Democrats Are Out of Gas
Democrats want? Many answers, or partial answers, can be found
in the 90th anniversary issue of the New Republic, in the
post-election issue of the American Prospect and in various
other writings by smart Democrats unhappy with the defeat their
party suffered in 2004.
avoid the left blogosphere's wacky claims that the election was
stolen. They understand that both parties played to win and tried
really hard to win, and both parties made massive efforts to turn
out their vote. John Kerry got 16 percent more votes than Al Gore.
George W. Bush got 23 percent more votes in 2004 than in 2000.
Most of these
Democrats focus on domestic policy. New Republic editor
Peter Beinart has called for purging those Democrats unwilling
to robustly fight the war on terrorism. But that position has
not elicited much response, except for calls to show more respect
for the military and a certain quietness among vitriolic Bush
critics after the Iraqi election.
policy, the Democrats' thrust is to expand government to help
ordinary people. But few get specific. In the American Prospect,
historian Alan Brinkley says Democrats should re-engage "with
issues of class and power." But exactly how, he doesn't say.
In the New Republic, Jonathan Chait argues that, while
conservatives are guided by ideology, liberals are guided by facts.
Expanding government is a matter of examining facts and doing
the sensible, compassionate thing. But he doesn't have the space
to get very specific. Nor does he address David Stockman's argument
that in policymaking, powerful interests tend to trump powerful
arguments -- a criticism Democrats make, sometimes cogently, of
Republic's Martin Peretz takes a bleak view: Liberalism is
"bookless," without serious intellectual underpinnings,
as conservatism was 40 years ago. Back then, the liberal professoriate
was churning out new policies, some of which became law. Today,
the campuses provide liberals less guidance. The economics departments
have become more respectful of markets and more dubious about
government intervention. The social sciences have followed the
humanities into the swamp of deconstruction. Peretz notices that
liberals have no useful ideas about education. That overstates
the case, but most reform ideas have come from the right, while
most Democrats have focused on throwing more money at the teacher
picture of Democrats' prospects comes from two usually optimistic
analysts, Stanley Greenberg and James Carville. In their latest
Democracy Corps memo, they lament that, despite what they see
as Republican stumbling on Social Security, voters don't think
Democrats have new ideas for addressing the country's problems.
By denying that Social Security has problems, "Democrats
seem stuck in concrete."
In the New
Republic, John Judis takes a longer view. Since the 1970s,
he notes, Democrats have had little success expanding government.
He blames this on international competition, the decline of private-sector
unions and stronger business lobbyists. A revival of liberalism,
he writes, "would probably require a national upheaval similar
to what happened in the '30s and '60s. That could happen, but
doesn't appear imminent."
problem is that they have proceeded for years with a goal of moving
America some distance toward a Western European welfare state.
Just how far, they have not had to decide. But Judis looks at
Europe and sees a failing model: high unemployment, stalled economies
and the welfare state in retreat. Nor is raising taxes on the
rich a sound strategy: Democrats did that in 1993, and Republicans
won control of Congress in 1994.
in power can make small, quiet moves toward redistribution, like
the expansion of the earned income tax credit in the Clinton administration.
Out of power, they can focus on policies for which arguments can
be made by vivid anecdotes, like prescription drugs for seniors.
Or they can obstruct change and wait for Social Security, Medicare
and Medicaid to gobble up larger shares of the economy. But that
will take time.
Democrats are facing the fact that general arguments for a larger
welfare state just doesn't seem attractive to most voters.
2005 Creators Syndicate
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