March 14, 2005
Democrats Are Out of Gas

By Michael Barone

What do 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.

These writers 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.

On domestic 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 Republican practices.

The New 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 unions.

The bleakest 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."

The Democrats' 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.

Democrats 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.

For now, 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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