Enough of the Waiting Game

The Iowa caucuses are currently scheduled for Jan. 21 a little more than two years from now, and the New Hampshire primary rolls around soon after.

Who cares?

The date of the next presidential election is Nov. 4, 2008.

So what?

The leadership vacuum is here now. The president's job-approval rating is skidding south, and there's a constant, roiling sense of dismay among people of all stripes. Those who think the administration has gone awry are looking for someone to strongly, intelligently articulate an opposing point of view on a broad range of troublesome problems.

But the Democrats are waiting.

Not all of them, of course. The reason that Vietnam vet John Murtha's passionate denunciation of the Iraq war stirred people so was that he was clearly calling on conscience, not listening to the click-click of political calculus. That sort of principled response, without fear or favor, has become the exception, not the rule, in the country and the Democratic Party.

The rule is reaction, not action. The Democrats have become the party that waits. The plan seems to be to wait until the Republicans falter, then to move in for the kill. It's not pretty, it's not inspiring and it's not working.

The president has lost the country. I know this not only because nearly two in three Americans say they disapprove of what passes for policy in Iraq. I know it because when I wrote that the effort was driven now mainly by ego--not gonna back down, not gonna pull out, you're doing a heckuva job, Rummy!--I got hundreds of responses from the like-minded. But many of these weren't from liberal Democrats. They were from people who identified themselves as lifelong Republicans, or former Bush supporters, or Vietnam vets, or even veterans of the Iraq conflict.

It does not follow, however, that if the Republicans have lost the confidence of the country, the Democrats have won it.

This is the perfect time for someone strong and smart and unafraid to step to the podium, to give eloquent, unequivocal speeches wherever a forum exists. For those who have become addicted, like fast-food junkies, to the fat and starch of pragmatic political calculation, it's the perfect time for the Democrats to step up and speak out. There is an enormous constituency, and they are waiting too.

There are the millions of teachers and parents who think that No Child Left Behind is an empty exercise in mindless testing. There are the millions of environmentalists and interested citizens whose intelligence has been insulted by the suggestions that global warming is a myth. There are the displaced residents of the gulf who watched the president congratulate an inept FEMA director who'd gotten his job through cronyism.

There are the researchers and the women who discovered that the FDA had morphed from a scientific body to a political one after the agency refused to approve over-the-counter emergency contraception in deference to the right wing. There are the taxpayers who are flabbergasted that the Republicans style themselves the party of fiscal conservatism and yet have driven both the deficit and government spending into the stratosphere.

Right now all those people are talking to themselves. Who will speak for them?

The most demoralizing thing I've read in a long time is Doris Kearns Goodwin's best seller about Lincoln's inner circle, "Team of Rivals." The action of the book seems to take place not only in another time but on another planet, a planet on which some dare to take strong positions on incendiary issues and to justify those positions through deep and serious thought, and rhetoric of their own making. It is a planet on which the president chooses as his advisers not a coterie of yes men but those who had hoped to have his job, a cabinet of opponents. "I had looked the party over and concluded that these were the very strongest men," Lincoln said later. "Then I had no right to deprive the country of their services."

That is extraordinary leadership. But ordinary leadership would do at the moment. What would it be like to have a public figure brave enough to spell out a competing national agenda, an alternate universe, just because it was right and not because each pronouncement was a calculated paving stone on the road to the presidency? Instead we have political leaders who parse their every word as assiduously as any grammarian.

Instead we exist on a different planet, one in which leadership has been traded for strategy, which is nothing like it, not even a distant cousin. Instead there is the waiting game: how many months to the election, how many dollars to be raised, where to run the commercials, what will corral the most votes and turn off the fewest voters? Too many Americans wait, in vain, for someone to echo their concerns and fears. The body clock of the body politic is set to primary season. What about our time? The alarm is ringing.