First, no matter what happens, it's unlikely that foreign policy is going to be fruitful for either party- the dominant Dems are those that are stuck between their votes for the war and against it, and the Republicans are too identified with the increasingly unpopular war in Iraq to really run on foreign policy. Yes, there's still the terrorists, but let's face it: as a means of mobilizing the people, the war on terror has had its run barring another attack. (Even then, the results would be predictable- it would have happened on the Republicans' watch.)
Second, take a look at this important column from Paul Krugman on monday. he calls it ""The Joyless Economy" for a reason: the economic growth that is raising GDP and average income isn't doing a damned thing about median income, which is actually declining, implying that the gap between the wealthy and the poor is widening, not closing. This isn't new, but it is creating a huge disconnect between public perceptions and elite perceptions of the economy- the latter is worried more about inflation than anything else, whereas the former perceives that the economy is in a recession. To them, it is.
The most important part of this, however, is that Krugman acknowledges that this is not President Bush's fault:
It's much harder to explain why. The disconnect between G.D.P. growth and the economic fortunes of most American families can't be dismissed as a normal occurrence. Wages and median family income often lag behind profits in the early stages of an economic expansion, but not this far behind, and not for so long. Nor, I should say, is there any easy way to place more than a small fraction of the blame on Bush administration policies. At this point the joylessness of the economic expansion for most Americans is a mystery.Thus, this isn't really good news for the Republicans, because if they aren't responsible for it, they can't really do much about it.
(The Dems could, through income redistribution, but the actions of the DLC's proxy candidate Hillary Clinton shows that they have no intention whatsoever of veering leftward.)
So, where are we? The people are pissed off about the economy, foreign policy is unlikely to serve as a distraction, and the government can't really do much about it.
So what happens in 2006/2008?
Enter Thomas Frank. Remember, Frank's thesis about the culture wars is that those who are being hurt the worst by these economic trends are paradoxically the most likely to embrace social conservatism- it's a way of gaining self-respect, political relevance, and moral superiority for those who have no other avenue for it. There is an element of deliberate deception by those wealthy Republicans who want to distract the people from the economic issues, but they've been the victims of their own success, as the socially moderate apologists for wealth get elbowed aside by the growing power of social conservatism. This is only going to increase- while the social conservatives are ticked about Bush's behavior, they aren't going anywhere.
The Dems aren't willing to tack left on the economy, though, not really: they're still trapped in the "triangulation" paradigm that they think helped Clinton in '92. They'll probably push for some level of socialized healthcare, but unless they're willing to go up against the most powerful lobbies in Washington, it's not going to go anywhere, and the base is unlikely to be impressed by it. Thus, unless the power structure in the Democratic party shifts, they aren't going to be able to "shift the debate" to economic issues. The core economic problem is, as Krugman said, something that they probably can't do much about.
Without a serious debate on economic issues and with foreign policy off the table, though, what's left?
Frank's culture war.
Hence the title of this post. Dem leadership is clearly trying to move right on social issues, so as to (supposedly) reassure the elusive swing voters that they aren't Godless Liberals and refocus the debate on economic issues. This is going to lead to two effects: the social conservatives on the right will pocket the advantage and move further to the right on pretty much every issue but abortion....
...assuming that Roe V. Wade isn't dead: if it is, it becomes a huge election issue in every state in the country...
...while the urban liberal Democratic base, abandoned by the leadership, gets more and more ticked off at what they see as the creeping dominance of social conservatism, with honest libertarians likely to follow suit.
Frank's effect will ensure that even more people become more radically socially conservative, so as to regain the respect and moral foundation that they once enjoyed as prosperous middle-class workers. They sense, rightly, that something's wrong with the country, but many will blame it on collective moral failings instead of impersonal economic forces- the flip-side of the "can-do spirit" that Americans laud themselves for is that they don't easily believe in structural responsibility.
Since the economic debate won't address the real problems, it won't go anywhere or "hit people where they live", and it will be vulnerable to a social policy counterattack. The Dems, true to form, will try to triangulate by moving right on social policy and attempting to reframe the debate on "the economy, stupid"... but this isn't 1992, and even Hillary Clinton isn't Bill Clinton, so all it will mean is "moving goalposts". The base will see this, get ticked, and likely get really, really loud about it, both online and offline.
(The libertarians will too, but I imagine their days as movers and shakers in the Republican party are very much numbered.)
What I can't predict, however, is what America will look like at the end of the day. It depends on how far this goes. If things just kind of muddle along, then it'll probably look a lot like now, just more so. If things get really bad, though, then the scapegoating may well shift from liberal political philosophy to other convenient "Others".
Considering the current atmosphere about the "war on christmas", "borders under siege", and "the Chinese threat", it doesn't take much imagination to think of who those scapegoats will be.
Again, I'd suggest looking to the controversy over video games as the canary in the coal mine. The attacks on games are a proxy for attacks on secular culture, as it's the newest and thus most vulnerable form of expression of that secular culture.
Rest assured: what starts in Silicon Valley will end up in Hollywood.