The SanityPrompt

This blog represents some small and occasional efforts to add a note of sanity to discussions of politics and policy. This blog best viewed with Internet Explorer @ 1024x768

Monday, November 08, 2004

Where Do We Go From Here? Pt I

One of the questions the Democrats have been asking in the wake of the last election has been how can so many poor and middle class people vote for ‘values’ over their pocketbook? Of course, to a person of faith the question itself is ludicrous and it is telling that Democrats can’t see how much is betrayed in the question. But what strikes Democrats as ludicrous is that the Right has persuaded such people to vote for supposed values (without delivering them anything with regards to values) and that these votes work directly against the economic self-interest of these people and towards the interests of the wealthiest people in the country. But there is a huge presumption in even this stance and it is that Democrats truly do represent the interests of the poor, working and middle classes. Thomas Franks has written the most important political book of the year "What’s the Matter with Kansas?" in which he asks how the Right has won over the poor farmers and others in the Red states whose economic interests lie with Democrats. But do they? How exactly does the Democratic Party offer anything in a clear and persuasive fashion to the religious but struggling farmer in Kansas? What would Democrats do that would revive the broad swath of the heartland that is losing population and for people who are watching the slow transformation of their towns, their livelihoods, and their way of life?

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.


What to do, what to do. It wasn't so long ago that George Will observed that the American people are deeply conservative and what they want to conserve is the New Deal. Now I'm not too sure. The question is whether the Democrats (or the left more generally) can enunciate a clear set of organizing principles that they can embrace through what may be a long winter of discontent. That is certainly what the Republicans did beginning in roughly 1964 with Goldwater's landslide loss to Johnson. Unlike McGovern, Carter, Mondale, Dukakis, Gore and (more than likely) Kerry, however, Goldwater remained a hero to his party because he was willing to lose, and lose big, in defense of "the cause" which, even now, most people can identify as less government, lower taxes and strong defense. The first two were and remain a critique of the New Deal, and the second Bush term may well see the New Deal finally undone. How can the Democrats stop this calamity and regain their footing as a party of ideas, as you rightly say they must? The precise statement of the message and the charisma of the messenger will clearly be important. The power of the right's message and messengers is shown by the fact that they continue to consolidate power even as their behavior in office stands as a betrayal of formerly critical principles such as small government, fiscal discipline, and a military strong enough to fight two major wars at once. (We are currently fighting about a quarter of a war in Afganistan and two-thirds of a war in Iraq, and we are tapped out!) The Democrats' organizing principle must be economic justice in some form, but getting that form right will be a challenge. Ending poverty among elderly people caused by the Great Depression is a far more compelling message than preventing a resurgence of the same phenomenon at some point in the next 10 or 20 years, even though the cumulative consequences of a decline in defined benefits pensions, cuts to and privatization of Social Security, and the inevitable attack on Medicare will be devastating. Another problem facing the party is that middle and working class people in "the Heartland" are not the only ones who have been voting against their own interests. The Democratic Party has become financially captive to well-to-do coastal liberals who themselves may wake up one day and say "hey, maybe I'll just take my tax cuts, medical savings accounts, school vouchers, private Social Security accounts, increasing limits on 401(k) contributions and have a nice life!"

Gosh, I've got to get back to work! I look forward to Part 2.

By Blogger ckallaher, at 11:23 AM  

Post a Comment

<< Home