taylor see in the Democratic Party. Perhaps, once the current mania for all things conservative has passed, they’ll turn a deeper shade of blue again. If their allegiances can change so easily, though, I don’t see why they would expect the American people to be any more committed. Sooner or later, the Democratic Party is going to have to experiment with saying something other than what polls show we want to hear.