November 8, 2005
The Democrats' Vision
J. Dionne Jr.
-- Democrats are obsessed with visions, messages, programs and
leaders, thinkers and consultants have held a slew of meetings
and are said to be close to a statement of hopes and principles.
They are determined to apply the tactical lessons Newt Gingrich
taught when he offered a Contract With America in 1994. There
is a collective rush to the nearest thesaurus as Democrats consider
a Compact With America and a Covenant With America. A Bargain
or even a Concordat can't be far behind. Personally, I'm still
fond of the word Deal (as in ``Square,'' ``New,'' and ``Fair''),
but I guess that word is just too 20th century.
of course, are the last people who have any right to poke fun
at this Democratic endeavor. Indulging the desire to appear nonpartisan,
most news stories regularly balance reports about actual Republican
disasters and cratering poll numbers with assertions that voters
have no idea what Democrats stand for. In going Big Picture, the
Democrats are simply responding to critics and the relentless
pressure of the Conventional Wisdom.
Wisdom that Republicans are clear about what they believe deserves
to be challenged. Yes, Republicans are consistent in their slogans
-- low taxes, small government, personal freedom, traditional
values. Yet except for their obsession with tax cuts, Republicans
are certainly not consistent in their opposition to big government
(witness government spending levels during the Bush years) and
their commitment to personal freedom is expressed far more in
an opposition to the regulation of corporate than of personal
Democrats will never fully expose the Republicans' contradictions
without a clear -- forgive me -- vision of their own and that's
why this business about Compacts and Covenants could yet be constructive.
this vision statement: ``The issue of government has always been
whether individual men and women will have to serve some system
of government or economics -- or whether a system of government
and economics exists to serve individual men and women.''
are Franklin D. Roosevelt's from his 1932 speech to the Commonwealth
Club of San Francisco, FDR's boldest statement of purpose before
he was elected. Roosevelt's point was that while powerful groups
often claim to oppose a strong government role in the
nation's economic life, they almost always seek government's protection
for their own interests. Government's task, Roosevelt argued,
was to intervene ``not to hamper individualism but to protect
it'' by helping the less powerful confront economic difficulties
and abuses of the system by the powerful.
message Democrats come up with, they will continue to lose ground
and be untrue to what's best in their tradition if they fail to
stand up for this affirmative government role in enhancing both
individual liberty and self-sufficiency. The Democratic theme-meisters
might usefully consult the just-published issue of The Washington
Monthly in which editor Paul Glastris and his colleagues
show how active government can advance the causes of ``choice
and individual control'' in a technological economy.
As the magazine
argues, it takes a government to fight identity theft, to give
parents more power over the television programming that comes
into their homes, to protect individuals from hidden credit card
charges, to offer employees more control over the balance between
their work and family lives. The list is not exhaustive, but it
is instructive. It shows that government rules and regulations,
properly conceived, can tilt the scales within a competitive economy
toward individual rights. Citizens should have rights within the
political sphere, but consumers and employees should also have
rights in the economic sphere.
vision debate cannot only be about rights. The other great challenge
to the conservative status quo must focus on the obligations of
citizens to their communities and their country, and the unfair
ways in which the burdens of service and citizenship are now being
borne. It should be disturbing to liberals and Democrats that
they have not only been losing arguments over who will stand up
for liberty, but also over which side will nurture the values
of community and patriotism.
be a shame if the Democrats' quest for something to say produced
only focus-group driven sloganeering and mush. There is at least
a chance that it could become a way for the party to connect its
past with its present. And Democrats might figure out how to speak
to the public's dawning sense that the ideas of those now in charge
are so shot through with inconsistencies that our current leaders
can neither govern effectively nor keep their promises.
2005, Washington Post Writers Group