Can the Democrats Be Revived?

Codgers, Exit Stage Left
Who's winning, who's losing, and why.
Nov. 15 2002 12:08 PM

Can the Democrats Be Revived?

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Dear Bob—

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Okay, we disagree on the disciplined quality of the Democrats' campaign this year. There isn't much profit to be had in rehashing it … but I seem to remember that it was a widely touted Democratic strategy to "get Iraq off the table." And the Democrats' arguments on Social Security, prescription drugs, and blaming Bush for the economy (without offering an alternative) were pretty universal.

You offer an alternative, which is—as Martha Stewart would say—a good thing. Your idea of a payroll tax cut is a good thing—although I would target it, using payroll tax credits to encourage people to spend on health insurance, education, and more efficient automobiles. Your idea of allowing people to buy into the federal and state employees' health insurance system is quite good, too. I liked it when Bill Bradley proposed it in the last presidential campaign (and when the Heritage Foundation proposed a similar, progressive, refundable tax-credit system 12 years ago). You make it voluntary, which is a very DLCish sort of position; I'd make it mandatory—the actuarial numbers only begin to work when healthy young people are required to pay in to the system. So I guess I'm to the left of you on that one … but I do find the boldness of  your moderation bracing.

The most important question, though, is how to build a party that has the energy to counter the rather lockstep Republican machine. You say "grassroots," which is nice—if it isn't a euphemism for limiting this show to labor and minorities as it usually is. Let's face it: The industrial unions are pretty much over—even in the Democratic Party. This year, old labor backed losing candidates in the Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Massachusetts primaries (in Michigan, the United Auto Workers' candidate, David "Baghdad" Bonior, lost to the Michigan Education Association's Jennifer Granholm). The only part of the labor movement that remains vibrant is the public employees sector, particularly the teachers. But I have a question about that: Whom are the public employees organized against? (The industrial unions at least had a rationale: They were organized against the power of capital). I also have a litmus test: Any Democratic candidate who blathers about the importance of public schools and follows the AFT/NEA line on tenure, merit pay, charter schools and, yes, vouchers, must send or have sent their own children to public school. The hypocrisy of Clinton and Gore and far too many other Democrats on this issue is nauseating.

As for minorities, I saw Jesse Jackson rehearsing the same old same old the other day about the Democrats needing to work harder to register and appeal to "people of color." (A pathetic euphemism.) I hope we're not going to revisit the argument about special breaks, special attention for ethnic and lifestyle slivers. One of the terrific things about our kids is their utter acceptance—no, their celebration—of racial and sexual diversity. My sense is that the old black-white bifurcation is being defused, especially on college campuses, by the infusion of Latinos, East and South Asians, Arab-Americans, and an increasing number of  Cablinasians (as the multiracial Tiger Woods defines himself). There is an excitement to this—the grandest of American excitements: In diversity there is enormous strength. But as the demos changes, so should the pitch—from "Here's what we're going to do for (name your subgroup)" to "Here's what we're going to do together." In the end, America's vehement mongrelization, freedom, and wild-ass creativity are our most effective calling cards to the rest of the world. And, for the past 50 years, these values have been the Democratic Party's greatest strength as well.

Which brings me back to where I started: The Democrats seem to be aiming their anachronistic pitch to constituencies on the wane. The Greatest Generation was pretty damn great, and should not be forgotten (since they are chronic voters), but there are new generations to be wooed. I suspect that focusing on the payroll tax, worthy though that may be, just won't cut it. I'm not sure what will. This is a difficult thing for old baby boom codgers like you and me to admit, but we may have to start asking rather than pontificating—asking young people to show us the way, tell us what's important. I loved Harold Ford Jr.'s challenge to Nancy Pelosi—not just because Pelosi needed challenging—but because of its generational implications. Ford looks like a tyke. We have to remember how old and stodgy our parents seemed when we were his age—that's how we must seem now. After 40 years of generational solipsism, we boomers have been crowding the stage for too damn long. We need to learn how to share the spotlight and then, gradually, how to leave it.

It's been fun this week, as it always is when I hook up with you.

Best,
Joe

Joe Klein is a staff writer at The New Yorker and the author of The Natural: The Misunderstood Presidency of Bill Clinton.

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