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Will Democrats Finally Get Their (Philosophical) Act Together?

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Washington Post Op-Ed Columnist E.J. Dionne Jr. explores the origins of the modern conservative movement this week. It’s not enough, Dionne argues, to give the nod to Newt Gingrich, who led the charge for the 1994 Republican takeover of Congress, or even widely hailed conservative hero Ronald Reagan. It began many years earlier, in think tanks and through vigorous debates in publications such as William F. Buckley Jr.’s National Review.

This historical review is placed in context to the momentous political environment of 2006. The “Regan Revolution,” as some have termed it, has largely flamed out. Modern conservatism, which at one time was poised on multiple tenets, now seems shakily founded on the basis of aggressive foreign policy and support for conservative social policies such as opposition to gay rights and legal abortions. Indeed, small government libertarians feel all but abandoned in this period of Big Government Conservatism (or don’t-tax-and-spend) and moon-shot budget deficits. Meanwhile, ongoing scandals, policy failures, government incompetence, and the ongoing war in Iraq have mired both President Bush’s and the Republican Congress’ poll numbers in political quicksand.

Therefore, the outcome of the elections of 2006 and 2008 may lie in the Democratic Party’s ability to overturn the political dynamic that has ruled over recent times by positing a different, cogent, and persuasive argument for turning out our current crop of leaders. Dionne senses that the intellectual wheels are already turning on the center-left side of the political dial, though the question remains open as to whether or not this will manifest into sweeping Democratic victories anytime soon:

The biggest change is that moderates and liberals have begun to accept the fact that they cannot simply adjust to conservative dominance of the political debate and alter their ideas to fit the current consensus. As Michael Tomasky writes in the current issue of the American Prospect, Democrats and their allies must destroy the current political “paradigm” based on “radical individualism” and replace it with a politics of the “common good.” Only a larger argument rooted in a different conception of government and society, Tomasky argues, will allow the party to “do a lot more than squeak by in this fall’s (or any) elections based on the usual unsatisfying admixture of compromises.”

The successful Democratic candidates of the post-9/11, post-Bush age will convince voters that what serves the common good is also self-serving. In many ways this has always been the thread-the-needle trick that liberals have attempted (usually poorly) to perform, but it takes on a new urgency and new resonance in a global environment that is beset by complex and interconnected problems.

John Kerry, the 2004 Democratic nominee for president who lost a close contest to incumbent George W. Bush, did not strike this argument forcefully or clearly enough. The still looming shadow of 9/11 dominated the election and precluded the Democrats from making a significantly new case for governing. John Edwards, Kerry’s ’04 running mate, has long made the fight against poverty a keystone of his political agenda. Using the Two Americas theme, he pushes this issue as a moral one. The successful candidates of ’06 and ’08, however, will pick up this theme and expand upon it.

Another important lesson of 2004 is that Democrats must and will fight for ownership of words such as “security” and “values.” Indeed, because of how much the political landscape has shifted in the last 18 months, Republicans will have to fight tooth-and-nail to maintain their longstanding and assumed superiority on issues such as national security and the oft-trotted out “family values.”

Security will mean real security, both at home and abroad. It is hoped that the lame duck years of the Bush administration will allow national security policies to become aligned to meet real and present threats, and not those based upon suspect ideological grounds. This alignment will include repairing and broadening our alliances around the world and reclaiming the moral leadership for which the United States has been historically known.

Values will connect to Tomasky’s “common good.” Middle class values will attain a new importance. A solid education, upwardly mobile job, and comprehensive health care are becoming more elusive for average American families. It will be fascinating to see if the “values debate” will be hijacked once again by those seeking to insert wedge issues into the political arena. And if the debate is hijacked, will a weary American electorate once more stand for it?

Finally, “truth” will vie for dominance with the classic and wooden notion of “character.” Truth will mean filling in the American public on things they might not want to hear: long-term fixes, sacrifice, explanations that span longer than the length of a sound bite. One could even imagine an age – in the mind’s eye if nowhere else – where the ability to tell the truth will trump a camera-friendly smile and words that tell you what you want to hear. Perhaps the rise of the Internet and the voracious seekers of the blogosphere will help to drive that new age.

Which Democrat will put all of these pieces into play successfully in 2008? It’s difficult to say. Certainly Senator Hillary Clinton, with her star power, fund raising prowess, and name recognition, will be the major force to contend with. But will she transcend the good-but-not-good-enough Democratic campaigns of recent years? She can and will if she harnesses an organic and emergent philosophy, rather than a laundry list of policy proposals that is simply different and theoretically better than what the other side is pushing.

You can feel the hum of the think tanks even now.

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  • I’m with you, Joey. The more parties the better.


  • Joey

    All the ultra-lefties have disenfranchised all the NormDems.

    The Ultra’s ought to create a 3rd party called the Ultra’s.

    Then we could have a 4 party system.


    In order from left to right.

    However, I always sort of viewed the Libertarians as left wingers. That’s how right wing I may be. In fact, I’ve been described as being so far right… I’m left.

    Seriously. Which proves the world in not flat.

  • Thanks for the kind words, all!

    Dan, what earlier spectrum are you talking about where McCain would represent the far left? I could see that being a dream for a few, at best.

    Mark, the more I think about it, I believe that the hoarse screaming and shouting gets very little accomplished. It has it’s place, mind, and needs doing from time-to-time, but I think this time might be a rare one where people are honestly casting about for a better way of doing things, even if it means working outside of or around ideology.

  • Dan

    I’m hoping for the death of the democratic party. I’d like to see things return to an earlier political spectrum. It would be great if John McCain represented the far left.

  • Steve

    Well, gonzo, not being American or even living in the US myself, not sure exactly sure how much of a ‘GOP supporter’ one can be.

    However, one could argue that elites in the GOP seem to be a natural fit, what the heck are elites doing in the Democratic Party anyway??? Looks like a betrayal of the party’s roots.

    I think the current troubles show that the Dems. image problems have come home to roost. Until people can identify their pres. candidates with what the party stands for, they’re always gonna be struggling. The disconnect between the two is too great.

  • JP

    Good article–and that American Prospect piece is well worth reading in full, actually. Being attacked on 9/11 led to a coming-together feeling of “everyone being an American,” but the subsequent insecurity has led everyone to a somewhat survivalist “what’s in it for me?” rogue individualism. That’s been aided by the conservative push against taxes, but we’re seeing the serious shortcomings of the neanderthal concept of tax cuts as a solution to everything.

    By the way, it’s borrow-and-spend, not “don’t-tax-and-spend”–it’s not JUST that they don’t tax, it’s that they spend money they don’t have anyway!

    Pure populism won’t work either, gonzo–that’ll put off too many. I think the DLC is closer to correct than the far left wants to acknowledge; I see candidates like Edwards, Wes Clark, and particluarly Mark Warner as able to coalesce some of the ideas being discussed here. Looking forward to that optimistically, anyway!

  • Lumpy

    Someone derided the DLC earlier, but I have to point out that it is the faction of the party which elected their most competent and appealing president since Kennedy. That seems like a more realistic direction for them to go with a candidate like Edwards.

  • Lumpy

    It sounds like you’re arguing for the democrats to become actual liberals, which is something the party has never really been except maybe briefly under JFK. It’s a cool idea, but the party is so dominated by illiberal factions and special interests that it seems unlikely. There would be more chance of this happening in a moderate third party or even the GOP if it got taken over gy Giuliani. Liberalism doesn’t ride the donkey these days.

  • gonzo marx

    i find it ironic and laughable that supporters of the GOP can use a phrase like “elitist types” with a straight face….

    mebbe it’s just me


  • Steve

    Well, regarding Presidential politics, the only thing the Dems. need is an ordinary, likeable, down to earth person to be their Pres. candidate. The fact that they haven’t been able to pick one from their ranks in the last two Pres. elections is not a healthy sign. Maybe the party needs a restructuring whereby people like that are more atracted to it, and make it to the key position, instead of it attracting elitist types that make a piece of wood look lively.

    You can tinker with policy till you’re blue in the face, but if you can’t put a face/character that people like to the policies, it’s alot of hard work for nothing.

  • Nancy

    I hope they DO manage to get their collective act together, however going on their performance(s) to date, when the Republicans have gifted them with their heads on platters time & time again over the past few years & yet the Dems have just sat on their hands looking bewildered & at most made a few lame yelps & feints in the Republican general direction, I’m NOT sanguine. I thought the two-party system was bad, but the 1 & 1/4 party system is much worse. With everything they’ve had to work with, the Dems should have been cutting thru Republican ranks like knives thru softened butter. More shame to them that they haven’t. They’ve proven to be feckless fools given to endless handwringing & whining.

  • Fantastic article. Somebody has a big picture point of view.

    Berlin for Prez

  • Nancy

    Not with Karl Rove and the Bush Nothing-Is-Too-Low administration, it won’t.

  • i only wish that the rhetoric flung out during the compaign was as restrained and thoughtful as this post.

    sadly, it probably won’t go that way.

  • gonzo marx

    well now Eric, you raise some interesting points

    might i give you something to ponder?

    to me, the biggest problem with the Demlicans has been the Democratic Leadership Council…these folks have been trying to steer their gang into being Repubocrat-lite

    and THAT is no answer…

    whoever gets the Idea that THE most important thing in american politics is “We the People” and NOT the Corps, Lobbyist, hyphenated special interests or whims of the moment push polls will be the ones who capture that vast Independant majority of the american voting public

    a lot of this touches on my upcoming Article…so i’ll just leave it there with something for folks to chew on…