Can the Democrats Be Revived?

Victims of Discipline
Who's winning, who's losing, and why.
Nov. 14 2002 10:46 AM

Can the Democrats Be Revived?

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Dear Bob—

All right! Passionate and funny … but, uh, I don't agree. The Democrats are a party. They have think tanks. They have money (not quite as much as the Republicans, but plenty—much of it wasted in Florida this year). They have had successful base-rousing, Get Out the Vote campaigns (Gore's in 2000, for example, which won the popular vote by 500,000). They don't have as much discipline as the Republicans, but that's not necessarily a bad thing—it's like rock 'n' roll, a reflection of the vast, messy, polyglot American exuberance. It's one reason why this is such a terrific country.

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In fact, I could argue that the electoral failure this year was the consequence of too much discipline. As I traveled about, I saw Democrats running essentially the same campaign everywhere—a campaign actively coordinated by the party's Senate and House Campaign Committees (which were the bankers, dispensing funds to local candidates), and tacitly controlled by the Democrats' incredibly myopic and congenitally pessimistic political consultants. This was the Democrats' campaign:

  1. Don't talk about Iraq.
  2. Don't talk about Bush's tax cut.
  3. Demagogue Social Security.
  4. Pander on prescription drugs.
  5. Blame Bush for the business cycle, without offering an alternative.

Yecch! So, yes, you're right about consultant-driven politicians. It seems the entire party has succumbed to the Cult of the Tactical. Even the Democratic Leadership Council—the last known source of fresh ideas in the party—has fallen for the siren song, encouraging blind, unnuanced support of the president on Iraq, and caving on gun control. (At one point, Evan Bayh of Indiana, the current DLC president, told the New York Times that Dems should support Bush on Iraq because polls say that people think Democrats are weak on national defense!)

You didn't mention Iraq, by the way, a telling omission. We may be at the beginning of a major, long-term religious war, and the Democrats have nothing to say? In some cases, the Dems are mute because they are mortal doves; they agree with Wellstone, but don't have the guts to say so. The sadder silence came from those who favor the judicious use of force, but within a nuanced, multilateral context—those who agree with Bush's goal in Iraq, but abhor the administration's garish rhetoric and gratuitously ideological world-bashing (by the way, the president's behavior since his U.N. speech in September has been unexceptionable). The fact is—reprising yesterday's sermon—the wise foreign policy strategy is too damn complex to fit in a 20-second TV commercial.

You mock moderates, call them Republicans-Lite. But, to my mind—and I'm a flaming moderate—the best new ideas have come from the middle of the spectrum in recent years. In domestic policy, it was the idea that centralized, industrial-era bureaucratic systems are too rigid and too expensive (urban school districts, for example); it's better to give individuals money—tax credits, vouchers, whatever you want to call it—and allow them to make their own choices on health care, housing, prescription drugs, day care, schooling, and so forth. You were a pioneer in the field, Bob, with your voucherized job training and retraining program at the Labor Department. The reactionary left opposes this idea (the AFL-CIO wasn't too hot for your program, if I recall). The Republicans pay lip service to "empowerment" but don't want to actually pay money for it. The progressive middle says: Fund it amply, monitor it, regulate it—but do it. (By the way, tax disincentives are a good idea, too: I'd favor a cigarette-level tax on bullets, for example; I would tax corporations on their "externalities"—the social and environmental disruptions they cause—not their profits.)

In foreign policy, the basic idea is global citizenship: American leadership—with lots and lots of quiet diplomacy and consultation—in organizing collective action against terrorists and rogue governments, against environmental depredation, against the transnational efforts of corporations to escape taxation and of criminal combines to escape the law, and the free flow of goods, services, information, and, to the greatest possible extent, people.

These are real ideas, disdained by the far left and right. I believe that success in politics, and in governance, will be determined by which party embraces them most enthusiastically.

Back to you …

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