They Got What They Wanted
Can the Democrats find a purpose?
The Wall Street Journal: November 8, 2002
Every party has a reason for being. The Republican Party was formed in the mid-19th century to achieve a specific historical goal: the end of slavery. From there it became the party of Lincoln, the party that saved the Republic and, ultimately, the party that gave a natural home to those who felt enslaved by big government, high taxes, big regulation.
The Democratic Party had a reason for being too. For the past 100 years it has seen itself as the party of the little guy. It was the natural home of those who felt we must use government to help people in need. The Democrats would take the money of the rich and create with it programs that would ease the lives of the poor and distressed.
That is why the Democratic Party existed. It is why it conceived and fought for a national retirement system for the elderly, and later for free medical care for the poor. It is why it fought too for civil rights, and for equality for all who felt they had not been given equal treatment, from ethnic and religious minorities to women.
Those are the things it stood for a 100 years.
Now jump to 2002, to four days ago. The Democrats took a hard hit. In an off-year election in which the opposition is headed by a sitting president who lost the popular vote by half a million votes in 2000, and whose administration is presiding over recession and war, the Democrats should have cleaned up. At the very least they should have lost nothing. And yet they lost almost everything. They lost Massachusetts to a Mormon! They lost Maryland with a Kennedy! The president and his party picked up support from one end of the country to the other, and the Democrats lost their one national power base, the Senate. Now they have only the media. That’s a lot, but Paula Zahn is not a state, at least not yet, and she doesn’t get a vote in the Senate.
It is a disaster for the Democrats. It has entered the history books. It has launched furious soul-searching.
The good news. Relieved of the demands of leadership and spurred by loss, the Democrats now have time to decide what to do. This is good. Thinking is good.
The argument as many Democrats frame it so far is: Should we tack left, or should we fight it out in the center for the center?
But that is essentially an argument about how to win. The bigger question, the one that really rose Tuesday night and demands an answer, is this: What is the Democratic Party’s reason for being?
Here is the Democrats’ problem: They have achieved every major goal they sought in the past 100 years. The party is losing because it won.
They got Social Security. They got Medicare and Medicaid, with the help of some Republicans. They got civil rights with the help of a lot of Republicans. They supported equality for women, and women are equal. (How many were elected the other night? So many it wasn’t a story, really, because it’s a 30-year trend that just keeps growing.)
They got the New Deal, and they got the Great Society. They got the welfare state. And you can argue they have been undone by their success.
Most of what they got they got long ago—long enough ago that the people of the United States have become used to the benefits, and long enough that they have experienced the costs. For, as we used to say, there’s no such thing as a free lunch. The Democrats’ programs cost plenty. And in time it wasn’t the rich that were paying for it but the rich and the comfortable, and then the rich and the comfortable and the middle class, and then the working-class Joes and the waitresses at the diner.
The Democrats in time came not to seem like the party of the little guy but the party that taxed the little guy so Danny Rostenkowski could go on a junket. To make it worse, the modern Democratic Party, which got its current philosophies during the Depression, is no longer dealing with a nation full of people who see themselves as the little guy.
Even more important, on the issue of using government to help the poor—which is to say, on the issue of the Democratic Party’s reason for being—they have in effect been blocked by the opposition. Every Republican of the modern era has been happily using government to help the needy. George W. Bush can’t spend enough on social programs and scholarships and Head Start and student loans and help for American Indians and more government food inspectors.
Mr. Bush stole the Democrats’ free lunch. That’s what compassionate conservatism is.
Republicans used to oppose mandatory Social Security. Now on the stump they are its loving defenders. They would change it very slightly but keep it forever. They would marry it and have children with it if they could.
When Ronald Reagan became president, he set about trying to right the welfare state’s worst wrongs. He lowered taxes; he tried to cut spending. He launched the great economic prosperity of the past 20 years.
Since him there has been relative stasis. No big directional changes. Bush One tilted moderate-liberal and got clobbered, Bill Clinton tilted moderate-conservative and thrived, Bush Two tilts conservative-but-for-big-government and thrives.
The stasis ended Tuesday.
Now the Democrats are on the mat looking up. In a way they are in the same position as the Republican Party in 1992. For 50 years the Republican Party had existed in part to oppose Soviet communism effectively. They opposed it so effectively in 1980-89 that it died. This was wonderful, a great moment in human history. But it left the party rocking. Republicans had achieved what they wanted. Now what? What did they stand for in foreign affairs?
But the Democrats’ problem now is worse than the Republicans’ in ‘92, because the Democrats’ problem is more organic. The Republicans could continue fighting for a strong defense, a traditional party goal, as the world turned and waited to reveal its new challenges. The big challenge was revealed in 2001. The Republicans now stand for combating terrorism effectively.
The Democrats have to figure out how to survive, and what that survival stands for and means, what its purpose is. For no party thrives without great purpose.
Some Democrats advise the Clever Way: remain the more liberal alternative to the Republicans, blur divisions, obscure party lines and philosophy, wait for the economy to tank or the war to fail, wait for Mr. Bush’s numbers to go down, move in hard when they do. This is the Bill Clinton path. It’s what in essence Mr. Clinton did. It’s how he won.
The upside of the Clever Way: The Democrats stay in the game. And as the holders of almost half the Senate and almost half the House, why not?
The downside: The Clever Way leaves the Democrats open to charges of cynicism, of reading polls all day. People can tell when you’re governed by polls. They don’t like it. It sours them on you, and it sours you too. It means you have to scrounge to survive without political passion. That’s a hard way to do politics.
Prudent poll watching looks like weak me-too-ism and gutless acquiescence. Which both angers and diminishes the base.
The Democrat’s base is left-wing. It is a worse problem for the Democrats than the Republicans’ base is for them. The Republican base is simply essentially conservative; Republicans in power are conservative too but less so; they live in what they call the real world. They achieve what they can, explaining to the base what is possible. Sometimes the base gets balky, but mostly it follows. After all, they’re all conservatives together.
The problem the Democrats have with their base is that it isn’t liberal in the way the Democratic leadership in general is liberal. It is left-wing, and some parts of it are way left-wing. The last socialists are there, the warriors of race and class; there are environmentalists who want to set loggers on fire, people who think George W. Bush killed Paul Wellstone, activists whose only concern in the world is abortion rights, and people who support capital punishment for only one crime, smoking in public. Soon they will demand the death penalty for smoking in private. (Are there radicals and nuts in the Republican base? Sure. But 20 years of observation tells me there aren’t as many and they don’t have the same clout. Moreover, Republican candidates are somewhat protected from them. The protection comes from the media, which hate nutty right-wingers more than they dislike Republicans.)
Reporters rarely ask Democratic candidates about the price their base extracts, but it is big. The base determines primary outcomes. The base changes the shape of policy.
Which brings us to the Less Clever Way: Some say the Democratic Party will survive only if it goes left, way left. Actually they don’t say “way left,” they say “authentically progressive.” This is what some party professionals want. Stand for something, they say. Draw a line, oppose, show it’s us vs. them.
But this path too has a downside. The party would become more extreme, less in tune with the vast American middle. It would become more minority-based, and minorities are by definition in the minority. The party would, in short, suffer at least in the short term. When the Democrats come forward and say, for instance, “We want to raise your taxes,” it is not going to make them more popular but less. Because people by and large think they pay the government enough.
The physical and symbolic expression of The Less Clever Way: The famous Wellstone memorial rally. That was as Us vs. Them as you can get. That was virtuous tribunes of the working man vs. greedy Wall Street plutocrats and their lackeys. It was good vs. evil.
And it probably did more than anything to sink Walter Mondale, old hero of the Great Society, who started talking the language of the New Democratic warriors. See what it got him: the honor of placing the first phone call to Sen.-elect Coleman.
America got what it wanted from the Democratic Party. The party played out its 20th-century string. And now it must answer the hardest question of all: What does this party exist to do now?
If the answer is only we want more—give us more money and more power, and we will give more welfare and more government—it won’t work, not in the short term at least.
The Democratic Party hasn’t had a new idea that is both a big idea and a good idea in at least a quarter century, longer really. It is a tribute to the party’s talent, and a tribute to the sentiment and loyalty of the American people, that the Democrats have lasted this long. The last Democratic president with a program and a philosophy who did big things was LBJ. After that it was the confusion of Jimmy Carter and the cynicism of Mr. Clinton.
My advice to the Democrats?
I don’t know the answers to their essential questions. I wouldn’t want to be them right now. There’s no way out but through, and all the options contain some peril. At the moment they should probably do this. Sit down, breathe in, breathe out. You’re not going to rush an answer to questions this big. You’ll be fighting it out for the next decade. Maybe next week you’ll choose a committed leftist to take the place of Dick Gephardt. Fine—see how it goes, whether it works. Don’t worry so much right now about your base—they’re not going anywhere, at least not soon.
And ponder the big question: Why does the party exist? To do what? The simple act of defining will help you. Do it together sometimes—have a lot of people at the table, but don’t invite academics and intellectuals. They got you into a lot of this mess, and they don’t know anything about America. They think it’s a place with a lot of people. They have no idea.
For the rest of us, non-Democrats who are watching with fascination, I do have advice. The essential questions the Democrats face may in fact be answered by the ultimate rise of a hardy figure who started out as a left-wing ideologue and wound up campaigning for 80/20 issues like child-safety seats in cars. A proponent of liberalism that evades getting tagged as leftism, this major-state senator is a tough partisan who hates the other side but has the discipline not to show it, or not often. Hillary Clinton just may be where the party is going.
She stopped worrying about idealism long ago, and she knows how to win. She also knows how to go with the flow and bend with the moment. If the party goes left and finds new roots, she’ll just be returning to hers.
I will be asked why I didn’t mention foreign affairs in all this, except for the reference to 1992. The reason is that the Democratic Party is uniquely a domestic party. It has not had a coherent philosophy guiding its foreign policy since the Truman administration, the days of George Kennan and the Marshall Plan. It announced a philosophy in JFK’s inaugural, but did not follow it. The Democrats ceded foreign affairs to the Republicans long ago.
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