Democratic Détente

For two decades, the Democratic party has been riven by sharp ideological arguments. Those debates were in some respects necessary and important. But it's obvious that many of those conflicts are irrelevant to our moment, and say far more about the past than the future. The road to nowhere is paved with rote disputes between center and left. Here are 10 tired and useless arguments that progressives ought to stop having, and 10 new ones that they should start making.

The Wrong Stuff

1. Big Government Versus Small Government. What is the point of this argument? Progressives and Democrats clearly favor a rather large government when it comes to Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, education spending, environmental rights, worker rights, civil rights, and consumer protection. There is nothing here that requires apologies. Progressives don't have to defend themselves against charges that they favor the government takeover of private business because they are proposing no such thing. And they have always defended individual liberty against government incursions. The big versus small government argument miscasts what's at stake. There is nothing wrong with favoring a strong and active government that operates within limits. You might even say that this is the American way.

2. Pro-Business Versus Anti-Business. Since when have Democrats or liberals been anti-business? Didn't business flourish in the Clinton years -- and in the Kennedy and Johnson years? Democrats want business to prosper, and their actual policies when they held office have favored growth, prosperity, and entrepreneurship. They also want businesses not to cheat. Supporting capitalism means opposing fraud, guaranteeing investors honest information, opposing monopoly and oligopoly, and resisting measures that throw government's power on the side of the most powerful economic actors. Believing in the strength of the capitalist system means countering the idea that regulation destroys business.

3. Populist Versus Mainstream. Some Democrats think Al Gore went off the rails when he went "populist." What did Gore do? He attacked big oil companies, polluters, HMOs, and big insurance companies. Does anybody think he lost voters by doing this? Gore went up in the polls after his Democratic national convention speech that made these points. On many issues, the "mainstream" is populist. That's why John Edwards' warnings about "two Americas," one for the rich and one for the rest, struck such a chord during the 2004 primaries.

4. New Middle Class Versus Old Working Class. Democrats are supposed to face a choice between rallying working-class voters or appealing to voters in the new middle class. But they won't win elections unless they get votes from both constituencies. Gore did very well in the new middle class. He fell short among working-class voters, especially in rural areas and the South. George W. Bush appeals to rich business people and lower-middle-class Christian conservatives. Can't Democrats also walk and chew gum at the same time? Democrats need to hold the gains they have made in the professional classes on the issues of social tolerance. They also need to be more respectful toward religious people and more explicit about supporting economic policies that would create opportunities for voters with modest incomes who now vote Republican on cultural issues.

5. Globalist Versus Protectionist. Democrats are told that they either have to defend the new global economy or fall back on protectionism. It's a no-win choice. The global economy is not going to go away -- and it does create injustices. It also poses challenges to regulations in areas such as labor standards and the environment. Isn't the real issue whether it's possible to create a global New Deal under which the new economy is accepted as inevitable but under rules that make the playing field fair and protect the vulnerable? And don't the sharp decline in manufacturing jobs over the past few years and the flight of both manufacturing and professional jobs overseas suggest a need for new thinking about the impact of free trade and globalization?

6. Deficits Versus Balanced Budgets. This is a real choice. The Bush administration decided to throw balanced budgets overboard. Why is it so hard for Democrats -- and liberals and moderates -- to argue both that the Bush approach is dangerous fiscal policy for the long term and that it threatens government's ability to solve problems in the short term? Where is the money to establish universal health insurance, to help state governments balance their budgets, or to stop tuition increases at public universities? And where will the money come from to pay for the retirement of the baby boomers?

7. Strong on Defense Versus Weak on Defense. Who, these days, is for a weak defense? The challenge to the Bush administration is whether its unilateral approach protects the United States and strengthens our standing in the world. It's tough, not weak, to insist that Americans will be better protected in a world that does not hate the only remaining superpower. It's tough, not weak, to defend a progressive internationalism that tries to create a more democratic world that will be less hostile to the United States. It's tough, not weak, to think through military commitments in advance and to tell the truth about the costs of these enterprises.

8. Interest-Group Dependent Versus Independent. Why does no one talk about Republican special-interest groups -- the wealthy, big business, and Christian conservatives? Here again, Democrats are hopelessly defensive. There is nothing wrong with defending your own, especially when your side is supposed to stand up for the poor, the marginalized, and the minorities. And why are progressives so prone to battles among their own supporters based on race, gender, ethnicity, and interest? Solidarity, a word the left has long prized, is now the characteristic of a conservative movement in which gun owners, abortion opponents, and corporate executives manage to sit down together at the table of political brotherhood. Why should progressives be less than the sum of their parts?

9. Traditional Versus Permissive. Who, pray tell, is really "permissive"? Most social liberals have kids, worry about porn on television and the Web, and aspire to a world in which children are raised in strong families. They also aspire to a tolerant world that honors religious liberty and opposes discrimination on the grounds of marital status or sexual preference. Most Americans combine a reverence for tradition with a respect for tolerance. Indeed, by all measures the United States is a more tolerant and open country than it was 10 or 20 or 30 years ago.

10. Clinton Is the Solution Versus Clinton Is the Problem. The Clinton obsession is dangerous to Democrats and to the country. Bill Clinton presided over a booming economy and governed effectively. At the same time, he got himself inveigled in a scandal (and made dubious last-minute pardons) that turned off millions of Americans who were not at all opposed to his politics. Why is it so difficult both to embrace the positive parts of Clinton's record and to criticize his foolishness? If Al Gore had figured out how to do that, he'd be president. Most Americans find this distinction an easy one to make.

The Right Stuff

Progressives have always been about the future, about improvement, about reform. Contemporary progressives should not be as fearful as they are about embracing the tradition from which they spring. But neither should they forget that the tradition itself is pragmatic, experimental, and open to new approaches. And progressives need to learn what Franklin Roosevelt taught them in the 1930s and what Ronald Reagan taught conservatives in the 1980s: that Americans of all generations respond to appeals rooted in optimism and hope.

1. Whose Side Is the Government On? And, while we're at it, does the new economy require no rules or new rules? Conservatives talk as if they hope that government will shrink to near irrelevance. But most know this will not happen. The real question before voters is whom will the government serve? As the Bush administration was cutting taxes, state governments were raising taxes, raising college tuition, and cutting spending on education, child care, highways, transit, and health care. Isn't there a better way to create a prosperity that genuinely lifts all boats? In his important recent book, The Two Americas, Democratic pollster Stanley B. Greenberg reported strong public support for a vision he labeled "100 percent America," a place "where everyone has a chance for a better life, not just the privileged few." In Greenberg's polling, this approach soundly defeated an alternative vision rooted in the strongest aspects of Reaganism (including the idea of "an America that empowers the individual and gives entrepreneurs the freedom to make our country richer and create employment").

2. Against Right-Wing Judges Making Law. The old arguments about "liberal judicial activism" are irrelevant to this period. The new requirement is to resist conservative courts that seek to undermine the New Deal legal consensus. That approach gave federal, state, and local governments the freedom to solve public problems. It looked to the courts primarily to protect individual and minority rights. In light of the new conservative judicial activism, liberals will need to temper their own tendencies to rely on the courts for political victories. But they also need to defend the New Deal consensus as an approach that worked.

3. Individuals Should Be Responsible. So Should the Federal Government. There is little need to elaborate on the argument for fiscal responsibility. Running enormous deficits for years to come is irresponsible. Yet a president who took office having received fewer votes than his opponent is nonetheless taking radical steps that will force future Congresses and presidents to cut spending sharply, reduce retirement benefits substantially, or raise taxes significantly. Members of the currently dominant political class are spending money that does not belong to them. If individuals should provide for themselves and be responsible for their futures, shouldn't government be held to the same standard?

4. Government Can Promote Personal Initiative and Self-Sufficiency. Remember the GI Bill? It was a great act of civic inclusion. It promoted upward mobility and helped create the economic boom after World War II. A time of economic transition and global competition is precisely the moment for government investments in the future of individual Americans. And a time of national-security challenge is also the time to emphasize the reciprocal obligations of Americans to serve their country. If ever there was a time for a new GI Bill, this is it.

5. Why Do We Assume the World Is Moving Against Us? In fact, the world is moving our way, in the direction of democracy and markets. We can be vigilant against terrorism without being paranoid or pessimistic. The choices in foreign policy are not between those who are "soft" and those who are "tough." The issue is figuring out what kind of toughness this historical moment requires. Our time, like Harry Truman's, calls for a new era of creativity in forging global alliances and creating new international institutions. It's possible to be tough, smart, and hopeful.

6. Are We a Community? The American tradition has always involved a balance between individualism and community responsibility. George W. Bush acknowledges this when he insists that he is a compassionate conservative. From the Progressive Era forward, we decided that the privileged should help the less privileged rise up. The need of the moment is to recognize that our national security depends not only on defending ourselves against foreign enemies but also on creating a decent society of opportunity, social mobility, and fairness that could be a model for the world.

7. Reform Versus Big Money. Democrats will never be the party of big money and they should give up trying. The goals of campaign-finance reform should not be abandoned; they should be fulfilled through the creation of strong incentives to encourage small-money donors, partial public financing of elections, and free media time. Broadcast outlets should be reimbursed for some of the costs through tax credits. Following the 2004 breakdown of the system of publicly financed presidential campaigns, a system that had worked very well, Congress should update the system so it can work again.

8. Taxes: Progressive or Regressive? Despite the fondest hopes of Grover Norquist and his allies, taxes will not go away. The issue is how the burden will be shared. At the moment, the burden is being increased on the middle class and the poor while it is being cut on the very wealthy. Instead of cowering before the tax issue, progressives need to go on the offensive. Comprehensive reform would focus not only on income taxes but also on corporate and payroll taxes -- and on the effects of federal policy on the states. It may be possible to have lower rates overall if the obligation to finance the government is spread more fairly. Lieberman's proposals to combine some tax increases on the wealthy with middle-class tax cuts are steps in the right direction. There is no reason to fear a more comprehensive look at the tax system.

9. Tolerant Traditionalism: Strengthening Families, Accepting Diversity. As we have seen, most Americans combine a reverence for tradition with a respect for tolerance. This is not a difficult case to make. But it requires broadening the moral debate to issues that affect the practical well-being of families, including the creation of family-friendly workplaces and reasonable leave laws. And the country should stop turning away from the excruciating struggles of those earning low wages.

10. A Society of Service. After September 11, our heroes were firefighters, police officers, rescue workers, and the men and women in uniform. We were reminded that all of our individual striving and wealth accumulation can be threatened rather suddenly. In such circumstances, we rely on those whose lives are animated by their sense of duty and service. Have Democrats forgotten that it was John F. Kennedy who asked us all what we could do for our country?

Compassionate conservatism was a brilliant slogan. By the same political logic, it is necessary to proclaim loudly and without apology that there is such a thing as progressive patriotism. A progressive patriotism would begin with a strong emphasis on service to the country. It would contrast itself to a radical individualism that rejects any idea of a common good. It would insist that a free republic will not prosper if too many of its citizens are deprived of opportunities, of health care, of education, of hope. It would declare that we are all in this together. That's an old-fashioned idea that would offer a bold challenge to a status quo that is dividing, and failing, our country.

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