Along the Tracks

Thursday, November 07, 2002

A little help for the Democrats

A special preview of Saturday's column in the Bryan Times:

Voters provided Democrats a harsh critique in last week’s elections. Will the party learn? And will it change?
The early returns on these questions are not encouraging.

Scapegoating is always the favorite pastime of losers, but in this instance, there are a few goats that do need to go. First and foremost, the party of “campaign finance reform” and “corporate accountability” must cut off its titular head, Democratic National Committee Chairman Terry McAuliffe. McAuliffe, placed in the post by Bill Clinton, is a fundraising dynamo not above skirting regs and digging loopholes, and has the added bonus of being the beneficiary of millions of dollars in stock largesse through the now-bankrupt Global Crossing - oh yes, he sold his stock in the nick of time. It’s hard to be the party of reform while being led by someone who so desperately needs reform.

Congressional heads should roll, and are rolling, as well. House Minority Leader Dick Gephardt is perhaps the most sensible Democrat in a position of leadership; nonetheless he has wisely chosen to step aside, his struggle to maintain cohesion on the Hill having crippled his desire to provide vision outside the Beltway.

Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle is a far more woeful figure. Under his “leadership,” only two items of popular consequence (the previously-mentioned campaign finance and corporate accountability bills) were enacted by the Senate - but the bipartisan nature of passage (along with the questionable ethics of high-profile Democrats - also see above) denied the Dems any identification with the issues, while also preventing use of the topics on the campaign trail. Beyond that, Daschle’s Senate Democrats appeared to be the party of stalemate or evasion on issue after issue: homeland security, prescription drugs, court appointments, defense spending, the budget, economic stimulus, Iraq, pre-emption - the list could go even further into the minutia of governance, but the point is clear. For the Senate Democrats to have a new image, they need a new face.

Tuesday’s results were not only a repudiation of those presently in power. Fritz Mondale’s loss in Minnesota was a stunner; and note, in almost every locale where Bill Clinton and Al Gore campaigned, the Democrats lost. With minor exceptions, former Clintonites - at least the few that got past primary challenges - were soundly defeated. The call for change is clear.
What is not so clear is how that change should be shaped.

The Democratic Leadership Council, birthplace of the Third Way and Clinton’s tactical governing methods, calls for more centrism. It is hard to see how this formula can win; “centrism” is, almost by definition, valueless and poll driven. The center is where one moves in order to compromise and develop consensus on initiatives; it is no place from which to start. Indeed, Clinton’s political successes came not from proposing centrist initiatives, but through a willingness to move to the center to advance popular proposals. George W. Bush has employed the same policy, but from the right. Still, for the tactic to work, their must be a higher strategy which sets priorities and contains a larger vision for America. The DLC provides a toolbox, but no car.

The left-wing, self-proclaimed “progressives,” are at least honest in offering a principled vision. Unfortunately for the Democrats, it is the vision of ‘60s radicalism. The left can’t accept its successes or its failures. It offers but one rallying cry: “More!” More government, more entitlements, more income redistribution, more limits to American power abroad - these are the themes of the 2002 “progressive.” Yet they are all decidedly regressive - a 1972 Ford LTD on blocks, nostalgic, perhaps, but not pretty and going nowhere.

So where should the Democrats go? Well, this conservative would humbly offer the following suggestions:

1. Reform. This is a timeless populist theme. Abuses of power will inevitably occur in any human enterprise; the Democrats must re-establish themselves as the party of fair play. This does, of course, include further action on corporate governance and financial markets, as well as political fundraising, but must also be consistent in areas where the Democrats have slipped badly, such as election law reform, welfare reform, tax reform, Social Security and Medicare reform, and other entitlement (including farm policy) reform. A consistent move toward establishing individual accountability and a level playing field would go a long way toward drawing moderates and perhaps even some conservatives back into the Democratic fold, while attracting liberals with the deeper principles.

2. Health care. This issue is bubbling under the surface again, as a weaker economy and the renewed growth in health care costs have combined to pinch the middle class and completely shut out lower-income families. If the Democrats can learn from the debacle of socialized “Hillary-care” and develop a comprehensive plan which maintains individual patient rights and responsibilities while reducing family costs and guaranteeing some coverage for the poor, they will have a winning issue by 2004.

3. Foreign policy. The framing of the Iraq debate was enlightening; the Democratic “yes”-Senators seemed to hang onto George W. less like a fine coat and more like leeches. Nibbling and nit-picking does not a policy make. The lesson many Democrats seem loath to learn is this: Americans do not like to be slaughtered in their own streets. A bold foreign policy does not have to mean acquiescence to pre-emption, but it does mean a willingness to exert American power to protect her interests, regardless of world opinion. FDR, Truman, Kennedy, even Johnson, were unafraid to wield the sword in the cause of right; until Democrats are clearly willing to do the same today, the American people will not trust them in times of danger.

If the Democratic Party coalesces around the above themes, with strong new voices to proclaim them, even this voter might be tempted to rejoin the party of Jefferson.

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