William Voegeli has a piece in the Wall Street Journal called “The Endless Party“, where he asks, “What do Democrats stand for? The real question is, what do they stand against?”
He makes several excellent points, but this passage is particularly telling:
The narrative of Democrats trying to find a narrative might be more promising, or at least more interesting, if it were fresher. The problem is the Democrats have lost five of the last seven presidential elections, not to mention control of Congress in 1994, and have talked about the urgent need to redefine and re-explain themselves after every one of those defeats. It has been 24 years since that dim, unelectable extremist Ronald Reagan won a landslide against Jimmy Carter. A generation later, can there really be any promising ideas that haven’t already been taken down from the shelf?
Here is what the Democrats have to show for 2 1/2 decades of introspection, besides a worsening win-loss record: After Walter Mondale lost 49 states in 1984, the Democratic Leadership Council was brought forth, conceived in panic and dedicated to the proposition that a politically viable party must become less liberal. In reaction, various groups and candidates have asserted that the prescription for Democratic victories is to become more liberal, to present the voters a choice, not an echo. It’s hard to say who will win this tug-of-war, and twice as hard to see how either approach will reverse the Democrats’ losing streak.
The only other nostrum has been that of the neoliberals (once called “Atari Democrats”). To the extent their advice ever came into focus, it was that more liberalism or less liberalism, bigger or smaller government, was not the issue. Making government smarter–more effective, flexible and responsive–was. Gary Hart nearly wrested the 1984 Democratic nomination from Walter Mondale by baiting him about being beholden to such interest groups as the AFL-CIO. The hot public-affairs book after Bill Clinton’s victory in 1992 was “Reinventing Government,” now available in a remainder bin near you. Vice President Gore went on the David Letterman show with a hammer, a glass ashtray and safety goggles to demonstrate something-or-other about how the Clinton administration was making big government safe for democracy.
I had an immediate sense of deja vu reading this–it reminded me of this passage in Jonathan Rauch’s 2003 piece, “The Accidental Radical“, a prescient and perceptive look into President Bush’s “strategery”:
“The Republican Party in 1994 tested a proposition,” says a White House aide: “that people wanted government to be radically reduced. And they found out that people didn’t want government to be radically reduced.” Bush saw this, and he saw that the anti-government conservatism of Goldwater and Reagan had reached a dead end; and if there is a single characteristic that distinguishes Bush, it is his willingness to meet a dead end with a bulldozer. In 2002, “he really did set out to have the Republican Party stand for something different,” says Michael Gerson, who signed on with Bush in 1999 and is now his chief speechwriter.
Bush’s view, expressed in his book and in the 2000 campaign, is that government curtails freedom not by being large or active but by making choices that should be left to the people. Without freedom of choice, people feel no responsibility, and Bush insists again and again, as he put it in the book: “I want to usher in a responsibility era.”
If one way to give people more choices is to shrink government, fine. But if another way is to reform government — also fine. And if he needs to expand government to deliver more choices — well, he can live with that. For Bush, individual responsibility and Big Government are not necessarily opposed to each other, any more than global stability and regime change are necessarily opposites. Moreover, small-government conservatism was root-canal politics, but the new approach is a political winner. If you spend more money, people like you. If you give them more choices, they like you. But if you spend more money giving them more choices, they really like you.
And so, in the Bush paradigm, education reform buys tests and standards and public-school choice, and all of that helps parents judge and choose schools. The prescription drug benefit buys alternatives to one-size-fits-all, single-payer Medicare. Competitive sourcing buys alternatives to government bureaucrats. Social Security reform buys individual accounts. And so forth.
Many of these initiatives will make the federal government bigger or stronger, but, for Bush, that is beside the point, which is to change government’s structure, not its size. The question is not how much government spends; it’s how government spends. Conservatives have been obsessed with reducing the supply of government when instead they should reduce the demand for it; and the way to do that is by repudiating the Washington-knows-best legacy of the New Deal. Republicans will empower the people, and the people will empower Republicans.
Orrin Judd has been saying for months (years?) that Bush is the true inheritor of “the third way” paradigm of Bill and Tony, and Voegli also seems to tacitly agree. How does the left fight back? Voegli proposes the unthinkable:
Ruy Teixeira says that after 2004, “the bigger question is: What do the Democrats stand for?” Here’s a better and bigger question still: What do the Democrats stand against? Tell us, if indeed it’s true, that Democrats don’t want to do for America what social democrats have done for France or Sweden. Tell us that the stacking of one government program on top of the other is going to stop, if indeed it will, well short of a public sector that absorbs half the nation’s income and extensively regulates what we do with the other half. Explain how the spirit of live-and-let-live applies, if indeed it does, to everyone equally–to people who take family, piety and patriotism seriously, not merely to people whose lives and outlooks are predicated on regarding them ironically.
Until those questions are answered, until Americans have confidence about the limits liberalism will establish and observe, it’s hard to see when the Democratic narrative will again have a happy ending.
Indeed, as the Professor would say.