Tuesday, May 9, 2006

Putting It Together

The Democrats are beginning to feel a little less like Eeyore and more like kicking a little ass as they do something that goes very much against the grain of the party: getting their act together and taking it on the road.

With Democrats increasingly optimistic about this year’s midterm elections and the landscape for 2008, intellectuals in the center and on the left are debating how to sharpen the party’s identity and present a clear alternative to the conservatism that has dominated political thought for a generation.

Many of these analysts, both liberals and moderates, are convinced that the Democrats face a moment of historic opportunity. They say that the country is weary of war and division and ready — if given a compelling choice — to reject the Republicans and change the country’s direction. They argue that the Democratic Party is showing signs of new health — intense party discipline on Capitol Hill, a host of policy proposals and an energized base.


This discussion of first principles and big goals marks a psychological shift for many in the party; a frequent theme is that Democrats must stop being afraid, stop worrying that their core beliefs are out of step with the times, stop ceding so much ground to the conservatives.

Representative Barney Frank, Democrat of Massachusetts, said, “One of the most successful right-wing ploys was to demonize any concern about the distribution of income in America as, quote, class warfare.”

Many of these analysts argue that Republicans have pushed the ideological limits of the American people so far — notably, with Mr. Bush’s tax cuts for the affluent and his effort to partly privatize Social Security — that Americans are ready for something different. Elaine Kamarck, a former top aide to former Vice President Al Gore, argues that the combination of the Sept. 11 attacks and Hurricane Katrina has driven home to Americans the need for strong and effective government, “and gets us back to our strengths — a government that can deliver.”

Having been sold the Republican bait-and-switch line that “government is the problem” and seeing how woefully inadequate and incompetent their solutions to “big government” are, the electorate has just about had it with the GOP. As Michael Tomasky points out in his essay in The American Prospect, for the first time in a quarter of a century, conservatism is being discredited.

An opening now exists, as it hasn’t in a very long time, for the Democrats to be the visionaries. To seize this moment, the Democrats need to think differently — to stop focusing on their grab bag of small-bore proposals that so often seek not to offend and that accept conservative terms of debate. And to do that, they need to begin by looking to their history, for in that history there is an idea about liberal governance that amounts to more than the million-little-pieces, interest-group approach to politics that has recently come under deserved scrutiny and that can clearly offer the most compelling progressive response to the radical individualism of the Bush era.

It also provides the Democrats with the best opportunity to provide a vision of something more than just being against something or someone. The GOP has been fond of dismissing anyone who disagrees with the president as being “Bush-haters” and making excuses for their failings by turning on their own and even accusing the president himself of being (gasp!) a liberal. You really have to wonder what Jonah Goldberg slipped into his Bosco to come up with that one. (HT to Steve at YDD.) While the Republicans can rail against the Democrats and themselves, the point is that the Democrats need a unifying vision that doesn’t include merely the removal from office of the radical right-wing nutsery and a plethora of investigations into the White House; it has to be something that will give the voters a reason to vote for someone, not just against their opponent.

They can do this by convincing the electorate that they are different from the Republicans not just on issues like abortion, gay marriage, or tax breaks for the wealthy — issues that make great talking (or shouting) points on cable TV but in reality touch only a very small number of people compared to the issues that really touch us all such as a living minimum wage, health care, education, and protection and recovery from a natural or man-made disaster — and offer a vision of a government that works for the common good for everyone, not just the rich and connected; something we haven’t heard from the Republicans since the days of Theodore Roosevelt. As Michael Tomasky notes, for the Democrats it isn’t just about winning elections, it’s about governing.