On Playing Sisyphus

by Sam Stein | 11/6/03 6:00am

Everything seemed to be falling into place for the Democratic Party. The month of October saw some of the most redemptive and satisfying political highs Democrats had enjoyed in months. Rumsfeld sweating through the memo leak saga, the President's popularity evaporating like crushed up Oxycontin from under Rush Limbaugh's nose, Republican congressmen questioning Iraqi intelligence reports, the Yankees (the Republicans of baseball) losing to the Marlins (symbolically the Democrats) -- these were signs of a Republican apocalypse.

And for a while I was content. Sure, nine candidates vying for the Democratic presidential nomination diluted the field; yes, a portion of these candidates were political long shots and one -- Mr. Kucinich drop out already -- was comical; but the Bush squad seemed vulnerable; Rush Limbaugh had methodically destroyed his nervous system; Arnold's vain fantasy ride to the governorship had garnered him possession of an impressive budget deficit; and Bill O'Reilly's moral demagoguery had been reduced to a pitiable tirade about the sadism of "Kill Bill." Things were pristine in my political universe.

So I took a break from political news and rapidly became addicted to shows about rich kids. I went to a Strokes concert, unforgivably missed The Next Joe Millionaire, and celebrated Halloween costume-free. When I awoke in November everything had changed. October's optimism had vanished and neo-conservatism had resurfaced. It was as if the Democratic Party had been condemned to play the part of a practical, well intentioned Sisyphus -- forever rolling a huge stone up a hill only to have it roll down again on nearing the top.

The stone had actually begun its decent on October 21 when the Senate voted to pass a ban on partial birth abortions. On the surface, this wasn't exactly a defeat for the Democrats, the Senate vote was remarkably non-partisan (68 in favor of the ban 34 against it). But for women, the legislation's prohibition of a particular procedure -- a procedure to decompress the skull of a fetus in order to expedite the delivery vaginally -- was a short-sided assault on their right to privacy.

I can see the morally righteous pro-lifers fuming already. But let me explain You see, if a women's fetus is suffering from hydrocephalus -- the medical term for when the spinal fluid of a fetus becomes trapped in the brain -- the skull will swell, causing permanent brain damage. Subsequently it becomes extremely dangerous to abort this fetus (still a legal choice for the mother) through a C-section. Understandably pro-choice advocates were outraged by the decision to prohibit the skull decompression procedure. It's one thing to have ethical and legal objections to abortion -- it's semantics really -- but as long as abortions are lawful, why not make it as safe a procedure as possible? Nonetheless Democrats had been dealt a political blow.

Alright, let me reorient myself and remove these unsettling images of partial birth abortion from my head The stone began to pick up downward momentum after the partial birth abortion ban took place. Suddenly, the Republicans had impetus and, wouldn't you know it, it was announced that the economy had its fastest recovery in 20 years. This is how distressed I am with politics; I'm actually rooting for a prolonged economic recovery, just long enough to seal Bush's electoral fate -- sick. (Quick note: even with this bit of optimistic news, I still believe that the Bush administration's inability to create jobs, despite running the largest deficit in our nation's history, constitutes one of the most pathetic political paradigms of the past century).

Things were looking bad, until they took a turn for the worse. One of the good guys, the consummate well-intentioned politician and dopey looking Bob Graham, announced that he was not seeking reelection to his Florida Senate seat. It's too bad, two months ago the man was talking candidly about his vision for the presidency, now he's preoccupied with his pension plan.

Initially I had the urge to belittle Floridians, maybe even comment on their penchant for auto racing and early-bird specials, just to act as if the Democrats didn't care about the possibility of losing Florida. But the fact of the matter is -- it matters. And with Zell Miller of Georgia and Ernest Hollings of South Carolina retiring, and John Edwards of North Carolina running for the presidency, four Democratic Senate seats in the south are now up for grabs. Suddenly the weak ties Democrats have to the south (a political phenomenon I still have difficulty understanding) appear to be breaking.

So there it is -- a month full of optimistic developments turned into a week of disheartening setbacks. And the horizon looks just as bleak -- President Bush continues to raise heaps of money for an unchallenged primary period while Democrats wait patiently for their political messiah to descend upon D.C, all the while playing the role of Sisyphus. It might all sound sad and defeatist, it probably is. But as Winston Churchill said: "if you're young and not liberal, you have no heart. If you're old and not conservative, you have no mind." I'm still young.