Where Do We Go From Here? Pt I
The main contention of my previous posts has been that Democrats have done a poor job of articulating what they stand for. Sure they talk a lot about fighting for the middle class. But people aren’t stupid. What exactly do Democrats stand for that represents the interest of the middle class or working class people or even poor people for that matter? What of the litany that you are about to list in your head represents a new or original idea about policy? The minimum wage? Health care reform (vaguely put)? Preserving Social Security? Now think about the policies that Democrats have championed in the last 12 years. The biggest one that comes to mind is free trade. Clinton talked about welfare reform but ended up having to sign the bill championed by the Right. After that there are mostly some foreign interventions and the effort to balance the budget in 1993 that resulted in the 1994 electoral debacle.
Balancing the budget and the accumulating surplus was Clinton’s most significant achievement and one for which he took tremendous heat and for which the Party paid a terrible price (yeah, the politician supposedly most famous for holding his finger forever in the wind did that!). And it was also Clinton’s most valuable achievement for the resulting fiscal stability and associated low interest rates and booming economy did more for the middle class or poor people than any Left-wing policy out of Washington in 30 years. Democrats should take pride in this accomplishment but it’s hardly the basis on which to build an electoral base. Americans have a great fondness for saying they want politicians who look out for the national interest and then punishing those who do so at the polls. Witness what happened to GWB’s father when he decided to put the national interest ahead of a campaign promise.
Democrats have to craft a winning message but this message will not lie in a few slogans about faith. It will not lie in adopting the language or the policies of the Right. And it won’t come from finding a Madison Avenue way of packaging what is becoming a stale set of products that no one wants to buy anymore. Democrats are selling polyester leisure suits and the country has moved on to new styles and natural fabrics.
At the core of this challenge lies adopting a new attitude. Instead of playing not to lose, the strategy of the last 3 elections, Democrats need to start playing to win. It’s an old cliché in sports but one that Democrats would do well to remember. For too long they have been thinking that just a few votes here or there will swing them back to power. But my contention is that Democrats are much farther than that and they will need to get bold and start articulating some radical new ideas. Not left wing ideas or right wing ideas or moderate ideas. Just ideas that are fresh and that signal to voters that Democrats are aware of the changes that have taken place in the world, are sensitive to the need to come up with new policies to meet these changes, and at the same time are committed to preserving the ideals that lie at the core of the party and that represent the finest aspects of this nation. The folks over at the DLC have called for Democrats to become a true outside reform party. Many liberals have already jumped the gun and assumed that these folks will want to push the party rightward. I am sure some do. But if we can get past our knee jerk reactions to one side or the other, we need to recognize that the true wisdom in their position is that Democrats need to be seen as not simply standing for the status quo but for real and sensible change.
People know that the world is changing all around them. But Democrats haven’t had a new idea that they are associated with since Clinton’s first election to the White House. We need to change that by coming up with policies that are aimed at the times. Policies that address the true problems which face people and this country. We need to take risks. We need a new message, sure. But behind that message has to be a set of substantive policies for change and for relief with which voters can connect. To do this Democrats are going to have to decide what they stand for and that is not as easy as it sounds for it requires facing some hard realities.
Why, for instance, have Democrats put this conversation off for so long? In my mind, it is not just because they thought they were so close to winning and didn’t want to risk that. I think that this conversation has been put off because there are very real, very strong, and very conflicting interests within the Democrat Party. As a coalition party rather than the top down kind of hierarchy of the Republicans, Democrats have always faced a tougher challenge navigating such shoals. Conflicts over policy and issues don’t tear asunder the Republican Party. Northeast moderates don’t leave the GOP over its abortion plank. They don’t leave over its fiscally irresponsible tax cuts. They don’t leave over the divisive use of language and wedge issues. Matters are not so easy for Democrats. Before we can consider what we need to say, we need to consider why it is so hard for us to decide what to say. That’s next.