Can the Democrats Be Revived?

Rules for Dems To Live By
Who's winning, who's losing, and why.
Nov. 12 2002 12:16 PM

Can the Democrats Be Revived?

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Dear Bob—

Wa-ay back in 1976, when Gov. Jerry Brown of California belatedly entered the presidential race, he was asked about his political philosophy. Was he to the left or to the right of Jimmy Carter? "Both," he replied. Obviously, this has some relevance now. The Democrats are back to navel-gazing, hand-wringing, and chin-pulling. (The Republicans are never so masochistically introspective; they never seem to question their essential beliefs, even when they get clobbered).

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The first week of self-flagellation has been predictably banal. Some say move left. Some say move right. Both are right and both are wrong. If we're to have a vaguely interesting national debate, the Democrats have to move forward—away from the boring, tiny, and tactical issues, and language, and interest groups that the party has championed in recent years. This will mean a change in style as well as content. Above all, it will mean an extremely risky change in focus from the beloved and reliable geezers to the edgy, cynical, apathetic young people. The electorate has to be expanded. But the most valuable cache of votes isn't to be had in the poor neighborhoods—as admirable as such efforts may be—it is to be found on the college campuses, where the next generation of activists lives. We can discuss the policy details over the next few days. First, though, let me lay down three basic rules for a Newer Democratic Party.

Last week, Nancy Pelosi—the very sort of political anachronism the party should studiously avoid—launched her campaign for House minority leader with a self-delusional whopper: "The Republicans are the party of the special interests," she said. "The Democrats are the party of the people." What nonsense. It was the Democratic Party's obeisance to its special interests—specifically, to the public employees unions, the trial lawyers, and the AARP—that helped lose the election. Organized labor forced the party's disastrously witless position against the homeland security bill. The trial lawyers insisted that punitive damages be included in the terrorism insurance bill. The AARP has backed the Democrats' foolish and expensive prescription drug plan. (The Republican plan, which targets only those seniors who can't afford to buy their medicine, is, literally, far more progressive—as you know, Bob, a version of this plan has been successfully implemented in Massachusetts.)

The point is, Democrats too often let their interest groups get in the way of progress and equity. The labor movement, once righteous, has become one of the most reactionary forces in American life. Labor's position against free trade would impose a massive, regressive consumer tax on the poor and middle classes (check out this piece in Foreign Affairs). The teachers unions protect incompetence and inflexibility in the schools. The trial lawyers' insistence on punitive malpractice damages fuels the rocketing cost of health care. The AARP favors robbing our children to pay our parents (and to pay us, baby boomers, soon)—obviously, benefits to the elderly, who are the most prosperous demographic group in the country, should be targeted toward those who need help most.

This is not to say that the Republicans' special interests are any more noble; they are, in fact, spectacularly vile. But for the Democrats to succeed, they really do need to be the party of the people, which means defying their own special interests, when necessary, in the service of fairness, creativity, and progress.

Second theme: the Democrats need to embrace complexity. This is anathema, I know. Politicians hate compound sentences. But let's face it, most of the best Democratic ideas are complicated. They usually involve this formulation: We should make [name your sacrifice] in order to gain [name your long-term benefit]. The Republicans, by contrast, tend to be the party of the sentence fragment: Cut taxes. Wave the flag. Family values. (Although thoughtful Republicans are uncomfortable with such empty, short-term blather.) My sense is that civilians are uncomfortable with it, too. The folks may not be up on the vagaries of prescription drug plans, but they can sniff out oversimplifying phonies. They understand what poll-driven, market-tested language sounds like. They will be attracted to candidates who are a) unpretentious; b) funny; c) tough-minded; d) creative; and e) willing to tell them inconvenient truths. (By the way, unpretentiousness doesn't mean bogus, flashy NASCAR populism.) The obvious model is John McCain. But McCain isn't quite enough: He knows a lot about foreign policy and campaign-finance reform but little about domestic affairs. To be successful, Democrats will have to be more ecumenical, as comfortable with foreign and national security policy as they are at home. They will have to posit a more comprehensive foreign policy than the Bush administration seems to favor: one that includes the use of military power, to be sure (particularly the use of covert activities and special forces in the shadow campaign against terrorism). But they should go one step further and propose a policy that lives within a context of global cooperation against the transnational viruses that afflict civilized society—terrorism, proliferation, criminal combines, environmental depredation, and corporate lawlessness.

Third theme: The Democrats have to stop being so goddamned negative and pessimistic. No piece about the party should omit Dick Gephardt's famous retort to Ronald Reagan's "Morning in America" ads: "It's getting closer and closer to midnight." (For that reason alone, Gephardt should be barred from further national political activity.) Reich, this is your specialty: Why are Democrats always so downbeat and mopey about the most dynamic economy in the history of the world? Why are your friends at the American Prospect so perpetually dour, dark, and humorless? Why can't they be as funny as you are?

The most important qualities that Newer Democrats need to enlist are optimism and an inspirational, idealistic American patriotism. This is particularly true if they want to appeal to young people. I would guess that those who watch Saturday Night Live and MTV adhere to only three bedrock political principles: tolerance, environmentalism, and entertainment value. (I would guess, for example, that they intuit the difference between Eminem's—and, yeah, mea culpa, Sister Souljah's—scathing social realism and true intolerance.)

As Governor Moonbeam posited a long time ago, environmentalism can mean just about anything—but most of all, it means the thoughtful use of human and natural resources. These values should be defined as broadly as possible, and they should be at the heart of the Newer Democratic Party. In 2000, Al Gore announced a fairly bold environmental policy then chose not to emphasize it. That may have been for the best: Gore probably would have done the old, sky-is-falling, ice-caps-are-melting routine. True enough, but environmentalism is more profitably touted as the exhilaration of new ideas, new jobs, new industries, new gizmos. It is also, now, a form of national security: We don't want to send young people off to fight Islamic fanatics for oil. The Dems should renew John Kennedy's call for a trip to the moon: this time, a high-speed, heavily funded energy independence program. They should also renew Kennedy's and Bill Clinton's call to altruism—this time, in the most muscular possible way, with an emphasis on national service programs like the Police Corps and Teach for America, programs that involve real commitment and sacrifice. And real work, for a change. They should also, for credibility's sake, tell some unpleasant truths. For example: Even though you are young and healthy, you have a moral responsibility to buy health insurance and lessen the burden on those less fortunate than you are (and we'll offer you with a health insurance tax credit, if you need the help).

Bob, I know you're hot for a payroll tax cut. I'd much rather see tax credits dedicated to providing health insurance, college tuition—and also, to encourage people to buy high MPG cars. What do you think?

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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