A missionary position for the Democrats.

How you look at things.
Nov. 17 2006 2:31 PM

Missionary Position

Birth control, responsibility, and the Democrats.

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Two years ago, after Democrats blew the 2004 election, I threw an idea at them: "Go back to being the party of responsibility."

William Saletan William Saletan

Will Saletan writes about politics, science, technology, and other stuff for Slate. He’s the author of Bearing Right.

They ignored me, of course. Instead, the GOP established itself as the party of irresponsibility. It ran up the debt, ignored congressional misconduct, and left American troops to die in an unplanned occupation.

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So, after 12 years of playing defense, Democrats are getting the ball back. Having won the 2006 election with no affirmative message and a wildly diverse slate of candidates, they need something to hold them together. They need an idea.

Watching Democrats struggle to express what they stand for is always painful. They talk in platitudes and laundry lists. "The message of this election came down to one word: change," Sen. Chuck Schumer, their Senate campaign chairman, declared on Election Night. "But the message of what we will do next comes to four words: We can do better."

We can do better? Isn't that what Robert Redford said in The Candidate, when he had no idea what to do?

At his post-election press conference, DNC Chairman Howard Dean described his party as a powerful collection of demographic groups—exactly what its critics fear. Incoming House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said of evangelical voters, "We, the Democrats, respect and value their faith and their values that they adhere to in their families and in their communities." Faith, values, values, communities, families, respect, values. People can tell when you're babbling from a polling memo.

Not every Democrat is so tongue-tied. In their timely book, The Plan, House Democratic Caucus Chair Rahm Emanuel and Democratic Leadership Council President Bruce Reed (who writes a crackling blog in Slate) propose a "new social contract." The contract spells out "what you can do for your country and what your country can do for you." It echoes the two most successful Democratic presidents since FDR. "What you can do for your country" was JFK's theme. "New covenant" was Bill Clinton's.

The first line of the contract invokes the R word. All of us must "live up to new responsibilities," it says. Around this principle, Emanuel and Reed enumerate four "mutual obligations": citizen service, college access, retirement savings, and children's health care. College aid is "for those willing to work, serve, and excel." Saving for your retirement is a duty as well as a need. So is insuring your kids' health. Budgets have to respect "fiscal responsibility and an end to corporate welfare." The tax code shouldn't "punish [people] for going to work." Oil imports have to be reduced so we stop "sending tens of billions a year to support corrupt regimes" that foment terrorism.

Look up the House Democrats' "Six for '06" agenda, and you'll see lots of items that fit this frame: "budget discipline," "energy independence," "honest leadership" (congressional ethics), and "pension reform to protect employees … from CEO corruption." "Fully man, train, and equip" our troops, National Guard, and firefighters, says the agenda. "Honor our commitments to our veterans." "Prohibit the Congressional pay raise until the nation's minimum wage is raised." "End tax giveaways that reward companies for moving American jobs overseas."

If Karl Rove were a Democrat, he'd pull these ideas together under an ideological banner and beat the other party's brains out. But most Democrats lack the skill or will. They blather about "solutions" and the "common good." They call Bush's Iraq policy incompetent when it's actually reckless. They make environmental stewardship, which ought to be as simple as cleaning up your mess, sound like a plea instead of a Biblical injunction. "Hurricane Katrina showed that the federal government was still not prepared to respond," the House Democrats protest. Not prepared? When you watch a city get wiped out and blame the mayor, that's not lack of preparation. That's unfitness to govern.