Tuesday, September 26, 2006

HELP WANTED: A MINORITY PARTY WITH IDEAS

Every now and then it’s good to look back at watershed events in our nation’s history. If we don’t, we fail to learn from them – we keep repeating idiocies of the past (like the Vietnam War), and prevent ourselves from duplicating our previous successes.

When speaking of successes, most of us like to hearken back to the days of Jefferson and Washington. We treat those men and their comrades almost like Biblical patriarchs, which isn’t hard to do, considering that they lived in a by-gone era of horses and buggies. The “Founding Fathers” could refer to the men of the Bible, but they refer instead to a band of brothers who declared independence from a traditional world power, successfully defended our turf against that power, and then drafted a Constitution so incredibly prescient that it now seems like the product of divine intervention. Abraham? No, Madison. But they’re both great, so you’ll pardon us if we confuse them from time to time.

Greatness is rarely a word that you see used to refer to events of the recent past. It’s rarer still when you see the word used by an unabashed liberal to refer to the product of right-wing minds. Still, 12 years is enough time for someone like me to step back and glance at a moment in time with some dispassion. When I look back 12 years, I cannot help but marvel at what I see. As a model of how to use a common set of ideas to seize legislative power, I’ve never seen anything half as effective as what we witnessed in 1994. It makes me wonder why that model can’t be replicated again – only this time, from the opposing point of view.

The summer of 1994 was an ugly year for us liberals. It was particularly ugly for the liberal baseball fan. You might recall that in 1994, the players went on strike, and the World Series was cancelled for the first time in 90 years. But in the place of sports, we were given politics – lots and lots of politics. And as political battles go, that “series” was clearly over in four games.

The then-minority party had a plan, you see, and stuck to that plan like glue. It was associated with the representatives of our Government’s most representative branch, but the truth is that it enjoyed the support of the entire party, and practically all its adherents. Their coalition building was a thing of beauty.

They called their plan the “Contract for America.” Their opponents would come to ridicule the plan as the “Contract on America,” but just like America loves a good mob movie, they didn’t seem to find this Contract terribly off-putting. The party who proposed the Contract won at the polls by an incredible landslide. On Capitol Hill, that party hasn’t looked back since. Coincidence? I doubt it.

The Contract originated at a right-wing think tank called the Heritage Foundation. This is a place where well-funded intellectuals get together with a single purpose in mind: to formulate, disseminate and ensure the hegemony of conservative ideas. Heritage Fellows don’t need to feign objectivity, balance, open-mindedness, or any of the other characteristics that liberal thinkers take as their bone fides for entry into the realm of intellectuality. Heritage Fellows are there to ensure that their side wins at the polls, and wins convincingly. In 1994, they saw their work bear incredible fruit.

The Contract didn’t deal with every issue. Certain hot-button topics like abortion were left for future battles – such as the battle for President in 2004, which was also won by the party who drew up the Contract. Instead of focusing on social issues, where there was some split inside the ranks, the Contract concentrated on tried-and-true conservative shibboleths that appealed to virtually all members of the then-minority party.

-- Shrinking the size of Government.

-- Placing the Government at the service of the private sector, not itself.

-- Reducing the burden of taxes.

-- Assisting that true American hero: the entrepreneur.

-- Eliminating the culture of dependency that results from our welfare system.

-- Protecting businesses from vexatious lawsuits and excessive judgments.

The Contract, then, had many objectives, but they all had a common theme: to return the United States to its people and not to the professional politicians and lawyers who seek to strangle initiative, decrease incentives for hard work, and bolster their own power. To an entire political party, this was the most beautiful music since Mozart.

The Contract wasn’t just about themes and overarching principles. It was about practical suggestions. The designers, you see, recognized that they had to come across as serious men who were mad as hell and weren’t going to see their country hijacked any more. The people deserved better. They deserved specific, workable proposals that could immediately change the culture in Washington and usher in a new business-friendly economy.

Here was the promise. On day one, if the minority party ascended to power in the House of Representatives, they would vote on the eight different government reforms. These proposed laws, if passed, would: require all laws that apply outside of Congress to apply to Congress as well; audit Congress itself for potential fraud or abuse; sharply reduce the number of House committees and their staffers; prevent Representatives from voting by proxies at committee; cut the terms of committee chairs; require committee meetings to be held in public; require a 3/5th vote to pass tax increases; and mandate a zero baseline for the federal budget process.

Eight proposals, then, would come to a vote on Day One. But that was just the start. The Contractors also promised that during the next 100 days, bills would be sent up on a wide variety of major public policy areas aside from government reform. These included tax cuts for individuals and business entities, legislative term limits, and pro-business reforms in the areas of social security, tort law, and the welfare system.

The Contractors had it all – a wellspring of ideas from which to draw; enough discipline to emphasize only those ideas that could support a broad coalition; and the wisdom to speak in terms of feasible suggestions for change, rather than broad slogans. You’ll also note that the Contractors didn’t merely bash the party in power. They advanced an agenda that was both concrete and visionary. They came across as people who wanted to govern, not merely to win an election. And this only makes sense, given that they were espousing the ideas of intellectuals who were not themselves professional politicians but merely citizens devoted to a common political philosophy.

So here’s my question, which by now should be quite obvious: if the GOP could pull this off in 1994, why couldn’t the Democrats have pulled it off in 2006? Surely, the party of the donkey can agree on some broad themes other than that “Bush is bad” and “We want to win.” Right? Well … maybe I’m speaking too quickly. When I reflect on what the Democrats would accomplish if they controlled the House or the Senate, I find myself quite confused. What votes would the Democrats send to the floor on Day One? What bills involving important public policy issues would the Democrats propose by Day 100? Truly, I don’t have a clue.

I’m not sure my Party has one either. Recently, I received in the mail a form letter from Al Gore asking me to give money to the Democratic Senate Campaign Committee. Rather than talking about what the Senate would accomplish if the Democrats regained power, Gore talked about what the Senate would accomplish if the Republicans retained power. “A free pass on Iraq … More damage to the environment … More right wing judges … An all-out assault on Social Security … More tax cuts for the wealthy … No fix for Medicare … More jobs sent overseas …”

In short, his message was very clear: “Be afraid. Be very afraid. Vote for us, or suffer the consequences.”

Is that really the best we Democrats can do? Even Republicans who care about living in a vibrant democracy would have to shudder at what has become of our new minority party. Ideas? Try having one idea. Just one. But make it an affirmative idea – not just that the other guys are evil. As they say in the Red states, that dog couldn’t hunt in 2004. It won’t hunt in 2006 or 2008 either.

3 comments:

Finding Fair Hope said...

You have identified a big part of the problem -- that the Democrats will not take a stand that their Public Relations people tell them not to. They have deserted the Liberal cause in the name of getting elected. They literally turned their back on men of real principle, like Ralph Nader, and chose to run with the lightweight.

I am the only Democrat I know who actually liked John Kerry, but even though it was a very close race, he is dismissed as a "loser" because of the Swift-Boat dirty business. I'd like to see him on the ballot again. I know he voted for the war until he voted against it, and that that clip would run again and again, but he can explain it, as he often has...that we all were lied to about the reason for going to war, and there were very few in that voting body who voted against it at that time. (You can say Al Gore was against it, but he wasn't in the Senate.) Mrs. Clinton is waiting for a poll to tell her to set up a timetable for withdrawal. No doubt she will run as a dove, but I'm not convinced.

The real problem is with both parties. The Republicans long ago settled on the idea of an empty suit, manipulated behind the scenes by those with the power. The Democrats are not far behind in the same process.

Daniel Spiro said...

My wife and I had an argument after the 2004 Presidential Democratic Primary. She was for Kerry, whereas I was for Edwards.

I was never impressed with Kerry. I thought he was wooden and not terribly bright. And I never could tell anything about him that excited his passions. But the Swift-Boat stuff was insane. In fact, it was so absurd, that it made me further doubt his abilities as a politician because he couldn't beat it back any better than he did.

I have no idea what and who the Dems will turn to in 2008. But my sense is that if the GOP nominates either McCain or Guiliani, they'll win regardless of who the Dems nominate.

Finding Fair Hope said...

Nominating either of the candidates you suggest would refute my theory that Republicans want an empty suit in the big job. They'll find a slick face between now and '08. If they had had the guts to go with McCain when he was first campaigning, we'd be a different world today.

I fell for Kerry back in Viet Nam days. He was on the Dick Cavett show debating that idiot Swift boat guy even then, and he was thrilling. He's not as stupid as he looks, but unfortunately looks count for a lot in the days of television.